Months in review: films, Academy Awards, #Metoo and a rough start to 2018 (part 2)

This is a continuation of my previous post. Below my short impressions on the films I watched in February.

MUNE: GUARDIAN OF THE MOON (2014) [ 3/5 ]

There is a lot to love about this charming animated film. It is, after all, capable of building a world that is beautiful, interesting and new. There is, however, a problem in its execution, rushing through its story without giving the characters their due.

Without the kind of promotion that usually backs a feature-length animated film these days, Mune shows both sides of Hollywood: one willing to give opportunities to unconventional ideas, and one that, upon second look, decides to withdraw its support to cut a potential loss at the box office.

BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961) [ 3.5/5 ]

Finally caught up with one of many blindspots that had gathered plenty of dust in my must-watch list for many years.

The film owes much of its success and continued relevance to the effortless elegance of Audrey Hepburn, who captured the imagination of the public back in the early 1960s with what I call “casual sexiness”. In the wake of the country’s sexual liberation, it is well documented that Truman Capote, the author of the novel the film is based on, wanted Marilyn Monroe for the lead role, but the studio sought a less racy image, taking on subjects like prostitution with a casual, almost lighthearted tone. In doing so, Breakfast at Tiffanny’s surprisingly succeeded, becoming an American film with an European flavor where subjects that were still taboo in Hollywood were suddenly made appetible due to an approachable script and the lightheartedness of the performances.

45 YEARS (2015) [ 4/5 ]

After watching the austere realism of 45 Years, I felt I needed a comedic and hopelessly romantic cleanse. This is a story about a loving marriage that has survived the years until a letter arrives at the mail to disrupt it, eating away at its foundations day by day, and reminding us of the fragility of love and companionship.

The film is a minimal and naturalistic effort by director Andrew Haigh, whose previous work also includes the touching gay romance Weekend. In 45 Years, the camerawork is intimate yet unobtrusive, acting like a respectful window into a marriage that hints at its ever-increasing troubles.

Though interested in the marriage as a whole, 45 Years is singularly focused on Charlotte Rampling’s beautifully nuanced and naturalistic performance as Kate Mercer.

The remarkable thing about the film is that we see the marriage crumble not through big gestures, or through a series of sudden discoveries, but through Kate’s gradual realization that everything about their long relationship may have been a farce.

Heartbreaking stuff.

DARKEST HOUR (2017) [ 3/5 ]

There used to be a time not long ago when films like Darkest Hour would get my wholehearted approval. It is, after all, a movie that hits most of the right notes, with a superb lead performance by Gary Oldman, a cinematography that gives the film gravitas, and a script that remains interesting throughout.

The problem with Darkest Hour lies in its tendency to overstate and overdo, coming across as typical Oscar bait. Though Oldman’s performance is exactly what the film asked for, his cadence, mannerisms and conversations are all driven by the director’s attempt to give Churchill’s most crucial moments as the UK’s Prime Minister all the weight and importance history has assigned them. Rarely does Darkest Hour take a step back to reveal the man behind the myth, but when it does, the film does manage to be poignant.

THE DOUBLE (2011) [ 1.5/5 ]

On a recent roundtable for the Hollywood Reporter the acclaimed director Ridley Scott suggested that the first indication he looks for when reading scripts is that the names given to the characters work. In The Double, the name “Cassius” is used at least twenty times to refer to a mysterious Soviet assassin who has resurfaced after years of inactivity. Like the unintentionally comedic name it constantly repeats, the rest of the film feels like an immature and unimaginative attempt to make a spy thriller with very little intrigue.

Typically I am not quick to criticize actors, but both Richard Gere and Topher Grace are absolutely terrible here, while the talent of Martin Sheen is utterly wasted in a completely forgettable role.

IRREPLACEABLE YOU (2018) [ 2.5/5 ]

Much like Darkest Hour felt like Oscar bait, this Netflix Original film doubles down on melodrama to stimulate our tear ducts.

One of several problems with the film is that I felt more of a connection to the cross-generational friendship that develops between Abbie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s) and Myron (a charming Christopher Walken), than to the lovers our hearts should break for.

As sweet as Irreplaceable You can be, the film’s central premise is far-fetched and poorly conceived. It does not help that I never bought into the central love story since the leads spend very little time together on screen and have little chemistry when they do.

LADY BIRD (2017) [ 3.5/5 ]

As a piece of writing, Lady Bird has very few equals in the 2017 film class.

Greta Gerwig’s semi-biographical script has the quality that many only wish to have: it feels genuine and true. Every character at the center of the story is a complex array of emotions and contradictions. A very good Saoirse Ronan plays the title role as a young girl that is, like most teens, both egocentric and empathetic, emotional and distant, rebellious and nostalgic. Her eyes filled with youthful energy and hope, but also with plenty of doubt and angst. Her mother, in a career-best performance by Laurie Metcalf, is an antagonist of sorts, except that she displays her love through disapproval and discipline.

Gerwig’s writing avoids the common pitfalls of the genre, avoiding cliche at every turn, but it is often too precise a script to allow enough room for the characters to unshackle themselves from the overarching design.

Let’s just say that I was conscious of the decisions Greta Gerwig was making with her story right as she was making them, only allowing emotion to overpower the screen on a couple of occasions. I wish the story felt a bit more organic.

BLACK PANTHER (2018) [ 3.5/5 ]

Ryan Coogler’s treatment of Marvel’s Black Panther is a confident and promising stamp in the overstuffed genre of the superhero film. Coogler has made a film not just about a black superhero, but about an entire country filled with heroes who could teach a thing or two to the rest of the world. The script, based on the original comic, is rich with details that contribute to world-building and that make its social metaphors all the more effective.

Though much of the film offers plenty to “marvel” at, Coogler’s inexperience handling and staging big action sequences hurt the film, lacking the kind of finesse and kinetic energy than other directors could have accomplished with the material. Still, narratively speaking, Coogler’s adaptation of the Marvel comic is perhaps the best that has been produced for the big screen.

GOOD TIME (2017) [ 4/5 ]

The Safdie brothers, co-directors of the frenetically-paced Good Time have made their name in indie circles with micro-budget passion projects that are described as bold examples of guerrilla filmmaking, often self-funded and shot on location without permits.

The difference between those projects and Good Time is that on this occasion, a young movie star, a surprisingly riveting Robert Pattison, attached itself to the Safdie brothers, giving the project enough clout and exposure to be seen and funded, albeit modestly.

The film reminded me of a young Scorsese or Cassavetes film. It has some of the inelegant and unfiltered 1970s quality that grounds it to reality.

The actors are not the kind that you would typically associate to a feature film with the exception of Pattison, whose dirty and disheveled appearance doesn’t completely hide his natural magnetism. He is both hero and antihero, constantly surprising us, hinting at decency, but ultimately doomed by the impulsiveness of his decisions.

Good Time is also the kind of filmmaking I crave: completely unique and unpretentious, with clear intentions and a distinct point of view. The paranoia and near-brilliant survival instincts of Pattison’s Connie Nikas are entirely palpable and, at times, the film proves to be overwhelming to watch.

I can’t wait to see what is next for the Safdie brothers.

Thanks for reading.

Months in review: films, Academy Awards, #Metoo and a rough start to 2018 (part 1)

After some minor health issues that have marked the beginning of my 2018, I am pleased to be able to come back to this blog if not with perfect health, at least with the knowledge that my afflictions are fixable and temporary.

I return with optimism because great changes at a personal level may come in 2018 should everything go well and I stay focused.

On the 90th Academy Awards…

Last week also brought us the 90th edition of the Academy Awards, which were, in my humble opinion, better than usual, both as a television event and as driver of taste in film. Though I did not agree with some of the choices, specially with the Best Picture category, I cannot say I was frustrated with any of the winners, which were all good and worthy films.

My favorite moment of the night goes to Jordan Peele’s victory for his stupendous work writing Get Out’s script. It was not only a historic win for African American filmmaking, but a genuinely moving moment where Peele seemed to be overwhelmed by the impact of his success.

On the #metoo movement…

I must admit, when the allegations began to extend beyond Harvey Weinstein, I recoiled.

As a man it had never occurred to me that women could and should aspire to live in a world where they don’t have to constantly be the subject of unwanted advances or unkind remarks. It was, in all honesty, a total lack of imagination on my part. We must no longer accept the status quo and disregard the point of view of many women who were put in impossible and grotesque situations by unscrupulous men in positions of power.

There are, however, important differences between the cases. While Weinstein is a despicable human by all accounts who used his power to abuse, harass and even rape (allegedly), there are cases like that of Gary Oldman (who won an Oscar this past weekend) who was publicly accused of domestic violence by an ex-wife in the weeks leading to the Academy Awards. Oldman has never had to fight against any other similar allegations, and was never criminally accused by his wife. Now, I’m not saying it did not happen. What I am saying is that I am not sure if the allegations immediately disqualify him from being a recipient of an Oscar, which some people seemed to suggest. Though we want justice and are right to publicly denounce sexual abuse, there is a fine balance between exposure and holding public trials that make it impossible for the accused to exercise their right to work.

Everyone, regardless of the crime they are being accused of, should be able to have their day in court and, in my opinion, it’s not fair to destroy their public image as soon as one person accuses them of any wrongdoing.

I believe most of the allegations leveled at many famous men in Hollywood, but should we really oppose their right to work? Is inappropriate sexual behavior (which is different than assault or rape) enough of a reason to ban them from working ever again? Are convicted felons not granted the same right after they complete their sentences?

Let’s hope that this is only the beginning and that men, including myself, start to fully assume the responsibility to challenge the status quo and declare that “Time is Up!”.

On the last two months of film watching…

As you would expect, my film watching has suffered in 2018. I’ve made space for film, but not as much as I did at the beginning of 2017. Unfortunately, there are many other priorities competing for time and attention, and films will continue to be a privilege in the foreseeable future.

Having said that, January proved to be quite meaningful in that I watched two films, Phantom Thread and Akira, that I loved so much I immediately had to canonize them under the banner of my yet-to-be-published Blog of Big Ideas’ 250 Essential Films. I shall cover the films I watched in February on an upcoming post.

SAVING MR. BANKS (2013) [ 3.5/5 ]

For a film made by Walt Disney Pictures, Saving Mr. Banks pays little deference to the nearly mythical aura that surrounds one of America’s most enduring success stories: the man whose name and signature built the biggest film studio on Earth.

Instead, Saving Mr. Banks is about the writer of the beloved Mary Poppins, played by Emma Thompson. The film explores the difficult and sometimes confrontational relationship between the studio and the artist, which was apparently much worse than portrayed. The film gives us interesting insights about the creative process but, more interestingly, it draws parallels between the writer’s traumatic childhood and the creation of an iconic character.

Ultimately, what I took away was the film’s facile Disney-style sweetness, which came to the fore when the artist behind Mary Poppins finally allowed herself to make the emotional connection to the unlikely genesis of her art: a traumatic childhood.

MACHO (2016) [ 1.5/5 ]

The occasional laughter that is the consequence of such a moronic comedy is quickly erased by Macho’s mishandling of its message of inclusion and acceptance. The film manages to be offensive and reductive from almost its first scene to the last.

The rating could easily be lower, but I don’t think the film was made with bad intentions.

THE FITS (2015) [ 3.5/5 ]

Rather than a feature film, The Fits feels like a surrealist documentary about a little girl who trades the boxing gloves for dancing shoes at her local community center. When she does, each girl in the troupe gets affected by a mysterious affliction, thinning the group away one by one.

Up-and-coming director Ana Rose Holmer gives the film a spectral quality, zeroing on the dark complexions of these teens with the visual tact of films like Moonlight and Mudbound (review below).

AKIRA (1988) [ 4.5/5 ]

Candidate to the Blog of Big Ideas’ Essential 250 Films

Back in 1988, a team of visual artists with a budget of approximately 8 million dollars led by Katsuhiro Otomo release a seminal film in the history of anime that has had an influence that extends well beyond the genre. Akira is a statement to the power of forward motion and kinetic energy in animation and film as a whole. Per the great Roger Ebert, Akira “releases the mind” with infinite possibilities, in which every frame is painstakingly detailed, and where the unexpected comes directly from the hands of talented visual artists.

Though Akira can be accused of succumbing to violence, on most occasions the way violence is staged and designed is nothing but awe-inspiring. The music, which is filled with robotic-like sounds, screeches, alarms and machine hums, lends to the visual freneticism, complementing its dystopian and futuristic setting with confidence.

Akira, which I watched at home, “limited” to a 55” UHD television, is a cinematic journey of such force and visual splendor that I look forward to the day in which I will be able to watch it on the big screen.

PHANTOM THREAD (2017) [ 4.5/5 ]

Candidate to the Blog of Big Ideas’ Essential 250 Films

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is a crystalline demonstration of his artistry and craft. From the sweeping opening to its devilish ending Phantom Thread flirts with the audience, seducing us into the mystique of its fashionable world until we are willing to participate in and root for the twisted romance between Reynolds Woodcock, an incredible Daniel-Day Lewis, and Alma, the breathtaking Vicky Krieps in a career-making performance.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s characters manage to be both perfect vessels to a story, and individuals that gain dimension and complexity as the film unfolds.

Reynolds as the man-child with mom issues and a taste for beautiful women, and Alma as the seemingly innocent country girl who revels in the artistry of fashion and who is willing to match and surpass Reynolds’ self-delusion.

If that were not enough, Phantom Thread also gives room to the wonderful Leslie Manville in a restrained and mannered performance that ends up being the most grounded and approachable of the bunch; and to composer and virtuous musician Johnny Greenwood who creates a beautiful score that is as accomplished as the one he made for There Will be Blood.

A QUIET PASSION (2016) [ 2.5/5 ]

With this period piece director Terence Davies suffers a similar faith than Stanley Kubrick with Barry Lyndon. Like the great auteur before him, Davies’ made a film so concerned with being a convincing representation of the period that he forgot to give it some life. For most of its running time we witness the degradation of Emily Dickison, whose poetry never gained notoriety while she lived. Often, the film is content enough with conversations that are nothing more than linguistic battles that demonstrate, with increasing tragedy, the inner frustrations of Dickinson as she buries loved ones and lives within the confines of her family home.

The film’s relevance lies almost entirely on technical aspects, no less of which is Cynthia Nixon’s fantastic lead performance.

OUR SOULS AT NIGHT (2017) [ 3/5 ]

Above all else, Our Souls at Night is a chance, perhaps the last, to watch two legendary actors like Robert Redford and Jane Fonda feed off each other on screen and deliver two very solid performances. Without their chemistry and delivery Our Souls at Night would succumb to the pace and modesty of the reality it introduces us to, even if the script is charming and sweet enough to bake a batch of Apple pies.

MUDBOUND (2017) [ 4/5 ]

In the age of #metoo and #oscarssowhite, Mudbound feels like a statement that shows to reluctant film studios that there are infinite stories waiting to be told from the perspective of those whose voices have been marginalized.

African American director Dee Rees presents us with a Mississippi we had not seen in film. Hers is as beautiful as it is unforgiving, relentless with its rain and its mud. The people, white and black, bound by the land, even if the majority resists and fights the need for union and harmony. Dee Rees gives light and humanity to the black and white family in equal measure, highlighting the love and hope of the first, and the selfishness and despair of the second.

Mudbound is also a beautiful story, filled with characters we can empathize and antogonize with, wrapping around you and never letting go. One of the best films of 2017.

More short reviews to come in the next post…

Start of awards season! Monthly recap: films of November & December (part 2)

Continued from the previous recap…below a series of short reviews on the second chunk of films watched between November and December of 2017.

ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) [ 3/5 ]

A spy thriller that attempts to be little else. Set at the end of the Cold War as Berliners felt emboldened to retake their city and unite their country, Atomic Blonde rises above mediocrity due to its compelling setting and a very committed performance by Charlize Theron. Otherwise, there is nothing new or particularly surprising about this tale of deceit and survival.

THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) [ 4/5 ]

It comes as no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the career of Guillermo del Toro that he has made a romantic film where a woman meets a man-monster that is clearly reminiscent of the 1954 film The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The beautiful things about Del Toro’s rather simple linear story are all of the supporting elements that enrich it and make the world it’s set in believable. Outside of Sally Hawkins’ beautiful lead performance, there are at least 4 other characters that compete for attention, each with just enough depth and complexity that even the villain (a very good Michael Shannon) comes off as more of a angry and tragic figure than someone we can easily rally against.

Being a Del Toro film, this is also a piece that makes us acutely aware of its context, operating as a believable time capsule to 1950s America.

Ironically, the richness that I just praised is also the reason why The Shape of Water doesn’t find enough time to make the romance at its center come alive completely. There are hints of it blossoming, but it never felt effervescent enough to merit so many characters coming to its defense.

The film also has one of the best creature designs in recent memory, opting for a more tactile, CGI-light presentation.

BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017) [ 4/5 ]

This film should not have worked. Its synopsis would have you believe that it is a rather modest story contained to an uncomfortable dinner party between two very different people whose views clash immediately upon meeting.

What the description doesn’t tell you is that while the film does spend most of its energy around a dinner party, Beatriz (a great Salma Hayek) carries with her a deeply rooted nostalgia that makes all of the recent unfortunate events and dinner party exchanges she has to live through especially poignant. Surprisingly, there are moments in which the movie disengages with reality, taking a sort of metaphysical aura that represents Beatriz’s impressionistic memories of a lost childhood.

Beatriz at Dinner is also a film that is gutsy in its argumentation, taking a clear and unambiguous moral stance that does not feel manufactured, but instead feels like the natural extension of Salma Hayek’s title character.

A surprisingly poetic film that made me reconsider my values.

THE BOSS BABY (2017) [ 3.5/5 ]

Within a silly premise and a rather traditional 3-act family-friendly film structure, the sweetness and originality of Baby Boss surprised me.

I’d recommend it to the parents of young siblings, who may feel abandoned or neglected by the arrival of a baby brother or sister.

HEATHERS (1988) [ 1.5/5 ]

I will never understand why horrible films like Heathers gain a cult following and survive the passage of time.

Unlike more recent teen comedies that are clearly influenced by this 1988 film, Heathers does not seem to be “in” on the joke.

Heathers is so bad that, even if the intention is to poke holes on the self-important walls teenagers tend to build around themselves, it does so without any hint of comedy or artistry.

Both Wynona Rider and Christian Slater deliver amateur performances here.

IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017) [ 3.5/5 ]

The film reasserts one long-held belief in the horror genre that many movies choose to ignore at their peril: fear resides in the unknown and the unseen.

It Comes at Night thrives in close quarters, making use of darkness and poorly-lit rooms to great effect. Joel Edgerton delivers a powerful and uncompromising performance as the head of a family willing to sacrifice every shred of their humanity to save each other from the inevitable.

An elegant and minimalistic horror film that keeps the suspense high and never lets go.

MAN ON THE MOON (1999) [ 3.5/5 ]

As an outsider with very little knowledge about the man behind Andy Kaufman’s unpredictable public persona, this 1999 Milos Forman biopic seems like an adequate, if not entirely enlightening approximation of his unique comedic mind.

While the film didn’t particularly surprise or move me in any way, the thing I could not shake was Jim Carrey’s overwhelmingly committed performance. Now that I have had time to think about the film and watch the documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (reviewed below), I find Carrey’s career always pointed him towards Kaufman.

We never lose sight of Carrey as an actor, but it’s as if we are introduced to an alter-ego that had always been lurking just out of our collective view.

Carrey has been in better films (The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind come to mind), but he has not given a better performance than interpreting Andy Kaufman.

JIM & ANDY: THE GREAT BEYOND (2017) [ 2.5/5 ]

It’s hard to understand what happens to the mind of certain artists after they achieve as much success and fame as Jim Carrey.

In Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond we meet a man whose disheveled hair, unkept beard and monotonous tone scream of depression or, perhaps, total contentment and comfort. As much wisdom or introspection as Carrey wants to share about his experience in the business, especially while shooting Man on the Moon, most of his commentary comes out garbled and messy, without a central theme and without a clear purpose. It is as if we are all invited into the mind of a man whose tales about the process of acting all come attached with a bit of disinterest and detachment. My question is, if our narrator does not care much, then why should we?

The film also doesn’t help itself. The most interesting bits focus on the extreme method acting of Carrey during the filming of Man on the Moon, but it often gets sidetracked, giving us a mixture of nostalgia and false wisdom that never sticks.

At the end and away from the camera Carrey seems to have a moment of clarity that sums up my thoughts about the documentary: “things got a little crazy”. Yes, they did, my friend. Yes, they did. They got crazy in all the wrong ways.

COCO (2017) [ 4/5 ]

The beautiful thing about Coco is that, like Moana, it opens the door to a bright future in animation that finds inspiration and richness in other cultures. No longer do we see bits and pieces of cultural appropriation. Instead, Coco is a distinctly Mexican film that tells us a story about a Mexican family with Mexican traditions following uniquely Mexican dreams, all of which is done tactfully and movingly.

In good Pixar fashion, the film is also beautiful to look at. There is, as you would expect, great attention to world building, rooting the characters in a world filled with magic, and love of family and music.

Coco is a film that oozes with charm.

LOGAN LUCKY (2017) [ 3.5/5 ]

The exacting and mind-twisting nature of Steven Soderbergh has not receded in the least over the years and Logan Lucky is proof of that.

While the similarities with the Ocean’s Eleven films are clear and impossible to miss, Logan Lucky nails its brand of silly, and even downright stupid humor in ways that the Ocean movies only occasionally did.

Playing second fiddle to Channing Tatum’s limping construction worker are Adam Driver, as his bartender brother with a prosthetic arm, and a very blonde Daniel Craig, as a convicted felon and expert vault breaker. They’re both downright hilarious, playing silly fools that can keep a straight face through every situation.

Apart from the sometimes hilarious shenanigans of the heist, Logan Lucky’s attempt at giving the film some emotional backbone falls flat. At the end, however, the pure thrill of seeing them succeed was enough to keep me engaged.

BRIGHT (2017) [ 2/5 ]

Bright is the kind of mess that comes when you put together an immature script with a filmmaker that refuses to make the film that is written on paper.

Bright is an erratic mess that is seemingly interested in making larger social statements, whilst lacking the nuance to do it tastefully.

At the same time, Bright is awfully concerned with world-building, throwing new elements to the story at every stage but without much backstory or attention to detail to make sense of it all.

It is a film that gets lost in its many goals. It is an unfunny buddy-cop movie; a socially conscious movie that manages to be offensive at times; a fantasy film that is a mesh of many ideas thrown together almost at random; and a violent thriller that doesn’t thrill or even amuse. An unfortunate misfire by director David Ayer whose previous credits include the very good End of Watch.

CAROL (2015) [ 4/5 ]

It is rare to see a movie be courageous enough to build a relationship from the ground up, starting with a simple look, or a touch or a gesture, and spending a significant amount of time developing these characters with the kind of human complexity that can only be found in great scripts.

If that were not enough, the film is beautiful to look at, creating a tangible atmosphere where we see two great actresses at their best; on the one hand the youthful beauty of Rooney Mara and, in the other, the timeless elegance of Cate Blanchett.

One of the best films of 2015.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017) [ 3.5/5 ]

There is plenty to love and plenty to dislike about the latest entry in Hollywood’s most successful big screen saga.

The good: Rian Johnson’s visual artistry, the strong performances by the younger new faces, and the spectacular action sequences that are beautifully choreographed and epically constructed.

The bad: Mark Hamill’s moody performance, some of the questionable script decisions and in the plot avenues that did not quite succeed (such as finding a code breaker in a rich casino-like world)

Still, it managed to keep me engaged and excited for what is yet to come in the franchise.

WIND RIVER (2017) [ 3/5 ]

Though I appreciate the film’s intentions and cinematic craftsmanship, Wind River fails mostly in the details, with a script that doesn’t trust audiences enough to make our own conclusions.

Anyone care to point out why we couldn’t just have a native American in the lead role? Hasn’t the box office proven studios wrong time and time again about white-washing acting ensembles?

Enjoy the Awards Season everyone…

Happy 2018! Monthly recap: November & December films (part 1)

In Chicago we welcomed the new year like most years: wishing we could hibernate to keep our core body heat at a reliable level. It has been absurdly cold for the better part of 3 weeks now, with frigid winds blowing from the northwest through Christmas and New Years Eve.

The marriage of free time, the holidays and freezing weather did allow for some productive film watching though. Thanks to a very productive December, I reached and surpassed a goal I had set for myself at the beginning of 2017: to watch at least 120 films, or the equivalent of 10 per month. At the end, I reached 124, which improves my 2016 tally by 18 films.

Without further ado, I give you my thoughts on all of the new films I have seen since November 1st. To keep it manageable, I will break my monthly recap in two parts in the order in which the films were seen. You’ll find part 2 posted in a couple of days.

WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY (2017) [ 2.5/5 ]

7 days and 7 sisters named after each day of the week, all identical twins, all played by Noomi Rapace sporting different clothes, hairdos and personalities. They all live secluded in an apartment on an alternate future where overpopulation has forced the hand of those in power to enforce a strict one-child rule that, should it be broken, will see any younger sibling sent to a less than auspicious cryogenic sleep bank.

I have several issues with the film, too many to number them all here. Chief among them is that it never becomes about anything other than escaping death for each of the siblings after being caught living under a seemingly perfect disguise. We don’t end up caring for any of them, since they’re even hard to differentiate, so the film just felt like a series of sequences where things blew up and people got hurt. A disappointment.

13TH (2016) [ 4/5 ]

As a liberal with some moderate socio-economic views, I found some of what 13th argues somewhat impeachable. Agree or not, 13th is a point of view, a justified and tragic one that deserves sociological and political study and attention.

Leaving politics aside, the cinematic journey Ava DeVurney’s takes us in is a powerfully constructed account of pervasive racism in the United States in the 20th and 21st century.

Beyond Ava’s impeccable construction, there is nothing particularly original about her presentation. To watch 13th, however, is to understand this is not an experimentation in filmmaking, but a crystalline distillation of a long list of African American tragedies and grievances.

COLOSSAL (2016) [ 3/5 ]

Nacho Vigalondo’s film is surprising in that it uses a completely bonkers and silly idea to dramatic effect. I enjoyed Colossal’s underlying message of female reassertion and empowerment, but I found myself questioning a few of the film’s choices along the way. I was also unimpressed at some of the details, like the weak creature design, or the inconsistent rules that governed the fantastical aspects of the film.

BECOMING ZLATAN [ 3.5/5 ]

The film is a series of interviews and recordings, of which there are many, focusing on the early years of one of world football’s best players: Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

This documentary takes us back to his humble and simple beginnings as a teenager playing in Sweden for his hometown team, and then moving on to a much bigger stage, as the main attacker in the talent-rich Ajax of Amsterdam. The film is effective in showing a very human side of Zlatan, with all of his swagger and confidence, but also with the kind of humility of purpose that is much less discussed and that is common to find in almost every great athlete.

At the end, what I took away were the struggles that come with being in the spotlight, especially if you are a young adult trying to rise to meet your true potential while the world watches.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017) [ 3/5 ]

A lush and overabundant remake directed without reservations by Sir Kenneth Branagh. The film rehashes the classic Agatha Christie murder mystery with a remarkable cast that is, in many ways, the equivalent in popular appeal to the original cast from the 1970s film. Aside from an improved Hercule Poirot, Branagh’s direction is too neat and too polished, always opting for the grand and unnecessary gesture, making changes to the original film that feel void of value.

SEXO, PUDOR Y LAGRIMAS (1999) [ 3.5/5 ]

As I said in my “recap of 2017” post, this film relishes every opportunity to be irreverent, bold and sexy, all in the service of comedy. At the end, I felt amused, even if not entirely convinced about the artistic merits of the film.

3 BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) [ 4/5 ]

3 Billboards manages the great feat of being both hilarious and emotionally poignant, often jumping between the two with great ease. Tonally, it covers a lot of ground. It is about female empowerment, about Americans’ terse relationship with police and about small town people dealing with issues in a small town way.

Frances McDormand kicks ass. Lucas Hedges makes the most out of his small role. Woody Harrelson is as solid as ever. Peter Dinklage shares some of the best scenes and steals them all; and Sam Rockwell delivers one of the best performances of his chameleonic career.

THE RED TURTLE (2016) [ 4/5 ]

A beautifully poetic animated film from the great minds of Studio Ghibli. It is mostly a silent piece, that relies on music, on a simple yet evocative animation style and on a universal human story to leave a lasting impression.

It is a film about choosing love and family over the mundane. It is also about learning to be one with nature and basking in its glory. A unique work of art.

CARS 2 (2011) [ 3/5 ]

In the back of the humility and simplicity of The Red Turtle, Pixar’s second iteration of Cars felt like the capitalistic and overabundant response for the new millennium. It is, more than any other Pixar film I have seen, the busiest, loudest and least original of all of the studio’s creations. It borrows a great deal from action movies, and while some of it offers great popcorn entertainment, I found it hard to follow the story and root for anyone in particular.

TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983) [4/5]

Perhaps the best blindspot I managed to watch in 2017. Terms of Endearment is a film about family and love that centers on the peculiar dynamic between a mother and her daughter, and the men in their lives. Though it starts as a dark comedy that seems to try too hard to be hip and funny, the film slowly finds its footing, eventually arriving at a moving last act that makes everything that came before worthwhile.

Year in Recap: Best of 2017

The year that is about to end was a year of change. On January the 1st, I found myself in a strange town, emotionally hurt and surrounded by people I did not want to be surrounded by. It was the least auspicious beginning to a year that I can remember.

Fortunately, life has a way of sneaking up on you, for good and bad, and less than two months later I welcomed a new person in my life that has made me rediscover love, and regain the hope that happiness is not only attainable, but that it has always been within my reach should I dare to make some changes.

Continue reading Year in Recap: Best of 2017

Film Review: A Monster Calls (2016)

Back in 2010 I lost my father to a heart attack. He was 54 and I was 24. I was going to college to get a Masters in Architecture in Chicago, and he was with my mother back in Caracas, Venezuela, about to go on a business trip.

My family managed to get a hold of me very early in the morning. They simply told me he was at the hospital, alive, but in serious condition. Little did I know that they were trying to spare me the news of his passing, while I was by myself, trying to make it back as quickly as I could.

There is, unfortunately, nothing that can prepare you to lose a loved one as early and unexpectedly as I did. I was very close to my dad. He was nurturing, inspiring and of a noble heart. He was the person I wanted to make proud and the person I most looked up to.

A Monster Calls is the story of a young teenage boy, of 13 or 14, whose life has been upended first by their parent’s divorce and, more importantly, by his mother’s debilitating and life threatening illness. Despite his young age, Conor must wash his clothes, prepare his meals and tend to the house he shares with his mother before he goes to school every day. Once there, he must also contend with a bully who is hellbent on making his life miserable, and later with a grandmother (a very good Sigourney Weaver) whose strict ways clash with Conor’s inner frustrations.

The way Conor is played by young actor Lewis MacDougall suggests this is a kid whose strong emotional facade masks a heavy burden. His skinny and pale complexion emphasizing the fragility of his psyche. It is, therefore, not entirely surprising for a kid his age to make sense of his feelings by using his imagination. Before sunrise, a big, old and beautiful tree sprouts, turning branches into legs and arms, transforming into a monster.

Unlike Pan’s Labyrinth or Where the Wild Things Are, the fantastical element in the film is not meant to serve as psychological shelter, but rather as a catalyst to emotion. For Conor it is not about escape into a fantasy land, but about understanding his feelings, even if it means using an “imaginary” monster to do so.

Given the heavy subject, it was easy to dismiss the film for consciously trying to pull at our heartstrings and aim for little more than our empathetic tears. While this is not an entirely baseless criticism at first, the film breaks away from melodrama through its cinematic flourishes and a stupendously moving last act that is as careful and poetic an exploration of grief as you will ever see on film.

As I watched A Monster Calls and the tragedy became increasingly unavoidable and Conor’s state of mind moved closer to the breaking point, I identified not only with the sense of dread, but with that sinking feeling that nothing you can do can make a difference. For Conor it was a matter of months, maybe even years, while for me, it was all contained within 24 hours of absolute fear. What would my life be like without him? How would I deal with the worst of news? How would I be able to cope with it in the long run? Everything within me wanted to believe in his recovery but, at the same time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the worst had already happened and I needed to prepare for what was to come.

A Monster Calls is the first film I have seen in a while that dares to step outside of a straightforward expression of grief to explore something a lot more complicated: the burden and the exhaustion of having to wonder about a loved one’s health.

To go through such a trauma is to demand our brains to do something that it is certainly not equipped to do. On the day my dad died I went from one airport to another, I took two flights and managed to place some phone calls; I was a functioning human being but I wasn’t really there. I was always in my head, either worried sick about my dad, or thinking of a future without him.

Conor is one of the most complex, if somewhat anodyne, explorations of grief I have ever seen on screen. This child is both ready for his mother to pass, and has in many ways accepted it; while he also wishes, as any good kid of his age would, to keep his mother alive and by his side.

If seen from an inexperienced or unsentimental point of view, such a contrarian and contradictory exploration of grief is almost an outrage. However, the film capitalizes on Conor’s youth and innocence to suggest that, no matter how self-sufficient and prepared this child seems to be, there is absolutely no way in which he is ready to fully absorb the implications of losing his mother.

With a healthy budget of 43 million dollars, A Monster Calls is also a convincing visual spectacle that gives young actor Lewis MacDougall the chance to play a very difficult role with grace and with a level of maturity that belongs to someone much older. It is the nuance and craft of his performance that makes A Monster Calls one of the most compelling and beautiful cinematic experiences I have had in recent years.

Rating: 4.5/5

Candidate to the Blog of Big Ideas’ 250 Essential Films

Months in Review: September & October films (part II)

Continued from the previous post, below are my impressions of the films I watched in October:

ELVIRA, TE DARÍA MI VIDA PERO LA ESTOY USANDO (2014) [ 3.5/5 ]

An entertaining Mexican dramedy that follows a housewife who must keep her life together while searching for her missing husband. Most of the film’s pleasures lie not on the story, which is derivative and predictable, but on the detours that actress Cecilia Suarez must take as Elvira to uncover the truth about her husband and rediscover herself.

I also realized midway through the film that it relies on the kind of silly hispanic humor that may not fully translate to non-Latin audiences.

FORCE MAJOURE (2014) [ 3.5/5 ]

Rarely has a film about the fragility of love and marriage has been so satisfyingly uncomfortable to watch. At first, Force Majoure is about a woman’s struggle to reaffirm her worth in a lopsided and selfish relationship, only to later become a story about a man’s newfound respect for his loved ones. It was not only surprising to see the film change its angle after an hour, but it was also disappointing. I much preferred the first hour, which included a fantastic sequence of an avalanche that threatens the life of our characters.

Filmed in the snowy heights of Scandinavia, Force Majoure is also a beautiful film to look at, both for the gorgeous vistas, but also for its architecture.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) [ 4/5 ]

The much-anticipated sequel to the sci-fi classic is an achievement in that it manages to build onto and expand the universe of the original, without feeling like an overly respectful repetition.

Like its predecessor, it moves forward meditatively, enveloping us in its futuristic world, set some 30 years after the events of the original. Once again, the film is an exploration about what it means to be human, suggesting that it resides not on intelligence but on our capacity to show empathy.

Crucial to the success of the film are director Denis Villeneuve and storied cinematographer Richard Deakins. The two create one of the most stunningly beautiful films ever made in what could finally prove to be Deakins’ turn for Oscar gold.

Unsurprisingly, Ryan Gosling also nails his starring role as the brooding and introspective detective whose job to discontinue old Replicant models poses a moral quandary from early on.

As the trailers showed, Blade Runner also reintroduces Harrison Ford some 30 years later, whose role here remains key to the Blade Runner saga even if he only shows up in the latter stages. What is even better than his return to a much remembered character is that Ford gives one of his most nuanced performances to date.

THE LAST WORD (2017) [ 3/5 ]

A cute family-friendly comedy with the kind of traditional 3-act story of an old lady who, in the space of 90 minutes of film reel, and no more than a few weeks’ worth of real time, undergoes a profound philosophical transformation as her life approaches an end.

As predictable and unoriginal as the story may be, there are pleasures to be found within the film, mostly delivered by the great Shirley McClain in a role that gives her plenty to do even if it means that the characters around her are flat and one-dimensional.

SPIELBERG (2017) [ 3.5/5 ]

A lengthy and surprisingly nuanced examination of the life and work of one of cinema’s most influential and talented directors who, in the course of 4 decades, has also managed to shape pop culture and break every kind of box office record.

With unprecedented access to Spielberg himself, some of his famous and not-so-famous friends, family and colleagues, the film offers a once-in-a-lifetime perspective into the mind of a great artist.

As a cinephile I found it endlessly fascinating and informative. The film manages to capture some of the motivations and behind-the-scenes work of a master of the medium. In accompanying his oeuvre with some details on his personal life, which he has always kept away from public scrutiny, we get a glimpse to the kinds of things that have influenced the content of his work and motivated his desire to make movies.

Ultimately, it tends to feel like a bit self-congratulatory but, when his work is put together in a single documentary, one can’t help but be in awe of his skill and the timeliness of his career choices.

THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) [ 3.5/5 ]

A Hollywood classic found in many best-ever lists that had been a blind spot for me for much too long.

The Night of the Hunter is Charles Laughton’s one and only project as a feature film director and is, by every account, a terribly influential piece that gave us one of cinema’s most indelible villains, The Preacher, portrayed with theatrical panache by Robert Mitchum.

Like the performance itself, the piece is flamboyant in its biblical allegories, with towns that bear no trace of reality, and adult characters that exist not as people, but as instruments to tell a story about good and evil.

Though it doesn’t have the kind of attention to detail and rigorous construction of other Hollywood films of the time, The Night of the Hunter excels where others don’t, carving itself a place in the history of film by being bold and unique.

1922 (2017) [ 3/5 ]

A slow-burning horror drama about the psychological ramifications of murder. The film, which was backed by Netflix and probably saved from a quick death as a feature in theaters, stars a very good Thomas Jane playing a scruffy Southern farmer willing to commit the greatest of sins in order to save his lifestyle and his manly pride.

The film is largely effective in its mental and emotional explorations, but it fails at delivering a story with enough of a heartbeat to keep us engaged for much of its long two hours of running time.

HELLRAISER (1987) [ 1.5/5 ]

Few movies in the history of cinema owe their fame to so little. Hellraiser is a terribly executed piece of film that is filled with sequencing problems, poor acting, non-sensical characters, awful cinematography and clumsy editing. My interest in Hellraiser was lost within the first five minutes as the film wastes no time in jumping from one plot point to another to tell its nightmarish and gruesome tale.

The only noteworthy aspect lies in the design of the so-called Cenophites, evil creatures from another dimension that trap their summoner in an endless cycle of extreme pleasure and pain.

A “horror classic” that owes much of its fame to the non-sensical insanity it puts us through.

GIRLS TRIP (2017) [ 2.5/5 ]

All similarities to Bridesmaids aside, Girls Trip is a highly overrated comedy filled with half-baked characters, a messy script and at least a half dozen jokes that don’t quite land. What truly surprises me is that this film, which as derivative and commonplace as you’ll likely to find, received so much praise.

Thankfully, there is an occasional funny scene and lost in the middle of it all there is something to be said about the empowering feminism that it tries to embrace.