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Here a few honorable mentions before the countdown: The Disaster Artist, dir. James Franco It Comes at Night, dir. Trey Edward Shults The Beguiled, dir. Sofia Coppola Wonder Woman, dir. Patty Jenkins Logan Lucky, dir. Steven Soderbergh Coco, dir. Lee Unkirch
Mindhunter is the new television series on Netflix from the minds of David Fincher and creator Joe Penhall. Based on the books of real life FBI agents John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker, the series follows fictionalized versions of these men in agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) in the late 1970s on their journey of creating the Elite Serail Crime unit born from criminal sciences regarding serial killers. The idea that young Ford brings into Tench's world is that by conducting various interviews with multiple murderers, trying to understand their psychology might be the key into these insane men's (as the show remarks multiple times: it is generally men that commit these acts) mind and thus develop a method to better understand, investigate and prevent these killings.
Whenever David Fincher steps behind the camera there is nothing I can think of other than making my eyes see what he makes as soon as they possibly can. He has proved himself to be the true heir apparent of Hitchcock in this age of cinema and the title doesn't bear only a symbolic significance. His perfectionism, his thematics and his legacy have all had very similar developments as in Hitchcock's filmography. They have both pushed the boundaries of what audiences expect to see on the big screen and both have not been recognized immediately as the visionaries they are.
Once again Fincher (director of Episodes 1-2-9-10), with the support of his fellow directors, has taken a beautiful piece of writing and made it into something that is new, original, reinventive of the genre, but most of all insanely riveting to watch. What might start out as a confusing tone in the first episode quickly becomes a new kind of procedural narrative that takes the viewer in the deepest corner of these protagonists' life. The series is fueled by conversations, some of these are purely character driven whilst others have real psychological talk in them and it is a pleasure for the viewer to be treated with such intelligence. The series might on rare occasions ask a little too much of the audience and get a little lost in chronology and geography of the events, but that is the part that matters the least. What will have you not being able to stop pushing that "next episode" button is the intricate dynamic that is established between the characters and their everyday work.
It all starts with character of course and here we are treated with a core group that is as fascinating as any dynamic I have seen in entertainment this year. Jonathan Groff was a real revelation to me here, this performance is truly special. He subverts every single expectation you would have from him, he manages to bring you along in the deepest of darkness and there is not a false beat in his performance, you are always conscious of why you empathize with him and the best part is that you do even when he is making decisions that are highly questionable. Here is where Holt McCallany comes in, grounding the show and undermining the tough cop cliché with the season's most emotionally devastating and unexpected moments. The two share so much screen time together yet the conflict and respect that their relationship has never runs out of steam in the 10 episodes, instead it becomes highly addictive, which is why I just can't wait for season 2.
The discussions they raise go much further than simply asking killers why they did what they did: the show is a brilliant way of exploring human behavior and psychology and the best part is that in some way it makes you feel like you are a part of the conversation. It asks questions, gives answers and then takes them back to leave the viewer truly active in the moral dilemmas raised. There is not an easy answer, there isn't a quick exit from these problems and by showing the full sophistication and complexity of the whole ordeal the audience is able to truly appreciate the work being done by the agents and get a insightful glimpse into these men's lives. In some ways you start to become a detective yourself and by the end of the show you are in such sync with the characters that you start to operate and look at the scene just as they do, which brings us back to the brilliant directing work done by Fincher and his team.
Mindhunter might get one or two episodes to get adjusted to and that is not a take away from it, it is actually a perk of this incredibly novel experience that is some of the best narrative work I've seen this year, definitely the best TV series I have seen recently and one that I can't wait to keep watching and revisiting for the sheer amount of detail and discussions which have surly slipped by on first viewing.
Get Out (2017)
When Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) has to go to visit his girlfriend's parents he worries that they don't know he is black and that this might arouse problems. Yet, upon meeting them they appear more than welcoming until strange occurrences in the house and to him start freaking him out and ultimately lead to the discovery of a terrible mystery.
"Get Out" is possibly the culmination of the last few years of great horror and finally solidifies Blumhouse Productions as one of the main protagonists of the modern horror golden age, other than introducing the movie going public to the mind of writer/director Jordan Peele and his stunning sensibilities in genre filmmaking.
What is possibly the most indicative aspect of this film's incredible success is the molding of tones and, as in all in great genre clashes, it makes the comedy and the horror work together and function on the same beats. That is something that is rarely found and when it does work it works to these incredible effects: there are moments where the tension is building and building to incredible stress levels and it gets released with comedy beats that are genuinely funny and laugh out loud moments as much as they are fu*king creepy twisted moments that add to the white-knuckled thriller aspect of the film.
The picture is intense, really intense. It does not let you breathe for a second and I loved every moment of it, it always had me on the tip of my toes, I did not know what was coming next, sometimes I didn't know whether to laugh or to be scared and it just got me to this place of being totally locked into it with my body, it affected me physically and that is one of the best compliments you could ever give to a motion picture. Peele knows every trick in the box of how to play the audience and he rarely ever makes a false step in guiding us through the story. The scene weave is flawless and every new bit of information is delivered at the perfectly right time and escalates to twists and twists on twists which never lost me and actually ratcheted up the tension.
It is clear that there is a lot of influences moving Peele around and it is a testament to his cinematic ability that they are never bluntly thrown at your face, instead they are used in a complementary way to bring us a delicious mix of everything. Edgar Wright, Quentin Tarantino, Roman Polanski all transpire beautifully through this film, yet possibly the best one that we get is Hitchcock. On one side we see the homages and the subtle similarities that only make the film better on another it just made me remember why Hitchock was and is the best and why his lessons are universal.
There isn't much to point out here on the negative side, the film flows and hits you without having any stumbles on the way. There are little moments where the quirky, off beat atmosphere gets amplified to 110% and you may start to feel a little overwhelmed, but it picks up immediately and doesn't really leave any trace of that on the film. I think that a 10 or so minutes cut down could have benefited the film in making it even more hard hitting as there are little moments that drag and a couple of plot beats that are explained to the audience shamelessly when they could have been entrusted to work it out by themselves.
"Get Out" is a hard hitting Comedy/Horror, incredibly original and fresh and made with a stunning craft in filmmaking, especially considering this is a feature debut. It scared me, it made me laugh out loud and it made me sweat, a lot, I really enjoyed it.
Alien: Covenant (2017)
When the crew of the colony ship Coventant intercept a distress signal from an unmapped planet they discover that said planet could actually have a better habitat and ecosystem than the one they were aiming for. The captain takes the decision to change route, but when they land on the planet they quickly discover they shouldn't have come in the first place.
"Alien: Covenant" has many stumbles on its way, it has a lot of fat that could have been cut out or got better writing, in some ways it could be said it is a frustrating film, but what it comes down to is the fact that no matter how disconnected I felt at times, the tension always and constantly delivers and Scott gives proof of his mastery at it. This is a solid Alien film, with lots of glorious suspense and scare mixed with a surprisingly excellent attempt at world and mythology building.
After a first ten minutes of film that reveal themselves to be totally unnecessary and disastrous the actual plot of the film kicks in and form there we are taken to a journey of constant and relentless tension climaxes that are structured in a very particular way. I'm not going to give anything away since the film has many surprises stored in it both from on story and character and both on the traditional Alien formula and how it is carried out. If there is one thing that this film has going for it, as many Scott films do, is that there are many clichès employed, but they always fit into the story and are used to their maximum potential; built around them is a film that ultimately surprised me continuously and with the exception of a couple of beats I never had an idea of where it was going.
There is so much going on in this film that it is really hard to wrap my head around my thoughts on it. I have to point out how many character scenes drag, at different times during the movie their is dialogue and character interaction that made me cringe, but every time this happened the film gave me a new twist that was never gratuitous and gave new context to everything that happened before. It is this constantly moving piece which lets you down occasionally, but always finds a way to engage you again and once the tension hits you are always sure to be locked in.
The film does feel like it is fighting to be both an Alien film and a sequel to Prometheus and as many times it seems to be failing at molding the tones and getting it to feel organic it gives you something vitally new and fortunately the narrative heft never stops. I have to call myself amazed at how successful the attempt the filmmakers have to build mythology for the Alien saga is. There are hardly any expositional dumps on the audience yet thanks so much going on under the surface we manage to understand and appreciate so much of the Alien world. They take a big risk with this film and by the very end it pays off which is probably why during the film I was having my doubts, yet by the end it sweeps you away, leaves you on a high note and wanting more. All of the setups pay off and whilst some of them might have been placed a little mechanically into the flow of the story, there is so much going on that by the end I didn't care.
The tension and horror moments also have a bipolar nature to them, whilst some of the character fat in the film could have gone into a little more of these sequences, they are so well built once they hit you it is hard to be unsatisfied. Yes, there could have been more aliens stuff, but what we got was excellent. There are moments of true horror in which it is hard to watch the screen and other moments in which I thought I could not take the tension anymore so all in all how can one be underwhelmed when a film does this to you.
I have to call out the fact that I found a lot of the production design of the Coventant ship to be a little underwhelming, especially for Ridley Scott standards, but the planet the film takes place on is so beautifully build and designed it is once again hard to complain.
"Alien: Covnetant" is possibly the first successful attempt at building mythology in the Alien world, it gives "Prometheus" all the answers it needs and makes it a better film because of it. Whilst there are inherent problems scattered around all of the film and constantly flawed executions in acting, directing, writing and editing, as an overall piece it still manages to hit the audience as it should and gives the a full dose of scares, tension and even some sci-fi thematic exploration.
A couple of months after the events of Vol 1. the Guardians of the Galaxy have been hired by an alien population to defend their world. Despite a successful job, a disagreement between the Aliens and the Guardians puts the team in danger. That is when Ego (Kurt Russel) comes to rescue them and reveals himself as a celestial being and Peter Quill's father.
Despite having every reason and possibility to fail and become a complete spectacle mess, "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2." is another gem in Marvel's crown of wonderfully diverse films and another reason for their utter mastery in the genre.
Once again we have a film that despite being a gigantic, out-of-control production, it represents good cinema and respectful storytelling. As in all of their recent films, Marvel has embraced the notion of telling stories and giving artists the possibility to realize their vision. Vol 2. has its problems and, as said above, they could have made the film a complete disaster, but once again thanks to the brilliant Marvel philosophy, the film is held together by the addictive passion and heart that is embedded in these characters by James Gunn. By starting on character and emotions and by worrying about telling a heartfelt story first Marvel has just made another great piece of blockbuster cinema.
The film goes in many directions, some very welcome some unwarranted. There are many story lines being developed at once, there are some inconsistencies in exposition and mythology, the molding of tones isn't always seamless, some visual and world building ideas don't really pay off the way they should: the whole film is slightly uneven and there isn't a solid balance to all of these elements. Yet, when it comes down to it, it does not matter in the overall experience exactly because of what Gunn does with these characters.
He manages to infuse such heartfelt emotion in these people that the problems there might be in the structuring of plot or mythology take a second place to all of the glorious, entertaining material being presented to you. Gunn takes us on a tour de force of character archs here, everyone of them is given a dynamic that is developed throughout the whole duration of the film. The surprises hit you, every emotional beat hits its mark, every laugh delivers.
There is a beautiful variety of emotions that you are taken through and it is always such a pleasure to see a director tackle both comedy and drama to these emotional heights and deliver on both effectively. There are so many relations new and old that are developed and all of them give the audience a different flavor, probably the best one remains for me the one between Gamora and Quill or Gamora and Nebula.
Then to top all of the heartfelt storytelling off, Gunn spices the whole picture with an incredible variety of quirkiness, great music and stunning action sequences that almost always manage to enhance the conflict between the characters. The space battles might still be a weak point of his, but it is hard not to be taken into the seamless, amazing work of the visual effects team.
"Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" is a beautiful, touching picture filled with powerful emotions and breathtaking laughter and entertainment, one that is so good at doing what is does that it overcomes its flaws and doesn't let the spectacle overcome the heart of the film.
Personal Shopper (2016)
Maureen (Kristen Stewart) is a personal shopper for big time celebrity Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten). She also happens to be a medium that know how to communicate with spirits from the other world and refuses to leave Paris until she gets a sign from her recently departed brother Louis.
"Personal Shopper" is one endeavor in genre mix I had yet to see. The fusion of styles, ideas and cinematic traditions is fascinating and quite off putting at the start, yet it manages to entertain audiences with moments of true suspense and fascination even though it goes completely off the rails in trying to have any emotional impact or pay off.
The film is a mixing of genre as much as it is a mixing of styles. We get these long uninterrupted shots that stalk Maureen through the house which she believes she is haunted and juxtaposes it to scenes that you would expect to find in a dark fashion thriller. This combination admittedly does give the film an inherent interest that never leaves it. The first hour or so of the movie is quite captivating in how unapologetically it brings together these various elements lacing them together with a quite arrogant use of jump cuts which result in a smart idea to link the fantastic with the mundane.
Kristen Stewart is a very effective lead, she manages to paint layers of characterization onto this person and open up an emotional place that would have easily been lost in hands of lesser actors. Her work is probably why the suspense scenes work so well. It is amazing to see how in one moment you are following a fashion discussion and you're captivated by it and in the next one you're completely scared by an apparent ghost story.
Assayas definitely has to get some credit for the structure in which the horror scenes are built, whilst he has some major problems in tackling the genre, the scenes of suspense work perfectly because of a true mastery on the technical aspect. The elements introduced are synthetic and effective and they are juggled around in a perfect attempt at audience manipulation. Moreover he manages to get a couple of really amazing and suspenseful stable shots that I won't spoil, but really stick out as gems of the technical proficiency of the film.
Unfortunately there are many story points and and emotional beats of the film that have almost no context or relevance to character here. Assayas has many problems in building the supernatural and there is lots that is either left for blatant exposition or not explained at all and left in a weird place of misunderstanding. The closure of the picture suffers immensely from this and all of the fancy genre stuff does not come together in an ending that leaves the audience completely cold and clueless on what emotions to feel.
Overall the film has some very brave ideas and motifs, but the intention behind it leaves the audience scratching their head.
Power Rangers (2017)
When five teenagers get lost and find themselves in the midst of a gold mine they discover something special: five colored coins in the middle of the rocks. When they start experiencing out of the ordinary events they come back together and figure out that there might be something special to what has happened to them.
Dean Israelite clearly demonstrates a passion for this project and I must admit that how the whole thing came together with Lionsgate behind made me actually curious to check out this update, I was somewhat intrigued by the voice and style they were putting behind the film and I, in a way, was right to do so: the first 50 minutes of the film gave me something special, it is sad that they had to be lessened by another hour of complete tonal shift.
When I say I was into this film for the fist half or so I mean it literally. This film really surprised and got to me up until then, Israelite was doing some really solid directing, the action scenes were visceral and done in one shot, almost all of the fluff was absent and it left space for some solid and effective character development. I remember having a moment in the theater where I thought that this was actually very solid writing: there were different thrusts being developed efficiently and the screenplay was carrying out smart character touches.
The editing was sporadically jarring, but the use of the camera was definitely making up for it: the first five shots of this film have two long takes of action that were genuinely stunning and absorbing. The characters come together in an organic way, defying genre clichés and making for a group of quirky individuals that have an identity and a place with one another, they are all outlined with personal characteristics and become instantly recognizable.
Unfortunately after the very inspiring first half there is not much to add here. It seems like they just forgot what movie they were making in the second half. The characters loose grit by being put on a journey that isn't interesting and does not develop them. Tonally the film enters a big shift and starts going for fluff out of nowhere. Israelite seems to forget how to direct interesting action and the whole last act is a disaster of fast paced cutting, not understanding what is going on and overall total loss of affection for anyone involved.
It is sad that a film that started out with such a bang in action and character becomes a totally different one by the end and leaves me with so little to add. There is no silver lining, it's just a very disappointing first half that completely undoes what the first one did, it changes in every aspect from the characters and the the tone to the how the action is shot and the CGI is used making "Power Rangers" all in all an average effort with a very promising start.
Ghost in the Shell (2017)
After being victim of a terrible terrorist attack, Mina (Scarlet Johansson) wakes up in a body that doesn't belong to her (shell). Her brain has been transplanted into a completely synthetic body, making her the first example in human history of her kind. She is then employed by the government to stop the world's most dangerous criminals, one of which starts to arouse an identity crisis in her.
I have never been exposed to this story having never read the original comic nor seen the original anime, my take on this story was completely new and fresh. Whilst it hasn't left much of an impact in me to further any knowledge on this mythology, it still left me fascinated enough by its world to have a decent time at the theater.
Whilst many have defined this film as visually spectacular I take issue with that definition, especially if assigned to this film. "Ghost in the Shell" has many things going for it, but I guarantee you that visually stunning isn't one of those. The editing and cinematography of the picture are quite unfocused and pretty much follow the rhythm of many generic blockbusters. Sanders might have a great eye for design and world building, but he has a really hard time in deciding when to cut and how to progress the visual grammar.
The story is pretty derivative (I understand it is an older story, but in modern day there is no fresh update) and many elements in it feel derivative too, many of the gimmicks employed in the action scenes and the story beats feel very familiar. And over this familiarity Sanders builds a film that doesn't have much style to spare. He doesn't have the bravery to hold on certain shots, to cut with thriftiness. The action scenes have no grit or tension to them, they are assembled with generic cuts and slow-mo. There are no breathtaking shots or ingeniously choreographed sequences that make the world built in the film stand out. At no point does the film manage to gather intensity and make realize you are clutching your seat tightly.
Sanders does have a good touch for character but he struggles in giving the feature an original or fresh touch, there is no style applied to the story: many elements try to come into the picture, but almost none of them manage to have much relevance. The electronic score never manages to find its place, the cyber punk undertones never stick out as interesting, there is no unity to how the sequences are built, each one has a different rhythm and it all ends up feeling like pretty CGI and random editing.
Fortunately the packaging of the whole movie overall isn't in anyway terrible or void of interesting ideas. Firstly the cast is well chosen and whilst the relevant characters are five at best they all manage to stick out and make an impression. They all have a dynamic that's personal to them and that evolves through the film's structure. It also suits that all the actors mold into the world seamlessly and give us performances that manage to make this world's implications and ideas grounded and believable.
The design and art direction of the film also help it incredibly in making an impact on the viewer. As I said before some of it might be derivative and the references or quotes of "Blade Runner" might be a little too many, but there is so much going on and so many characters and places that it is hard not to be somewhat enchanted by them. It helps that the CGI and the practical effects work together beautifully here and just as in his last feature Sanders excels in making a polished picture with unnoticeable CGI and solid effects work all around.
"Ghost in the Shell" sadly fails as a medium to introduce worldwide audiences to anime and manga by not imprinting any style or freshness to the Sci-Fi genre, favoring a traditional and unfortunately bland aesthetic in the editing of the picture, but it sure has enough pop to spare for at least making an impression.
Abroad the International Space Stations a team of six astronauts is preparing for the approach of a probe carrying a most valuable treasure: a cell of alien life. When the scientists try to give life to the cell things seem to go smoothly until the alien life form starts to become conscious and scary events start to unfold.
Not even the fact that I am a huge Sci-Fi and Horror fan, nor my love for the actors involved could manage to save this generic, bland piece of directing that left me utterly uninterested and bored. This feature is an endeavor in terrible character development and embarrassing storytelling that manages to arouse fascination only in small components of an otherwise messy picture.
As much as I am against at turning hate towards filmmakers of films, which should always be appreciated as a work of craftsmanship and effort, I am sadly over Daniel Espinosa. Once OK, twice try again, three times I'm out. He has directed some of the worst and most soulless films of the last years and he has consistently demonstrated to me an inability to control plot or develop character.
This isn't meant to be a hate letter towards anybody or anything, rather than just an analysis of what bad filmmaking is. Lets starts with the camera, possibly the worst part of the picture. Espinosa's camera does not tell a story, it describes a situation. I mean you have possibly the best cinematographer in the world (for me at least), Seamus McGarvey, and you manage to screw that up. There is no philosophy behind the camera. It is just placed around stuff and looks at the situation from the most generic points of views possible. There is no style, no over arching theme given to it. Maybe a couple of repeated patterns, but even then, they are used in different situations and at that point I did not know what to think anymore. The aimlessness of the camera is just enough to take away any grit or interest to this film, it looks like it could have been directed by a computer, there is no rhythm to the shots, no artistic beauty to be taken from a pantheon of images that are almost always in the wrong place.
This has many effects on the movie. Character and plot are a fantasy. Even with only six characters Espinosa struggles to give any of them any relevance. Jake Gyllenhal manages to be the only one to emerge with something but even then, characters are always and only talking and explaining the plot to one another. There isn't half of a decent and genuine conversation, very single scene is exposition time, it almost becomes mind numbing. And this is to be considered even worse once you realize that they are explaining the plot, but you are not understanding it. I was lost by the feature in at least four points. I went to see this with a friend and we had to feed each other almost constantly on what was going on because we didn't understand it. There is no order or hierarchy in how plot points are presented to you (all due to the camera, again!). They introduce one plot point early on then they take it back one hour later, or they do the exact opposite or even worse there is a button that solves the problem. Story and plot are literally put all over the place.
One could also go on in explaining how many things do not make any kind of sense: the plot holes are everywhere, the logic in this people is ridiculous and worst of all the mythology established behind the alien life-from is broken at every further step in its evolution. Then the score, god the score of this film is insanely bad. It is loud and overdone, it does let moments breathe, it's just big drums and heavy music in the moments of tension and high strings in the moments of emotion, my ears were bleeding by the end.
As much as this is a disaster from any kind of emotional or visual point of view, I can give it little moments of premise magic meaning that there are some scenes, mostly early on because then it goes on a train-wreck, that engaged me in the questions they were presenting, the alien life form works really well at the start and the scenes of the sessions with were definitely the best the movie had to offer. Moreover, none of the blame can be shifted to the actors, they are all top tier talents and show it here, none of them give a bad performance they are just surrounded by generic shots that give no context to their performance.
"Life" is a really bad film and I rarely find myself saying that. I wish all the success in the world to Daniel Espinosa but after this I am out of seeing any film of his from now on, unfortunately his particular vision is one that sits really badly with me and always leaves my mind numbed by the blandness of the visuals and consequently of the feature itself.
Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Belle (Emma Watson) is a...yeah probably no need for a plot synopsis since this is the tale as old as time and it would just bore the hell out of any reader. So lets just get to it. "Beauty and the Beast" is the live action Disney remake that comes twenty six years after the gorgeous animated feature.
I am more not only fine, but encourage the retelling of classical tales in any kind of medium. It has been done since the dawn of humanity and I see no problem in doing so as long as there is always something new to add to these stories and some fresh silver lining to find in our characters. Going into this I must admit that I was very frighted to be treated to a shot for shot remake that I would have enjoyed only because of charm and would have felt embarrassed about it.
Whilst there is treading of familiar grounds, I was so pleasantly surprised to see what a great, touching and progressive modern take Disney was able to stamp on it. I am a big fan of the animated feature, the story is really universal and whilst this entry does not touch the emotional heights and the charm of the original, it offers a reminder of what a flawless piece of storytelling this is and it graces us with a good enough touch that managed to take me genuinely to enjoy and live this story one more time in a different way.
Whilst the songs might be the same they are always so fantastically entertaining on their own, Bill Condon builds on that and assembles a series of flashy musical numbers that all live beautifully on screen. There is no fast cutting, the editing decisions in these pieces are always warranted and the filmmakers manage to strike a perfect balance of seeing everything unfold on screen and using the editing to enhance the music. There are also a couple on updated or new musical numbers and it was a great sign that they flowed with the picture fluently, they felt genuine and didn't play as a forced new addition.
Of course the real spearhead of this production is its incredible cast and what can one say that the list of names here cannot already do on its own. It is just pure glee, there isn't one half of a bad casting decision, everybody not only fits their role, but does the perfect amount of updating and nuance to make you buy into them as soon as they appear on screen. Luke Evans was definitely the highlight for me, he brought Gaston to the screen in all of his ridiculousness and irony, it was a pleasure to see and was the high point of comedy of an already strongly funny film.
Another magical strength of the film is its CGI. There are a couple of green screens that got under my skin because of their blatant notability, especially considering how excellent the rest of the VFX were. This was really state of the art work. I literally could not tell all of the animated characters were apart from the live action ones, it was completely seamless in a way that I think we've never seen done this good before. The question never came up, there was not a single false beat, they were absolutely perfect.
However, what might be the very best part of this update is just how modern it is. No, not only because of a gay character, which still is such a brilliant addition because of how brilliantly they manage to weave it into the story and adapt it into a fairy tale character. There's much more here, many genre conventions are broken, many male/female stereotypes are purposefully bent and turned on their heads, there is diversity and it so beautiful to see such an iconic story get an adaptation that is a better representation of the human race.
Yes, there is no denying some of the ground treaded is very familiar and I am the first to say that there still is some space for change in this story, there still are a couple of plot point that can be updated and because of how modern the take overall is I felt like some events and minor character dynamics could have had a little polishing. Technically too the film has some moments of disjointed editing and it could have done with a little more cutting. Don't mistake me, the two hours never drag, but they do feel kind of unnecessary by the end, a five to ten minute tightening could have done the job.
I was initially a little cold on this film, but after realizing just how much I enjoyed it, how it actually got to me on an emotional level by the end and how charmed I was by the characters and their new iterations. I have to admit that I would be happily up to rewatching the film which was something I was doubting going in. I bumped up the score a little because of this, I hope that a further viewing confirms my feelings on this.
John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is back and this time not by his choice. Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarico), a crime lord, has Wick tied up in a blood debt. Without choice the legendary assassin is forced to embark on one last mission to free his soul, but when he realizes that he will not be left alone he decides to take matters into his own hands.
"John Wick: Chapter 2" is a solid, action packed sequel which lives up to the original's potential and builds on it with even more world building and assassin lore. Whilst lacking some of the crazy fun that made the first entry so charming, it still holds to incredible the standards of action and improves on them with an even stronger stylistic voice.
What the film has to be praised the most for is the unity of vision that director Chad Stahelski brings to every frame of the film. Be it the lively colors and neon lights or the the breathtaking kinetic pace, it is so wonderful to see an action film stamped with a style that en-chances the story and livens the world. So many times we are treated to generic tropes and flashy visuals that are there for the sake of it. But Stahelski knows his stuff and paints a world that is there for the viewer to be carried away with, making every action beat more relevant because of the inherent interest and fascination this film gives the audience into its underground.
There is a lot of montaging and simultaneous cutting going on in the picture and it was one of the most pleasant aspects not to be turned off by it. Sequence after sequence the stakes are always ramping up, the filmmakers here clearly know how to manipulate an audience and take them through a constantly engaging journey. Of course it helps that the action is almost impeccable, every stunt is both perfectly carried out and seamless with the flow. There might be a couple of times in which it bleeds over into overkill, but they are very rare. For the majority the set pieces are highly original, they are flashy in the best way possible and contribute in making the action more alive, by always setting it in a new, surprising environment.
One aspect that has to be mentioned is just how beautiful the film looks, the cinematography is just jaw dropping. At one point there is a long take that keeps going and going and it was a joy. The frames are so smartly composed, the use of color in this feature is off the charts, some might call it a little too on the nose, but I found it masterful, the craft that must have gone into making this images look as they do is truly remarkable, even more so when you consider that it is rarely ever unwarranted. It supports the story, it makes it more relevant and gives this sense of rawness and liveliness to the world of crime.
I have to admit that this sequel does not quite reach the level of its predecessor. Be it because of a weak finale with revelations right and left that were completely unnecessary and void of any relevance to characters or story. Furthermore, this one does not quite reach the standard of fun and catharsis that was present in the first one, it decides to ramp up the seriousness a little and I think it partially suffers because of it, there isn't the sense of ridiculousness that made the first one so incredibly entertaining.
Yet, "John Wick: Chapter 2" remains a masterful action film that elevates itself above the average and gives us a picture full of suspenseful and savage sequences, with great characters and even better world building.
Kong: Skull Island (2017)
A diverse team of scientists, soldiers and adventurers unites to explore a mythical, uncharted island in the Pacific, as dangerous as it is beautiful. Cut off from everything they know, the team ventures into the domain of the mighty Kong, igniting the ultimate battle between man and nature. As their mission of discovery becomes one of survival, they must fight to escape a primal Eden in which humanity does not belong.
What starts out as a well oiled, climactic first act with a big big promise slowly meanders its way more and more through second and thirds acts that constantly keep the viewer less and less involved in any of the struggle, culminating in a very underwhelming finale.
Unfortunately this film is one of those that relies a little too much on its eye candy and whilst you way (or may not) be entertained by the big set pieces and the wonderful design and look of the monsters, the more you think about it the more the movie sticks out as uneven, terribly fragmented in almost all of its departments with many basic story threads not working.
What I will say is that Vogt-Roberts nails the monsters. We'll later touch on the CGI quality, but on a level of scale, fear, imagination and action he is almost constantly delivering. The fights with Kong are always shot in a wide, sweeping shot that turns around him and holds on for long. Those are absolutely incredible, they are sophisticated, beautiful shots to which sounds adds a real savage nature and together bring a real enthusiasm for the audience to the fights. Moreover, the various other monsters from the island are all interesting creatures and all feel part of the island.
Furthermore, the director shows off quite a drive in his first act. The journey to the island is riveting and build with constantly good editing and witty cinematography choices that always keep us oriented in what's going on. The first full blown action sequence is amazing, really absolutely stunning. He places the camera in the most interesting places and it throws us into the world and the size of Kong.
But, after that it is all downhill. The emptiness of these characters slowly reveals itself and once we're at the end of the second act it just becomes forced scene after forced scene of romance. The more it goes on the more it seems to completely fall apart, by the last action sequence the suspense of disbelief has totally disappeared, characters are doing stuff that is out of their abilities, the set pieces become ridiculously bloated, the green screen CGI becomes almost unacceptable, the amount of explosions is borderline parodic and you're left uncaring of anything or anyone, there is no interesting struggle by the end, the climax is underwhelming. Many choices of setting and build up seem really out of place, the whole dynamic that evolves at the end in (without spoiling anything) where they find themselves and where they have to go is shallow. Capping it off is one of the worst characters and portrayals I have seen in a motion picture ever, John C. Reily is a travesty every time he is on screen, there is no contribution he brings to the story and weakens it because of his terrible dynamic that is neither funny nor interesting.
This was definitely a weak day at the theater for me, the first act revved me up, it was really good and had a charm to it, it managed to build excitement very effectively. Sad it is that it didn't deliver on that promise and gave us a pretty mediocre blockbuster.
Sad, brutal, powerful and most importantly freshly original, "Logan" is a great piece of cinema with performers committed to this material in a way we haven't quite seen before in the genre which pays off by touching emotional heights for which the audience might be as unprepared as much as they are touched by it.
The balancing act that Mangold pulls off is a tricky one, but his mastery in molding the tones and hitting the emotional moments when they need to is remarkable, he takes full advantage on his medium and leaves us with frames and feelings stuck in our head for long after the film's departure. He has so much on his table to bring to life, there are multiple story lines and many moving pieces, but he makes all of it into a beautifully flowing piece where you never feel lost, everything here belongs to this film.
The success of this emotional piece is strictly connected to how good the performances in it are. First off is Boyd Holdbrook who is a revelation, he has a natural talent for holding the screen and being magnetic and make the most out of it giving us a villainous role that is the perfect match for this feature. On top of that comes Dafne Keen who does stuff which I have never seen in a movie theater before, she is crazy good and possibly one of the best child performances I have ever seen. What she conveys with her eyes only is incredible and when she starts getting into the action they do stuff that I have honestly never seen before with a child.
Of course this is the Jackman/Stewart show in the end and what a show, what a finale to give to these characters. There isn't merit to be awarded singularly here, as in all great movies, the quality of the emotions you are being carried through starts with a truly great script that offers the actors A+ level material to work with. They rise to the challenge, making the most out of every word, every stare and in comes Mangold and his delicate touch in capturing all of these moments. This film is really sad, it brings to life emotions and characters in a way that hits the audience deeply, the themes of bitterness, rejection, heartbreak, love, life, purpose, discrimination, hope, it brings tears to my eyes just recalling the outlook the films takes and it is a icon of how cinema can convey theme through story no matter its nature.
The struggles the characters go through in this film feel so raw and close to us. Professor Xavier is given what is possibly his best portrayal and arch yet, he his in a sad, sad place, his life feels so tragic to us, his dreams have vanished, the way Stewart portrays him takes us to a place of such humanity, looking at an old man, a great man who is at the end of line, disillusioned and lost, mad, but still hoping. It is a beautiful piece of character drama that is developed throughout the film with pitch perfect dramatization and, curiously enough, the perfect amount out comic relief. As much as this film is emotional and sad it has moments of comedy gold that fit in seamlessly as they have always been part of these characters. Stewart has moments of "Cukoo's Nest" madness that bring out really funny monologues, plus his timing on one liners is perfect and even the way he moves makes for great comedy. And of course we don't loose Wolverine's dry humor which has always been a great part of his character.
And we haven't touch upon the action yet. This movie is violent and brutal and awesome because of that. Every drop of blood, every hit, every scar is justified by story. there isn't a moment of wasted time in the action, it feels urgent and necessary, the set-pieces flow in naturally and frenetically, they enter the story at the right times, they build and end when they need to and when it is time to start a new one is always feels built up and climaxes to new heights which are topped with the final confrontation which is a blood bath of violence and savageness that has me white knuckled, you almost feel there, with the characters, in the middle of this insane struggle. You feel every it, the pain in every cut has a weight and Logan's incredible effort and stress to go on it conveyed brutally in a way that you almost feel it upon yourself.
I think that there are only a few criticism that I could move towards the film which are plot points that are repeated throughout which don't really belong in the film. They insist on an X-Men comic point which has nothing to do with the film and raises questions all around which don't really need to be there and could have easily been solved with another macguffin. These sort of nitpicks and continuity issues are the only ones that really have any place in being pointed out.
Everything else in "Logan" works, this is a devastating film, with many tears involved, it will stick with you and leave you with images and feelings stuck in you mind, that is the mark of great, great film, one that molds tones and stories into one beautiful piece of genre cinema that will certainly have a lasting effect through its legacy, every single risk taken in here paid off to perfection.
Manchester by the Sea (2016)
An uncle (Casey Affleck) is obliged to return home to care for his nephew (Lucas Hedges) after his brother dies. Unknowing he is to be the guardian and struggles with the decision. Throughout the movie he recounts past memories that caused him to leave Manchester and distance himself from his past.
"Manchester by the Sea" is a highly character driven piece, an almost classical drama of present-time. Whilst keeping itself at distance from a highly-stylized approach to the story it presents the events in a perfectly orchestrated scene weave which makes this 140 minute drama pass in the blink of an eye, almost leaving you wanting more.
What Lonergan succeeds the most in his storytelling is in the portrayal of the profanity of every life. He shies away from any kind of contextualization or dramatization that could lead to clichés or melodrama. The editing is symbolic of this in the way it cuts at any given moment which confers this feeling of incredible ordinariness, it implies that no one is in control of a story, there isn't an over arching veil of plot or character structure, which is why the scenes where the drama occurs hit the viewer so intensely.
The filter of film is really successfully removed here thanks to some very smart decision making, the first one being the non cinematic aspect ratio, and what you manage to witness are the reality of the lives of these people in all of their unpredictability and the way they deal with their obstacles as people and not as characters. The whole cinematic language used for the film is very elementary but not banal in anyway, every choice of camera work, editing, color and composition feels organic to the through line of the film. The camera is generally steady, but when it moves it moves for a very specific reason, it charges those key moments with even more depth and adds a whole other layer to how the characters interact with each other.
Still, when it comes to the meat of the story one has to look at actors and script, yet they are no less if not more engaging than the whole package of the movie. This is such a classy script, one that could fail to capture the nuance in the drama, yet by keeping such a fine balance of humor and drama and by the sole incorporation of the humor in this, it catapults it to another level of grandness. Whatever you've heard about this film being depressing is misrepresenting this picture. This is a very funny film, Lucas Hedges brings on a fabulous performance that touches both effectively the dramatic sides, but even more so the comedic ones, given his very lively character, and his chemistry with Affleck works effortlessly well. Then of course when it comes to tying it all together and giving the audience that emotional punch Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams do some showcase actor work. The way they carry themselves is brutally emotional and they manage to both really disappear in their roles from their first frame, very deserving of their acting accolades for their roles here.
Where I might have got a little less out of this feature is in the way if pays off its story, I think that on one side it stays true to its honesty to these people's story, on the other side I think that its just slightly under developed, it rushes a little to the end and could have easily done with another twenty minutes for me in rounding out the characters more and fleshing out the motivations of their decisions. I also think that the ending purposefully wants us to be left still craving more, feeling like something has not yet been said, but I personally really wanted to give these characters something more, I feel like their journeys would have remained interesting for the story's purpose and I was a little cut off when I realized that some of their decisions were not being explored more.
Being sharply focused on a character/story driven film has its downsides, which often seem to fall on the film's rounding off, yet it also has its peculiarities and "Manchester by the Sea" might just encapsulate all of them, it is nothing more than people having conversation in houses but it is alive and thrilling to watch, a masterful exercise in an modern day classic drama.
A young man deals with his dysfunctional home life and comes of age in Miami during the "War on Drugs" era. The story of his struggle to find himself is told across three defining chapters in his life as he experiences the ecstasy, pain, and beauty of falling in love while grappling with his own sexuality.
A small, little independent film, made for almost nothing that manages to transcend its limitations and be a full illustration of the power of the cinematic language, a real effort in the craftsmanship of images and sound for emotions, a wonderful piece of cinema, that just fell a little short from being a great one for me.
As Jenkins has said in many interviews, this film somewhat resembles a lot of his life and acts as a very personal artistic endeavor, this makes for a uniquely developed vision that has a truly personal stamp on it, filled with touches and ideas that haven't been seen before and contribute into making a singular tone for this film, one that never leaves it, it just looms all over this and confers and importance and an elegance to the film that match the subject matter incredibly well even though they might appear different on paper.
The unique choices are across the board stunning to see: the use of classical music for example is a stylistic element that works so brilliantly on an instinctual level. You can't really put your finger on it, but the music employed and the way it is developed across the three chapters is just one of those simple directorial choices that makes a world of a difference. It burdens this film with an importance and an intensity in the drama that makes for a perfect combination. Every frame of the film becomes filled with tension and unpredictability.
Then you get into the use of color and there is a world to get lost to. This is definitely one of the most efficient visual storytelling efforts I've seen in recent times, the fact that it was so low budget probably made the filmmakers try to come up with the most inventive ideas and they rose to the challenge. The shots, the editing, the way the juxtaposition of colors and composition happens, what do they mean for the story and how they are developed and evolved through it, all of these directorial ideas succeed triumphantly in supporting the concept of the film.
Jenkins just shrouds this film with powerful imagery and material, he finds a poetic touch even in the most excruciating and dark situations, he builds a world made of emotions and themes, every frame drips with context and ideas. The bottom line is that he manages to bring to life a vision that feels organic and complete, his style is original, fresh and he keeps it up constantly and is always interested in what the style can do to help the characters, not the other way around.
Unfortunately, his brilliant and beautiful vision looses some of its impact because of the story. I feel like there are a couple of missing pieces here. I wasn't overwhelmed with emotion when I needed to be, the film isn't the absolutely captivating piece it needs to be. There are a couple of missing beats in the story that really feel absent, the emotional impact of events further down the line is lessened because of a shortly developed central relationship, you'll never hear me say anything in here was forced or unwarranted, I just feel like it wasn't as impactful and powerful as its cinematic language and it was partially a let down.
But, "Moonlight" has very little to hide, its sheer sense of power in action and emotion is so well built and personally touching that even in its faults it manages to come out as a triumph of directing and storytelling, a really innovative piece of visuals that is sure to be highly influential and overbearingly imitated in years to come.
The Lego Batman Movie (2017)
There are big changes brewing in Gotham City, and if he wants to save the city from The Joker's (Zack Galifianakis) hostile takeover, Batman (Will Arnett) may have to drop the lone vigilante thing, try to work with others and maybe, just maybe, learn to lighten up.
Two years after its release "The LEGO Movie" still resonates with us both in its quality as a film, which stands as one of the best animated features of the last few years, both in the way it shook the business and showed you can make great movies out of toys. Still that hasn't meant quality films in this department, in the last two years no one has reached the standard of brilliance, wit, comedy and heart that made "The LEGO Movie" the beauty it is. That, until now, from the same creative team behind the first film comes another wildly funny film which almost serves as a further reinvention of the spoof/parody genre.
Director Chris McKay demonstrates a deep understanding of the character, its fascination and its mythology. Because of that we get a film that is chop full of references, easter eggs and running gags that incredibly does not call attention to itself. He has struck the perfect tone, the same one that made "The Naked Gun" so special, everything is done with homage to the material, there are no cheap jokes or overused gags, there is always novelty in the comedy, a film that starts being funny from literally frame one and doesn't stop even with the credits.
As in all good comedies the filmmakers have found a balance of very different acts and we get to enjoy all of them, from the pop culture references, the non sense humor, the visual gags to smart dialogue and, to a length, witty black humor, it has them all and it excels at all of them. Of course one should also mention just how visually interesting these LEGO animation is. Other than giving us constantly rich and incredibly busy frames, they establish a tone in the film that helps incredibly its sense of flow and comedy. One could almost say that the LEGO animation is just an art-form into itself, the uniqueness of it, the very dry sense of humor that naturally emerges from it is wildly fascinating.
And then, somehow, the filmmakers manage to even get into some emotional territory, ridiculously, in a parody film about Batman they manage to pull off a good story about the iconic character. One that takes into consideration the deeper aspects of Batman's legacy and plays around with characters in ways that we haven't seen before and that touch really interesting point on his figure. It seems really strange to point out, but I have to insist that in some insane way this film also ends up being a very well told tale about The Dark Knight, one that touches high emotional beats and that explores the character and their relevance still today really deeply.
If something should be pointed out it is that the film does carry itself on a little too long. Some of the set-pieces don't quite flow story wise as they do with comedy. Their are some gags and situation that are stretched just a little and I think that cutting about 20 minutes the film could have had a much, much better shape overall and wouldn't have left the focus of what it was doing at brief moments.
I am so happy to seen the genre of the spoof done so well again after all these years, it reminds us of how kinetically funny these films can be and how beautiful well structured humor is.
The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
Everyone knows that growing up is hard, and life is no easier for high school junior Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), who is already at peak awkwardness when her all-star older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) starts dating her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). All at once, Nadine feels more alone than ever, until the unexpected friendship of a thoughtful boy (Hayden Szeto) gives her a glimmer of hope that things just might not be so terrible after all.
Being a huge follower of the coming of age/teen drama from the Hughes days in 80s to all of the modern incarnations, I was very excited by the prospect of another teen dromedy and getting to finally see it was a real plesure, full of brilliant witty comedy in the same measure of heartfelt drama.
What strikes me the most about this film is the fact that its a debut feature for director Kelly Fremon Craig. She demonstrates a confidence in the storytelling that is something we have seen from very few debuts. The material is so varied and touches, as said above, the extremes in both comedy and drama, yet the coherence in the tone of the film never, ever wavers, every scene, as in all great storytelling, catapults us into the next one, the characters constantly evolve and learn new things and probably, the very best part, is that everyone of them, from leading to secondary supporting, has a truly three dimensional dynamic, you understand where all of them come from, nobody is condemned to a clichéd flatness and from this emerges constantly entertaining conflict.
The cast is a showcase of great actors making justice to great characters, none of them come out as seen-before characters, they all find a place in the story and make the most out of what they can do with the fascinating script. Other than the fact that Steinfield's work is Oscar level acting, she gives such a beautiful portrayal of the sadness in the character she plays and how she comes out of it. Hayden Szeto has to be mentioned in particular besides her because his timing, his awkwardness and ultimately his heartfelt performance make for a very, very good, touching, quirky and genuine character.
This film perfectly incarnates the vision is sets out to complete, it is surprising and unpredictable at every turn, constantly engaging you in the novelty of the characters, it has character narration done incredibly right. The beauty of laughing hard in a scene and going to the completely opposite emotional spectrum five minutes later and feel elated by both of the dynamics is a joy very few films manage to nail and "Edge of Seventeen" does that, it is an incredibly mature film in the way it faces its themes and gives, in my humble opinion, a very good example. I had a blast with this film.
Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) seems indestructible. Head of a successful video game company, she brings the same ruthless attitude to her love life as to business. Being attacked in her home by an unknown assailant changes Michèle's life forever. When she resolutely tracks the man down, they are both drawn into a curious and thrilling game-a game that may, at any moment, spiral out of control.
One thing that is clear to me when reviewing this film is the hardship of doing so: "Elle" is uniquely singular film that touches upon its subject matter in an incredibly detached way which is why we are shown events and characters go down from a perspective is totally fresh and new even though it can carry through a little too much.
What it comes down to is that how the film treats its characters is exactly reflecting of how Michèle treats them. There is a perfect correspondence of style to story and it makes for a fascinating watch. You are carried through into this characters world and you start to root for her in a very convincing way to the point that you find her to be the the moral measure of the film even though the actions in practice would be questionable from another point of view.
This is what great art does in my opinion, it takes the lens of reality and turns it around to make the audience experience something in a new way, that's what this film does in spades. It is not trying to present a world where each character is entitled, there is only one right way and that it because Michèle sees things this way, it is just brilliantly structured storytelling that hits hard on its goals.
Then of course at the center of all of this is Huppert's magnetic performance. When watching foreign movies a sign a of great performance is when thinking back I can't remember the language she was speaking, I just remember the character and how alive it felt. She sells every beat of this woman's methods and ideas, there isn't a false moment in what she does and she makes justice to a script that required the commitment she gives it to become convincing.
Where I take a little issue is in the clarity of the succession of some of the key events. The film slightly glosses over a couple of key plot point which are maybe intentionally left a little unclear, but in my view, a little too far so. I had some difficulties, especially in the first act, in exactly understanding what went down and because of that I didn't understand Michèle's motivations in the early stages.
Yet, once the narrative flow gets thicker it starts being overwhelming and you experience a solid character thriller with a multifaceted uniqueness that stretches from setting, to characters, to core material.
When three girls are kidnapped by a man (James McAvoy) with 24 different personalities they have work out which of those personalities will help them escape and which of those personalities will will try to stop them. Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), a teen with a troubled past, seems to be the only one who might just actually be able to understand and communicate with the madman.
With a premise so wild and fascinating it is hard not to be hooked when you go into the theater. Coming out I can't help but call myself disappointed in a film that has as much potential as wasted one, thrown away in a structure that can't keep focus of what it's doing.
Even with that, there is still quite something to be appreciated here. Firstly, it is hard not to be wowed by Shyamalan's mastery in technique. He clearly demonstrates being comfortable in the medium and plays with the audience in several different ways. From the little touches in insert shots to the big, big set-piece shots he always adds something special and uncanny to them. Be it twenty three different toothbrushes or a single closing shot on a lock, his images have something to really sink in and love about them and he is a master in the use of focus to build tension or character conflict.
Then McAvoy as always is in solid acting territory and gives an intense performance, you can see the work he put into this oozing from the screen. The way he switches from a personality to the other is brilliant, you see a change in his face and posture and it makes it incredibly special. Moreover the work he puts in physically pays off, it reads on screen powerfully and makes the difference for the whole film. Surprising is how well Anya Taylor Joy manages to keep up with him delivering an equally functional performance.
Where the film really looses its charm for me is in its script. Unfortunately it is highly unfocused and does not know where to go or what to do with the compelling premise, indicative of this is the final twist which I barely managed to grasp.
There is no order in how the story evolves, we give the main character an extensive backstory in flashbacks and that leads nowhere, there is a mystery with the relationship between Kevin and his psychiatrist and that leads to nothing too, then there is the main conflict in the kidnapping story that leads us nowhere once again, with possibly the worst resolution of all of the above. And then, at the center of this, is the character of McAvoy, who is as fascinating on paper as he is chaotic on screen.
There is no silver lining with this character, there is no pay off, no purpose to his story, he is simply a gimmick. Consider too the fact that of the supposed 23 personalities we only see seven or eight on screen which makes for a hugely underwhelming experience. Moreover, when you consider the fact that of the ones we see there are only a couple that get any development you understand what a bloated journey the view is carried through.
Which is exactly the way I would define the film, a ride that doesn't really have any idea where it is going, but has its moments of inspiration during the trip.
Professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is one of the most brilliant linguists in the world. When aliens start appearing on the Earth in twelve random places she is tasked by the US Government to enter start communicating with them and eventually interpret their language.
"Arrival" is one of the best motion pictures of recent times and continues to strike on the trend of very good and scientifically inspired sci-fi films we have had in recent times from "Gravity" to "Interstellar" and "The Martian". This films adds to that very good pantheon of modern Sci-Fi and it just might be one of the best we've had yet.
Director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young have been quoted saying that the look and feel they wanted to achieve for this film was a "dirty Sci-Fi", I think the end result is a triumph for what they set out to do, this film has a unique aesthetic to it, a brilliant one, the choices of editing and photography are incredibly coherent to the structure of the story, there is a whole visual language that is carefully crafted around the emotional and story beats of the film, it carries the audience through the picture and guides emotion masterfully and the best part is that is doesn't call attention to itself.
The array of perfect choices that Villeneuve made here is more and more stunning the more I think of it. The visual grammar he establishes is pure genius, the choice to shoot almost always on the ground, the eye level shot looking up to introduce set-pieces, the use of shallow focus to reflect a key element of the plot, there is a slew of stylistic choices that are carried out with pitch perfect execution by Young and combine in making an almost flawless visual piece that is as beautiful as it is emotionally charged. There is a key distinction from the start to let the audience follow and experience only one clear point of view and that makes for another incredible decision that supports the story and the character development magnificently.
After "Prisoners" and "Sicario" and now this we might just be experiencing the dawn of a new 'master of suspense'. That is how I would define Villenueve at the moment, his pictures are a masterclass in the building of tension and "Arrival" is the best example of that yet. Right from the beginning I always felt a sense of urgency to the story. With small touches and attention to details in every shot, he manages to build and build anxiety on the viewer, there is always this overlying sense of danger that manages to be established early on and never leave. Once again this all just a complex puzzle of stylistic choices in editing and photography that manages to pay off to incredible results. Every choice seems to be the right one, every shot has an aim to say something.
Yet, the suspense is supported by fantastic art direction, production design. From the military base camp which has a clear structure and organization to the Alien ships, everything has been thought out extensively and presented to the audience clearly. Moreover, the weight that is conveyed to the aliens and the ships is vital to the success of the film. They feel alive and present, there was never a false beat with them and their presence loomed all over the film. Sound Design and music too are brilliant, both technically faultless and artistically inspired, bringing to life the emotion of the film just as beautifully as the rest of the departments.
The film is also incredibly smart too, it trusts the audience and manages to open up a conversation that is as complex and multifaceted as it is fascinating and absorbing. This film stays with you, it is one of those pictures that affected me physically in the theater and after it. That is probably due to how much emotion and theme are vitally interconnected to plot and content. Every element the film needs for it to work is set-up early on, the audience is constantly entrusted with information and the film climaxes in a resolution that is as unpredictable as it is beautiful and moving and it never screams at you what is going on, thanks to a brilliant set-up you manage to think about what happens, slowly absorb it as the film is playing.
Amy Adams has probably had one of the best series of performances an actress could have ever asked for. After "Nocturnal Animals" she gives us another portrait of character that is bewildering. Her work is constantly challenging and without spoiling everything she handles the differences in her character with a cunning ability. Jeremy Renner here probably deserves the most overlook performance of the year award, he is on the same level of Adams here and plays his quirky, sympathetic character with genuine depth and gives the audience a secondary lead instead of just a throw away supporting character he might have been.
I think that there are a couple of faults the film has, but honestly I am still uncertain about them and have (and desperately want) to see the film a second time to see if some details passed over me. "Arrival" is a engrossing experience of emotion, spectacle and intelligence, a deeply moving picture that has me still thinking and one of which's images and concepts won't leave my head anytime soon.
In 1942, a Canadian intelligence officer (Brad Pitt) in North Africa encounters a female French Resistance fighter (Marion Cotillard) on a deadly mission behind enemy lines, they join forces, disguised as husband and wife, but after spending precious time together, both realize that their fictitious roles might just be a truth for the both of them.
When Robert Zemeckis makes a film I am sure to be there, he has graced the silver screen for four decades with quality pictures for worldwide audiences, always maintaining a romantic sensibility without ever loosing a masterful sense of filmmaking and storytelling. "Allied" is once again a solid, well told story that reaches for all audience out there.
The film has a slightly sloppy introduction, it switches from solid moments that are building to something to poor character development with the two leads. Fortunately Cotillard and Pitt have enough chemistry and charm together that the audience just goes through the first act without really feeling the weight of the problems that fortunately eclipse with the main bulk of the film.
As I said the two leads aren't well developed in the first half, whilst you get a very clear sense of who these two individuals are and what lengths they are willing to go for their cause, with some very surprising and raw scenes, you don't get a logical understanding of why they fall in love. Certainly you feel the connection, but the film never really shows you why the two start to appreciate each other, it doesn't build up their relationship rather than just introduce it.
Still, when we get to the second act in London, much of this is erased thanks to some really good work by the actors and Zemeckis. They manage to, in a way, reintroduce us to the new lives of these people and we really buy them as a couple, Pitt and Cotillard go really far into their performances with one another and there is a sexual undercurrent to the whole film that whilst slightly sidelined does emphasize moments that make you understand this marriage deeply.
So on a level of romanticism the film does trip in different moments with a slightly gratuitous build up of their relationship, but overall when you look at it moment by moment, there is no denying that it is, unsteadily, built up to actually some very intense emotional depth that is vital for the thriller aspect of the film to succeed.
Which, transitively, it does and is probably the most fascinating aspect of the feature. The middle hour of the film is definitely its best moment and were it not for the lesser start and finish, it would have added up to a great film. The inciting incident comes far into the movie's length, but once it does it kicks off a relentless pace that keeps you on you toes, guessing for a very long time.
Zemeckis manages to build tension upon tension in a master's way, the structure of the screenplay supports the veteran director into making a sequence of scenes that is a breathtaking, edge-of-your seat experience which mixes a very good emotionally deep component to the setting of World War II producing a miss-en-scene that captivates the viewer's attention. Every moment is built up with set-up, reminder and pay off and you are never lost in the mix, everything's always clear, the motivations are constantly solid and you route or the hero without reservations.
Just as its partially uneven beginning, the finale of the film is a notch below its main focus. There are moments that hit home and Cotiallard gives her all in her last scenes, bringing some really intense performance work to the screen, but unfortunately the film just looses a little steam with a couple of coincidences and with an ending that doesn't really build onto a convincing climax, but rather to a more clichèd-romantic one.
"Allied" anyways remains an underrated romantic thriller with fantastic and lush settings that manage to bring to life a time and a place which support a story that has much flare to spare for any kind of audience.
The season opens with "The Six Thatchers". It is definitely the lesser one of the three episodes we got. We're reintroduced back to the characters after the events of the Christmas special episode and it is pretty much run-of-mill Sherlock stuff. It is as always an absolute honor to see Cumberbatch back in the role and he continues to kill it, time and time again his word by word delivery is impeccable and he embodies the character to perfection.
Martin Freeman is getting better and better in this role and by far this season he gave us his best moments. He manages to repair some little mistakes he made in past seasons, he really owns the role in this one and his character manages to be pushed to the forefront in many situations and because of this he shows a confidence and a comradery with Sherlock that is at its peak, the two know each other better than ever and it is great to see Watson owning some scenes.
Anyways, the first episodes goes into another mystery for Sherlock to solve, it delves into the past of Mary's character and I think that this is the big problem here. The banter is very good as always, the set-up is actually pretty fascinating, but the more it goes on the more it looses the pathos you expect from Sherlock. It is both unwarranted and unnecessary for this to be a look into a character's past, I would have been much more happy with a mystery that doesn't into one of the character's arch, especially if its Mary since she has had much on her plate already.
The mystery evolves into a scheme that doesn't really serve much, we get one big surprise and for the rest the episode falls a little flat even though it is hard to not be at least entertained with the characters having their usual back and forth that is always filled with novelties and character evolution.
Then we get to "The Lying Detective" which might just be the best episode of the whole series yet. I find that the best episodes in this series are the one that combine a standard mystery for Sherlock to solve with all of the characters having some part to play in it. Episode 2 is the perfection of that.
Scene after scene we are riveted by the character drama going on as much as we are fascinated by the mystery behind Toby Jones' presumed murder and what a show he puts on, perfect casting and scene stealing performance. The writing is always on point, it makes Sherlock face a new challenge that we haven't seen before and the way it is brought to the screen is simply jaw dropping.
Nick Hurran directs the hell out of this, the editing here is a masterclass of technique and visual ideas that bring to life Sherlock's twisted mind in a way that we have never seen before. The revelations literally never stop coming from the first to the last moment and they are constantly surprising, you never know who is on top of the game and it is a continuous war of dialogue and brains that keeps the audience glued to the screen for 90 minutes of Sherlock perfection.
This episode is definitely my favorite, it encapsulates everything that is beautiful about this character and this series and gives us every kind of moment we love, even a beautiful date for Sherlock that has a twist in it, but also serves as a further exploration of his character, setting up in just three minutes possibly every story element of this and the subsequent episode. The cherry on the cake is the raw mystery solving that is once again brilliantly thought out and gives us treasures of logic puzzles.
Then comes "The Final Problem" which ends off this season on an overwhelming high note. This is probably the most intense episode this series has ever given us and the most intelligent too. This reviews is non spoilers so I won't delve deep into what happens, just know that it is glorious. There might be some moments that are too over the top, but we have come to expect this in a way from the creators and appreciate these moments for what they are.
The dialogue exchanges here a a work of art unto themselves, not to mention the way they are delivered, absolutely stunning performances from everyone around. We touch emotional beats that haven't been covered before in this series and the way they are integrated into the narrative flaw is just brilliant. The pace of the episode is insane and the tension and level of intelligence in the suspense they manage to keep up for the whole duration is simply something unto its own. You have no time to rest, it just becomes a whirlwind of emotions and puzzles, it takes you away and you don't have time to think about it until its finished which is when you are reminded why this series, with all of its peculiarities and bigger than life ideas, remains a beautiful study of the human condition and of how relationships are formed and built upon.
Season 4 is another great addition to the Sherlock canon, once again the team of writers and director bring to life a complicated puzzle that is as crowd pleasing as it is smart and that is something that is always appreciated, other than constantly upping the ante in the filmmaking techniques employed.
The Founder (2016)
"The Founder" follows the real life story of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) and how he went from a fading salesman in his late fifties to building the empire known as McDonald's starting from a small town restaurant owned by the McDonald brothers.
Having loved "Saving Mr. Banks" despite not even having any kind of special emotional attachment to "Mary Poppins", i was genuinely excited to see Hancock bring this bigger than life story to the screen supported by the great Micheal Keaton. Whilst it has plenty of grit and flare to spare for the audience, I found this to never really come together in a fascinating way and sadly always remaining on the surface, which fortunately has enough to entertain at the least.
Keaton is once again on fire here and continues to strike with a series of performances that have made him come back from a faded star to now being one of the most respected A listers. He has an innate sense of physicality with his character that always adds a world of layers to them. He gives Ray ticks and ways of moving and evolves them through the film and his development, it is subtle work by an actor that really makes the world of difference. The way his mouth twitches or how he becomes imposing in a scene, it is all brilliant work on top of a performance that is already very good when delivering the dialogue.
The rest of the cast unfortunately stays a little anonymous and not even veterans like Laura Dern really manage to stick out, the only exceptions are Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch that just as Keaton are doing brilliant physical performance work. The contrast between how Ray carries himself and how the brothers do so made for some really interesting subtext and visual flare. The two of them also sell being affectionate brothers in a way that I have rarely experienced in movies, they really felt genuine family to one another and their sweet and innocent dynamic was both a surprise and a great element of the film.
Where the film has faults is in building a climactic story and an insightful look at this real life events. There is an informative and quite interesting look at the chronology of the events, they are presented to you clearly and I did not get lost for a second on what was going on. Yet. the film has a hard time on building on what happens, it does not raise the stakes or intensify the drama, it always stays a little flat, leaving all on the surface and often repeating the same dynamics over and over again between the characters without ever resolving them, from Ray and his wife to Ray and the brothers, there isn't really a depth into which the films taps into, it just presents a back and worth with the characters and leaves it hanging until a final scene of quick resolution.
The film also has some very sloppy editing, there are moments that actually stick out as good stuff like some of the montages of the McDonald's empire growing and of Ray building the business, but for a good portion of the film there is some really bad stuff. Continuity mistakes start very early on and keep popping in and being disorientating, a lot of the flow of some scenes is unnecessarily cut with double the edits that the scenes require.
From a comedic perspective too the film doesn't really make up its mind, as everything it stays of surface and never really delves into interesting comedic aspects. There are basic gags that don't really get out of the audience much more than a smile and because of that you are rarely ever clear if you are watching a drama or a comedy. That is also due to an honestly underwhelming score that, just as the editing, was really off putting at times, especially early on.
Still, "The Founder" isn't a bad film, it offers enough of what it promises for viewers to be entertained for its duration even though there is much more that could have become of it if some with a more risky or quirky take on the material.
After receiving a worrying letter from their mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson) from Japan, Portuguese priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) embark on a journey to reach Japan in order to find their beloved colleague and help the Christians against the religious oppression perpetuating during the 1600s by the hand of the Japanese Buddhists.
I think that the best way to explain my thoughts on this film are to start by explaining my history with legendary director Martin Scorsese. Whilst I think that "The Departed" is a top-notch film and find "Hugo" to be a really well told tale, I have rarely had the pleasure to enjoy his films. That's just how it is. From the 1970s right down to his latest efforts I have always had a really hard time with Scorsese and I have grown to actively dislike some of his films, whilst still finding something to mine and appreciate in them.
I find that there is a common thread with what I come to dislike in his pictures. Firstly, I have always had a hard time in keeping up with his third acts, from "Cape Fear" to "Goodfellas" I have always carried myself through to the ending forcefully and have rarely appreciated his climaxes. I have always felt them as meandering and over long, not really getting to a point. Which brings me to my biggest problem, with the exceptions listed above, I have never left a Scorsese feature with something to take with me, I've never had a payoff, his films have generally left me cold and empty, his thematic explorations have often frustrated me and given me not much to appreciate.
I once felt like this must be a coincidence, but the pattern has repeated itself too many times for it to be considered so, "Silence" being no the confirmation and actually embodying the worst about my criticisms. This is a religious slog-fest that made me angry in its self importance and complete nonsensical length.
Now, I don't want to appear like I'm a jerk, whilst everything I said above is true I can't help but have anything but respect for Scorsese, he is a giant of cinema, his achievements are overwhelming, it just so happens that he really has a hard time in matching my taste and whilst he managed to get really on my nerves here, in particular, because of some of the thematic messages, I still find in all of his pictures a lot to appreciate.
For one, "Silence" has a great first half, the drama with the characters is alive and touching, the portrayal of 17th century Japan is raw and unnerving, the atmosphere that is captured is genuinely unsettling. The point of view that is established in this first half is not a religiously inflated one, what is moving about it is how we witness the hatred that man can be brought to and the contrast with the innocence in the Japanese farmers is ever so captivating.
Driver and Garfield really fuel the drama with some remarkably intense performance work that manages to not call attention to itself. Their journey is unpredictable and the recreation of the chaos and the poverty of the time really hits home. The cultural differences are explored on a visual level other than a thematic one and it makes for some really good viewing, I will fully admit that up to the hour and forty five mark I was following the drama attentively.
On a technical level the film does have some fantastic production design, but for the rest there is something that really stands out as being remarkable, probably a reason for which the last hour becomes so overbearingly boring.
Then comes the last hour, which shatters to pieces everything achieved before, changing perspective and escalating in melodramatic, masturbatory, religious bullsh*t with an ending that proves its aimlessness and disgusting self-importance. The drama just turns off, it evolves in a discussion that has no heads nor tails, to the point that I felt like it was contradicting itself at times. The ending is abysmal, ridiculous and trivial in a way that made me stand up and leave the cinema angrily without even waiting for the first credits which I always do.
If I am listening to a full hour of religious debate which combines ethical and moral complexities to it and I am left utterly bored and empty there is something that is worryingly wrong about the film for me. I was lost for words, every word that was uttered was a further step down for the film, a real disgrace because for a good portion it was going for something an succeeding at it, then came the rest of the feature and made me sick with boredom and anger.
Don't Think Twice (2016)
The Commune is a comedy improvisational that performs in a small theater in New York. With Jack (Keegan Michael-Key), one of the six friends on the group, being hired by a big time comedy TV show and their theater being sold away in a matter of four weeks, the Commune and all of its members start to realize that their lives might be changing in a way they don't like and can't control.
Portraying the comedy scene intimately and bringing to life a varied cast of quirky and beautiful characters, "Don't Think Twice" is a heartfelt, touching comedy that combines laughter with a deep insight into creativity, a small indie film made with real passion behind it and with some remarkable craft in writing and directing to support it.
Being a man of many talents definitely helped Mike Birbiglia in putting this film together and he shows it in many different ways. He just nails the feel of the group and its dynamics, he manages to really bring to life on screen 'The Commune' with all of its quirky individuals and the internal group relationships which make the film as funny and as interesting as it is.
Many time during the film he manages to hold on performances and little moments and the cast emerges with small touches that make a whole scene worth the watch. The way in which jealously and conflict or peace between characters is hinted at with body postures, timing in the blocking or the orchestration of eye movement is majestic, these are all small details that are the difference between great and good scenes and this film has many great ones.
The improv performances are incredibly vital to the structure of the film and they are gold mines of visual storytelling. So much of how the characters move or what they do manages to build their archs and complement the story, most amazing of all is that even with that they still manage to be funny performances that really sell the artistic medium being portrayed. So many times in movies there is an integral part of them that presents a world of craftsmanship and so many times that world is not given a dignified portrayal or at least one that presents the medium in a convincing and clear way to the audience.
Well, that's not the case here, you manage to really participate into the art the characters are involved in, everything about it is genuine and the world around is built beautifully. More than that you manage to directly see the impact of the art on these characters' lives and how it affects differently each one of them.
The discussion that this film opens on creativity and artistic fulfillment is really special, it isn't glamorous or sugar coated, it doesn't ask questions without giving answers and most of all it doesn't fall into clichés. Everything it brings up about it is right, honest and moving. It is truthful to every individual presented in the film, all of them have the pay off they deserve and what ultimately this film says is that it does not matter how successful you are in something, what matters is your happiness in doing that.
The cast is magic, they succeed in bringing to life this group in a genuinely likable way, you fall in love with all of them and it takes not even ten minutes of the film for you to be able to distinguish them all in their look and their characteristics, that is something insanely rare to find in features and this one does excels in it. Kate Micucci was a stand out for me, her casting is perfectly on point, yet, even more than her Gillian Jacobs gave a powerhouse of a performance. I think that not many people are yet familiar with her, but in a few years we'll be all talking about her talent. After 'Love' and this she has put out in a single year two of my favorite performances of the year. She manages to live her character entirely on screen, other than all of the comedic stuff that she pulls off she also sells the dramatic side and brings to the screen probably the most interesting character.
The camera-work and the editing are both remarkable too. Firstly, the camera manages to capture some really intimate moments with incredible simplicity but effectiveness, it might be that the performers are so good on screen, but by keeping the camera movement simple and complementary to the story we manage to get moments of really big emotional scope. Then we have the editor putting this together so fluently, paced with relentless flow and with really smart choices on when to cut a scene or a montage.
Overall what this film partially lacks is a stronger dramatic heart. Whilst tonally it manages to be seamless thanks to really good plot development, it does not have a climactic turn of events that manages to make the viewer captivated by the turn out. It could be said that the film does not need that kind of structure, but I felt that it might have done with some more development in the dramatic side since the pay off on that note doesn't really hit you as hard as it could.
But that's enough meandering on flaws, "Don't Think Twice" is a glorious dramatic comedy with one of the best ensembles and combinations of characters to actors I have seen all year, a genuine and touching message for all artists and creatives out there, a really special gem of the indie world and a fantastic underground film on the New York comedy scene.
After having just moved into their new home Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), a couple of fellow actors find themselves in a difficult home life situation after a violation of their home. S they go through the performances at the local theater of Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman' their relationship takes a left turn from which it might not ever go back.
I tried to keep the synopsis as vague as possible so not to spoil the film, since, as in most of Farhadi's films, the inciting incident comes in later in the film and the drama ultimately does not develop until the third act, something that this director likes to do and at which he excels, always giving priority to the space in which characters develop and live their everyday lives.
And those are exactly the reasons why "The Salesman" is a fantastically subtle and morally complex revenge tale masked as a home drama, which has some of the best work by actors I have seen in 2016, even though this might be too slightly of a familiar territory from Farhadi.
It is no coincidence that Shahab Hosseini won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival, if there is one reason why this film succeeds it is him. This performance is raw and authentic in its own unique way, he manages to guide us through every one of the stages of degradation his character goes through and he manages to do so without us noticing. On a surface level the character arch he goes through would be hard to believe, there are some changes that wouldn't appear natural when spelled out. Yet, Hosseini manages to sell us on this person and all of the turbulence he has to go through, he manages to enhance little moments that I can't imagine working on paper. He fits right into the world that Farhadi builds and comes out giving a powerhouse of a performance that guides the audience through the whole narrative.
Certainly, Farhadi deserves to share some of the credit for the performance too, for many reasons. Firstly, just as in all of his film, the performances across the board are just flawless, he directs actors to perfection and he doesn't even give you a chance to realize this. The way in which he uniquely manages to capture everyday life is profoundly stunning. From the camera-work to every detail of the blocking of actors right down to every word they say, the fabric of ordinariness he succeeds in putting on screen is flawless. I have no idea if this is all meticulously thought out or if it is left to brilliant improvisation and I don't want to know, what is clear to me is that as a director his methods work excellently and the results he manages to produce on screen are remarkable.
Then, when it comes to building the drama, Farhadi is just as masterful. The evolution of it is natural and doesn't ever feel forced upon the characters, the parallels traced with theater might be a little too on the nose, but they are stunningly relevant and used to an incredible cinematic effect. He manages to build and build the drama and make it culminate in a riveting finale where all of the themes and the moral questions the film asks flow out naturally from it and leave you hanging at just the right moment. He also manages to build a complex web of visual cues and use them effectively to complement the characters and the story, once again here the visual parallels with the theater are a joy to see unfold.
It has to be said that this is very familiar territory for Farhadi, the contrast of personal justice versus institutionalized justice is very relevant is his past film "A Separation" and so is the outlook on revenge, the degrading and the toll it takes on the individual and the destructive results of it. Sometimes it even feels like he is retracing his steps and for someone who has seen his film this might result in a slightly predictable outcome, even though the self contained drama in the film never looses its relevance to the characters, ultimately resulting in a constantly fascinating watch that challenges the viewer and defies traditional cinematic beats and expectations