20 feb. 2016

The Finest Hours (5/10): Fine for a January release

"In the coast guard they say you go out, they don't say you gotta come back."

Director Craig Gillespie and Disney team up once again following their 2014 film, Million Dollar Arm. This time the true story is based on the 1952 Coast Guard rescue attempt at Cape Cod. The film counts with a stellar cast starting from the always charismatic Chris Pine, and including some strong supporting performances from the likes of Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, Holliday Grainger, and John Magaro. The Finest Hours captures the fifties with delicacy while also remaining old school. The film is by the books and told in a way that most movies based on true events are, so it doesn't stand out. The effects are believable but they never accomplish much visually. There are some thrilling moments and the film slowly builds the tension during the final act, but it does take a bit too long setting the premise and trying to establish a love story that doesn't seem to be all that interesting or relevant. 

The Finest Hour begins by introducing us to the hero of the story who is about to go on his first date with the woman who will eventually become his fiancée. Chris Pine is Bernie Webber, a shy man who follows orders and likes to do things by the books, while Holliday Grainger is Miriam, a woman who is set on going after what she want. The love story lacks emotion and therefor it is the weakest link in the film. It is the reason why the first half of the film didn't work for me and why I wished the film focused more on the events taking place in the split oil tanker during the storm. Pine is playing against type here since his character is rather timid and that takes away a lot of his charm. I will give him credit for trying to play a different character, but I don't think he was the right choice for the part. Casey Affleck is the true standout, playing one of the crew members in the oil tanker fighting for their survival. He reminds us what a great actor he is and I wish the film focused more on his character.  The rescue mission is exciting and thrilling, but the film takes too long to set itself up. 

Perhaps The Finest Hours is one of the better films being released in January since this is considered the dumping ground for most movies, but it still isn't good enough to get a fresh grade from me. The film has its moments and Casey Affleck should be getting bigger roles, but other than that the movie does fall flat and lacks the emotional depth other rescue films have. I'm usually a fan of Chris Pine, but I didn't enjoy his performance here and this is one of the few films from him that I haven't liked. If you are nostalgic for old-fashioned adventure films than this might be the right film for you, otherwise skip it.

19 feb. 2016

The Revenant (8/10): A visual spectacle

"As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe... keep breathing."

It's only been a year since Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu delivered the award winning Birdman and somehow he managed to deliver another visual masterpiece in record time. To follow up such a groundbreaking film like Birdman, with an epic adventure film like The Revenant is mesmerizing. But Gonzalez doesn't deserve all the credit, his films have stood out because of Emmanuel Lubezki's groundbreaking cinematography. The best thing about The Revenant is without a doubt its visual style. And the same could be said about Lubezki's previous efforts: Gravity and Birdman. In three years Lubezki has delivered some of the most beautiful looking films of our decade (and I'm not even including The Tree of Life which he worked on in 2011). This man is pure genius and will without a doubt win his third Oscar in a row. I hope the two continue to work together and deliver more visually inspiring films. 

Leonardo DiCaprio deserves all the accolades he's received for his physically demanding performance here. From the very first scene we see him face one obstacle after another as the opening sequence takes place while he is being attacked by a group of indians during a fur trading expedition. It's not much later when the much commented bear mauling scene takes place, but that is only the beginning of his struggles. DiCaprio gives it his all and even though this isn't the best performance of his career, it will finally be the one that gives him the Oscar. Tom Hardy also delivers a fantastic supporting performance as John Fitzgerald, the man who wants to leave him behind. The film ends up feeling like one long chase in a similar way as Mad Max Fury Road, although at a much slower pace. A survival/revenge film like this has never looked so beautiful. The film is a bit too long and it eventually begins to wear down, but it's a constant feast to the eyes despite the exhaustion. 

5 feb. 2016

Room (9/10): Harrowing film powered by two wonderful performances

"When I was small, I only knew small things. But now I'm five, I know everything!"

It doesn't feel right to call Lenny Abrahamson's latest film a small one because it is such a rewarding and emotional experience. Yes, it is a low key and small scaled film, but it has such a profound impact on the audience that it is far from being small. The first half of the film takes place in a very confined space, which makes the second half of the movie even more rewarding as the world around these two protagonists expands. Very few times in film has a director captured such an interesting and authentic mother and son dynamic as we find here with Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay's performances. Larson is guaranteed to win the Oscar for her lead role here and she fully deserves it as this mother who has endured the worst of times, but found a means of surviving through her son. She truly lives a nightmare, but Abrahamson doesn't focus on that as much as he does at making us experience their  world through the young son's eyes. He is innocent and has never seen the world outside of the small room in which he unknowingly has been held captive since his birth. His mother has done everything she can to give him a happy and normal life despite the situation. Tremblay delivers an equally impressive performance, and his young age shouldn't have been a factor when it came to voting for the best performances of the year. He was outstanding and held his own in each scene he shared with Larson. The two performances are the main reason why Room has achieved such greatness. 

Room is based on Emma Donoghue's best selling novel about a 5 year old boy who experiences the world in the confined space of a small room. The only person he has direct contact with is his mother. His only contact with the outside world is through a small TV, but his mother has told him that the images are of other universes far from theirs. Jack also knows there is one other person that exists in their world, as some nights a visitor comes into the room from a locked door, but his mom orders him to keep away from him and stay in his wardrobe. Jack's mother has done her best to give him love and nurture, but as his curiosity begins to grow there is only so far she can go with her story. What will happen when young Jack realizes that there is actually more to the world than the small room in which they have been confined in? What follows is a deeply emotional and profound thriller that shook me to my core. 

Lenny Abrahamson is known for delivering original and unconventional stories. Previously to Room he had directed Michael Fassbender in Frank, a film in which the main protagonist wore a giant paper-mache mask throughout the story. Room however goes a step further delivering a thriller in a very unconventional way as we get to experience the harrowing events through the innocence of a five year old boy and the depths his mother goes through to give him a normal life. From the very opening scene we know there is nothing normal about their lifestyle, but at the same time the film avoids the typical atmosphere we are used to seeing in crime related films. I don't want to say too much about Room because the less you know about it the better, but the second half delivers even more thrills and engages the audience with even more to ponder about. Finding freedom is only have of the battle, and most of the time these films fail to focus on it, but Room manages to deliver on both ends. This is an effective and powerful film and I'm finding it incredibly hard to put into words how much it affected me. 

99 Homes (8/10): A modern day companion to WallStreet

"Don't get emotional about real estate."

99 Homes is a powerful drama that resonates with the current economic state of the United States in the same way that Wall Street did in the 80's. Michael Shannon's Rick Carver as a realtor who makes his living by evicting families from their homes and cheating on the bank system, is in a way the modern Gordon Gekko (a character that turned Michael Douglas into an iconic figure for business people around the globe). 99 Homes is a morality play and a film about greed which poses interesting questions as to how far one would go to achieve the American dream. The film could be a great companion to McKay's The Big Short which focused on the housing bubble collapse, although this film focuses exclusively on the real estate brokers who managed to make a fortune upon the disgrace of the hard working blue collar families. Director, Ramin Bahrani, however doesn't try to turn Carver into a charismatic character. He is a greedy, selfish, calculating, and cold blooded man who doesn't care one bit about the families he is evicting from their homes. There is no glorification of his character whatsoever and it truly shows what kind of person you have to be to live with such low morals. 

Andrew Garfield's Dennis Nash on the other hand is the character the audience can relate to because he goes through a deep struggle as Carver's protege to accept his new line of work. Dennis was a former construction worker who due to the real estate crisis is left without a job. He lives with his mother, Lynn (Laura Dern), and his young son Connor (Noah Lomax) in the family home he's always grown up in. Unfortunately due to the current economic situation he is evicted from his home by Carver who shows up at his door and gives him two minutes to take his belongings and move out. As much as he hates the situation there isn't anything he can do so he is forced to relocate his family in a nearby cheap motel. After realizing his tools are missing during the eviction, Dennis goes to confront one of Carver's handymen. Dennis arrives at the right time because a crisis ensues and Carver realizes that his construction experience can come in handy. Despite not liking his boss one bit, Dennis begins to realize there is an easy way to make money and he justifies his actions by wanting to give his son a better life. The question then becomes how far Dennis will be willing to go to be like the man he despises.

Ramin Bahrani isn't a director that many people know because he has made several small independent films, but if you were an avid reader of Roger Ebert's film reviews then you know Bahrani was one of those small directors that he had high praise for. That is how I actually ended up hearing about his movies and decided to check out Goodbye Solo, a film focusing on two strangers who form an unlikely bond. Bahrani is passionate about delivering social films and you can see traces of it here in this much bigger film. The cast elevates the material even more as both Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon deliver superb performances. There was even some talk of Shannon receiving an Oscar nomination, but his work was overlooked once again. 99 Homes works as a morality play but it still is concerned on the social issues present in today's world. It might not have the same character development and dynamics that we saw in Goodbye Solo, but that is because there is so much more suspense and thrills going on here. I personally prefer his smaller films, but this was a memorable film that still remains provocative and resonant in today's economy.

2 feb. 2016

Carol (7/10): Haynes delivers a subtle and stylistic period piece

¨I don't know what I want. How could I know what I want if I say yes to everything?¨

Todd Haynes´s critically acclaimed film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith´s novel (The Price of Salt) is without a doubt very stylish. It is a love story between two women who fall for each other at first sight, although it avoids all the common cliches in the romantic genre. Mostly because the script says very little and everything is told through nonverbal expressions such as glances and touches. It is very restrained and sets the mood very early on transporting the audience to the 50´s thanks to a carefully crafted production and costume design. What´s more impressive is that it does so effortlessly. Carol is a restrained film, but one that Haynes has absolute control over setting the mood from the very first scene. I wasn´t won over by this film as most everyone else seems to be, but I can understand the praise for Hayne´s direction. What I do want to point out is how influential the score of this film is; it truly is something special and it plays a huge role in setting the mood. It is one of the best scores I´ve heard in a film this year. 

The film centers on a store clerk named Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara)  who doesn´t seem to know what direction she wants to take in life. Her passion seems to be photography and that is what she enjoys doing. Her life changes unexpectedly when she encounters an older woman named Carol (Cate Blanchett) who stops by the store one evening to buy a Christmas gift for her child. The two exchange glances at each other and after a few minutes Carol shows up at the register and starts a conversation with her. Carol is currently going through a divorce from Harge (Kyle Chandler), and is in a custody battle for her child. Harge begins discrediting her morality after he discovers her interest in women and uses that to his advantage, but Carol is a determined mother.  Therese quickly bonds with Carol, but at the same time she realizes her love could affect her custody battle. 

Carol wasn´t nominated for Best Picture as many critics were expecting, but it has received six Oscar nominations. Ironically, Cate Blanchett was nominated in the best actress in a leading role category despite having less screen time than Rooney Mara who was nominated in the supporting category. It doesn´t make much sense, but it has increased Rooney´s chances for winning considering Brie Larson is almost a lock to win for her lead performance in The Room. The other nominations for Carol include Best Score, Best Cinematography, and Best Adapted Screenplay which are all deserving. The film stands out without a doubt for its stylistic direction from Haynes and wonderful performances from Blanchett and Rooney, but above all for its mesmerizing score. 

30 ene. 2016

The Danish Girl (6/10): Strong performances, but familiar biopic.

"I love you, because you are the only person who made sense of me. And made me, possible."

Tom Hooper's latest film is a fictionalized portrayal of real life Danish artists Einar and Gerda Wegener. It is a period piece that reimagines the love story between these two artists. Einar who later becomes Lili is recognized as one of the pioneers in transgender, but the film takes many liberties and is far from representing the true relationship between the artists. Alicia Vikander plays Gerda, the artist who painted her husband as a lady. Eddie Redmayne is Einar Wegener, who after enjoying the transformation in his wife's painting discovers himself as Lili. The film focuses on the couple's struggle to accept these changes, although history proves that this depicted love story is far from true. David Ebershoff's novel takes several liberties, ignoring the fact that Gerda herself was a lesbian. 

Now that I got that settled and out of the way, I can focus on the film itself. It is a formulaic biopic that does little to stand out from other period pieces. This is my fourth Tom Hooper film and despite being gorgeously filmed, I found it to be one of his weakest efforts. My favorite from him continues to be The Damned Untied, which ironically was the first film from him I've seen. The King's Speech and Les Miserables were also movies I enjoyed, but to a lesser degree. The Danish Girl has a fantastic production design, but it stands out exclusively for its two lead performances. Both Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander are superb and worthy of their Oscar nominations. Redmayne comes fresh out of his Oscar win for portraying Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, but I think his performance here is even better and just as physically demanding as his previous one. He probably won't win, but I think this performance is stronger. Vikander has had a wonderful year after her stunning performance in Ex Machina. Here she gets to shine along Redmayne and even steals several scenes from him. Ever since I first saw her in the Danish film, A Royal Affair, I've always been a fan of Vikander's work. This might be her best performance to date, but competing against Kate Winslet in the supporting category for this year's Oscar will make it hard for her to stand a chance.  The Danish Girl is worth the watch for the strong performances alone, but there isn't much more to the story. I found the pacing a bit dull and lost interest in the story halfway through. The Danish Girl is a forgettable formulaic biopic, but it's worth the watch for the fantastic performances.

29 ene. 2016

Spotlight (9/10): A Love Letter to Investigative Journalism

"It could have been you, it could have been me, it could have been any of us. We gotta nail these scumbags! We gotta show people that nobody can get away with this; Not a priest, or a cardinal or a freaking pope!"

Good investigative journalism is a dying medium in today's world where most media outlets are in a rush to get the exclusive and tell the story first. The same could be said for the film industry, but there are always exceptions because for every dozens of films like Alvin and the Chipmunks, we get a Spotlight. Director, Tom McCarthy, takes his time to tell this brilliant true story through a tight script that slowly begins to uncover the truth behind one of the Catholic Church's greatest cover-ups. It is a reminder of how important good journalism can be in today's world. Hopefully after watching Spotlight more people will begin reading their news from trusty newspapers instead of simply reading headlines from any internet article. It was refreshing to see a film like this portraying what good journalism is all about without taking any shortcuts. As a communication major the subject matter really appealed to me and I felt very emotional during a couple of scenes. McCarthy did a fantastic job at going through the every day ordeal of investigating. If you notice there is barely any reference towards these characters backgrounds or their family life. The entire film focuses entirely on their profession and that is what makes this such a powerful film because it avoids any kind of manipulation into character development. I loved the attention to detail that McCarthy brought to the film and how he decided to exclusively build it all around the investigation.

Bringing the true events of an investigation concerning the child molestation cover-up by the Catholic Church to life in a film might not seem like an interesting subject matter, but McCarthy handles the material with grace. He manages to slowly build the tension by going through the everyday ordeals of serious journalism. Spotlight is the name given to the investigative section of the Globe comprised of four reporters that take their time to research an important issue and build a compelling story. In this case they discover a link between several child molestation incidents with some priests from the Boston area and how the Church has repeatedly covered up for them by simply relocating them to other areas. These four reporters are given the gigantic task of trying to unmask this secretly huge system of defense built by the Catholic Church. The film accomplishes what it sets out to do from the first frame and it delivers one of the best films about investigative journalism in years. 

This is a team effort, there are no lead performances in this film. Michael Keaton might be the leader of the Spotlight team, but Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d'Arcy James all deliver strong performances. Ruffalo has received much of the acclaim because he has some of the more emotional moments on screen, and that verbal standoff off with Keaton is powerful, but everyone on screen delivers solid performances. Liev Schreiber is also outstanding as the new editor in chief who arrives at the Globe and comes up with the idea for the story. And Stanley Tucci of course is always mesmerizing any time he's on screen. Spotlight has probably my favorite ensemble cast of the year. I was a huge fan of this film and of course comparisons with All The President's Men are justified.

23 ene. 2016

The Big Short (9/10): Economics for Dummies

"Everyone, deep in their hearts, is waiting for the end of the world to come."

The Big Short is such a refreshing and surprising film because it manages to perfectly balance a difficult subject matter and make it entertaining. It is perhaps one of the most important films made this year reminding us of the worldwide economic breakdown that began in 2007 and left millions of people without their life savings. Many of us don't understand much about economics or how it works, and that is why we have been so eager to forget what happened and continue moving on as if nothing ever happened. This film refreshes our memory and reminds us of what a terrible crime was committed during the housing bubble collapse. The film centers on the few men who recognized the problem early on and took advantage of the situation. The Big Short is a dramatic movie, there is no doubt about it, but it also manages to include some comedic moments by breaking the fourth wall and including pop culture figures to explain some of the more complicated financial terms. It does it in a brilliant way and it's been a while since I've seen a film break the fourth wall as well as this one did. I've seen many documentaries on this subject, but this film manages to explain things better and open our eyes to the dangers we might face again in the future because we've ignored the real problem and seem to be repeating the same mistakes once again. Mckay manages to infuriate and open our eyes while entertaining us at the same time with an engaging film thanks to a witty adapted script which he helped co-write with Charles Randolph.

It's not the first time that a film based on a Micheal Lewis novel manages to draw in an audience that doesn't necessarily need to comprehend the subject matter. You could be clueless about baseball, but in Moneyball the story still managed to engage a worldwide audience. The same can be said about this film because the economic terms are explained in a simple way. That is why I believe this is one of the most important films of the year because it allows even those that never seemed interested in economics to understand how it still affects them. It is an eye opening film for those that felt uninterested in trying to understand what happened in 2007. If there is one film that audiences should see this year then this might just be the one (not for its technical or artistic value, but for the importance of its subject matter). 

The Big Short is Adam McKay's dramatic directorial debut and his background in comedy is what probably helped this film become more accesible. The man who brought us Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, and The Other Guys, now brings us a thought provoking film. He's received two Oscar nominations (directing and writing) for his work here and what an impressive film he has crafted. The film is heavy on dialogue, but the script is so perfectly written that each character in this film becomes memorable. The performances are outstanding which simply proves what a key element writing is for an actor. It was refreshing to see Ryan Gosling back again after his retirement from the big screen for two years. He plays the charismatic character he could easily play in his sleep, but he is still a delight to watch. He delivers a solid role, but out of the four big names it was Steve Carell who stood out. He gets the best dramatic moments and lights up each scene he enters in. Brad Pitt has a smaller role but he makes perfect use of his screen time with an understated performance. Christian Bale is the only actor who received a nomination for his performance in this film and it is well deserved. He plays a socially awkward character and totally sells it. There are films where there are so many big names that no one really gets to shine, but this film manages to make every character memorable thanks to the wonderful script. 

8 ene. 2016

Pan (4/10): All visuals, but no heart

“If you don't believe, Peter, then neither will they.”

It seems that every decade there is a new attempt at bringing Peter Pan back to life wether it be a reimagining of the classic tale or a prequel. This time it was Joe Wright’s turn to give us an origin story of Peter Pan and how he arrived at Neverland. The concept seemed pretty interesting considering Pan is such a fascinating character, and Joe Wright who delivered solid films like Pride and Prejudice and Atonement seemed to be the perfect man for the job. That is why Pan was among my most anticipated films of the year, although that anticipation began to wear down once the first reviews starting coming in. The visuals are quite mesmerizing, but the problem with Pan has more to do with the narrative structure of the film. Pan is such a lovable character, but here he seems to lack that charm that made kids fall in love with his childish and wacky behavior. This Pan seems more mature and not very mischievous. He is in search of his mother and is trying to find meaning to his existence. But that approach sort of takes the fun out of his character. However, the choice of including Hook as an ally was pretty engaging. I liked that element of the story, but that was about it. Hook and Pan have a solid relationship in the film, but it never takes center stage and the action scenes kind of eclipse any attempt of establishing these characters. Hugh Jackman rarely works for me as a villain since he seems to go over the top with these characters at times. Blackbeard was not the exception for Jackman. Rooney Mara seemed like the perfect choice for Tiger Lily, but her character is never given much opportunity in the film and I thought it was a waste of talent. Pan seemed to have all the right ingredients to become a success but from the moment Peter arrives at Neverland to the sound of miners chanting Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, all the magic disappeared. 

I wouldn’t blame the film’s lack of heart on its cast because I thought there were some strong performances. Levi Miller did a good job playing the title character, but the problem is that this Peter simply wasn’t childish and lively as the ones we are used to seeing him in. Adeel Akhtar was given the task of playing Sam Smiegel and in my opinion his character was the closest to the cartoon. Of course here Hook is playing Peter’s friend so he is nothing like we are used to seeing. Garret Hedlund gives the best performance of the film and I think that his character would’ve been a more fascinating character study. We could have used more of his origin story and then explore reasons as to why he ultimately became the Hook we all know. The cast and the visuals were all very satisfactory, but the narrative elements are what ultimately hurt this film and didn’t allow it to take off the way I would’ve wanted it to. Pan was definitely a disappointment for me, and it just goes to prove how difficult it is to bring Neverland to life. I’m in the minority here, but I think that Spielberg’s Hook is the best adaptation of the story. Watch that instead. 

22 dic. 2015

The Martian (8/10): Let's talk science!

“I don't want to come off as arrogant here, but I'm the greatest botanist on this planet.”

Ridley Scott’s latest film, The Martian, is an intelligently crafted science fiction drama that takes on the form of a problem-solving movie in a very nerdy way. It is not an easy movie to sell considering it is very talkative and there is a lot of science involved, but Drew Goddard’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel is quite captivating. There is no denying that the true star of the film is Matt Damon who basically manages to put on a one-man show in Mars and deliver a very entertaining performance in a similar way to what Tom Hanks did in Castaway. Although this film does give much more screen time to the characters back home as they try to communicate and find a way to bring their astronaut back, but it is Damon who really stands out. The film has been nominated for the Golden Globes for best comedy and although I don’t agree with that designation it is Damon who delivers the comedy through his charismatic performance as he faces each new struggle in quite a light and positive way. The movie is a drama more than anything else and it carefully studies every scenario of what could go wrong in Mars and presents interesting solutions to those problems. Ultimately that is what makes this film stand out from other space films which Ridley himself has directed. This is a different kind of movie, a survival film with brains that respects its audience and doesn’t try to include any fantastical elements for entertainment purposes (not that I have a problem with it since I was a huge fan of Prometheus, but this is a completely different genre).

Matt Damon gets all the credit for his charismatic performance as Mark Watney, the astronaut who is abandoned in Mars after a storm breaks out and his crew is forced to leave him behind, but the supporting cast is quite impressive as well. Jessica Chastain is Melissa Lewis, the astronaut in charge of the mission who has to make the fatal decision. The rest of the crew members are Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Chis Beck (Sebastian Stan), and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie). They don’t get much screen time, but they are each given their moment and it is enough to know what motivates their decisions. I would’ve enjoyed to spend more time with these characters considering the cast is wonderful, but Matt Damon doesn’t even give us time to miss them. The focus is on his character and he delivers every line to perfection. We are instantly drawn to his character and we identify with his struggle to survive. Back home at NASA headquarters we are also introduced to several characters who are doing the best they can to bring Mark home. Jeff Daniels is Teddy Sanders, the man responsible for any decision taken as the NASA director, Kristen Wiig is Annie Montrose, the director of Media Relations who is trying to save face in the midst of the situation, Sean Bean is Mitch Henderson, the flight director who is in contact with Watney’s crew as they are returning home, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is Vincent Kapoor, the mission director. It’s surprising how Ridley Scott manages to include all these characters in the film and give them a unique personality as they all join forces to come up with the best solution. Daniels plays a very similar character to who he plays in The Newsroom, but if you only know him from Dumb and Dumber than you are in for a treat.   

When I first heard about this movie I was a bit worried about the effects that recent space films like Interstellar (which also starred Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain), Prometheus (which was directed by Ridley Scott), or Gravity might have on The Martian considering the space theme. To my surprise, the film stands out from the very opening scene as it takes a totally different approach and focuses more on Mark’s survival skills and his wit. He is a very charismatic character who easily pulls you in to his conflict and allows you to participate in the problem-solution process. This isn’t about special effects, it is about intelligent people getting together to come up with a solution.