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.

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

It is absolutely incredible to me that we are already in November. It feels as if Summer lasted about a week, Spring no more than 2 days and that Winter was about a month ago.

Per usual, my blog has been more inactive than I would like it to be but after 2-3 years of keeping the same pace, it’s about time I come to accept the infrequency of my blogging.

I have managed to stay within an average of watching at least 10 new films per month, with the goal of hitting at least 120 new films seen in the calendar year (I don’t think I’ve seen more than 10 repeats)

In September I watched 13 films averaging an unusually high 3.5 out of 5 score product of 6 films that hit 4 or 4.5 out of 5. Also an unusually high number.

In October, however, things went back to normalcy. I watched 10 films averaging 3.15, with only two of these getting a 4 out of 5.

To keep the posts manageable, I will divide them into two parts. One dedicated to September, and the other to October. Below my short impressions of each:

GONE BABY GONE (2007) [ 3.5/5 ]

Gone Baby Gone felt like an extended episode of Law & Order featuring a great cast that includes the likes of Morgan Freeman and Casey Affleck.

Set in a gritty, dark and unwelcoming part of Boston, the film tells the story of a private investigator and his partner searching for a missing girl. The characters are, for the most part, excellently conceived, filled with complexity and contradictions.

The moral question at the heart of the movie, which is presented to us in the last act, is one that is difficult to answer, probably splitting audiences in half back when the film was released in 2007.

What doesn’t work as well are the ways in which the film reaches those moral dilemmas, often opting to grab audiences by the hand, and never fully trusting viewers to make their own connections.

Casey Affleck’s performance is especially engaging in a role that has some of the ticks but not quite the range of his well-deserved Oscar-winning turn in Manchester by the Sea.

KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017) [ 3.5/5 ]

The latest reboot of King Kong is an attempt to bring the big ape to a new generation of filmgoers, giving audiences an origin story that, in all honesty, fails to live up to the long cultural significance of Kong in the big screen.

Aside from a particularly weak premise that sets the events of the film in motion, Kong is packed with well crafted and entertaining set pieces that keep the film from succumbing to its general lack of originality. John C. Reilly’s late cameo is one of the film’s pleasures and the only character I found myself rooting for.

THE PRESTIGE (2006) [ 4/5 ]

The Prestige was very much a precursor to Christopher Nolan’s amazing work in Inception. Like that film, The Prestige is built upon a story that is rich in complexity where every shot and every bit of dialogue serves the film’s ultimate reveal. As with the rest of Nolan’s impressive body of work, The Prestige hides its secrets by limiting our point of view. It works only by placing us in the thick of the story, while leaving a crucial perspective out until the end. As engaging and wildly unpredictably as the plot is, the invisible hand that moves all the gears and fits all the pieces into place seems a bit more conspicuous than usual.

Being so familiar with the director’s work was a bit of a detriment to the experience, expecting the perfectionism and directorial dexterity of Christopher Nolan to sweep us up at the end, cleverly tying in the film’s many loose pieces.

Having said this, The Prestige is one hell of a cinematic experience that is nearly as imaginative and deceptive as the director’s best work.

LEGEND (2015) [ 4/5 ]

A magnificent dual performance by the always surprising Tom Hardy headlines this wild gangster film set in midcentury London. The thespian plays Reggie and Ronnie Cray; one the suave and elegant empresario with a talent for boxing who desires love and success, and the other his psychologically disturbed bloodthirsty twin with a lust for sex, men and, of course, violence.

Most of what the film tries to say isn’t new or particularly inventive, but I did appreciate its take on the weight of family ties and how one rotten apple can sometimes bring a blossoming empire crashing down.

I also appreciated the film’s dark and twisted humor, its rich assortment of characters and the evil pleasure with which it tells what is a rather tragic tale.

One of the most underrated films of 2015.

A MONSTER CALLS (2016) [ 4.5/5 ]

Candidate to the Blog of Big Ideas’ 250 Essential Films

A beautiful film that moved me to tears. A story about loss and grief that I found extremely poetic and engaging. Though it may turn off some people due to its fantastical elements, A Monster Calls is, by no means, a kids’ film; instead, it is a carefully crafted drama of great emotional resonance that uses fantasy to great effect. I shall be posting a full review in the coming days.

NEON DEMON (2016) [ 3/5 ]

A slow burning and stylish film from Scandinavian director Nicholas Winding Refn set against flashing cameras and the orange glow of the city of Angels.

Like his film Drive, Refn spends most of the film’s running time enamored by the facile beauty of its movie star: Elle Faning, who plays a character both exasperating and relatable, humble at first sight but fundamentally narcissistic. She is treated both as the muse in distress hunted by jealous competition, and also as a sort of virus that has arrived to disrupt the natural order. Such dichotomy is at the heart of the film and it is ultimately what I found most interesting about it.

Sadly, the film lacks momentum, getting lost in its parsimony, with a script filled with holes that do nothing but serve Winding Refn’s brand of filmmaking which can often overwhelm the storytelling.

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON (2015) [ 3/5 ]

A biopic on the rise and fall of rap supergroup NWA that is entertaining without being particularly nuanced or thought-provoking.

Part of the problem lies on a script that is too heavily focused on the highlights of the lives that made NWA a reality. As a result, the film feels more like a made for tv 2-hour special, rather than an engaging study on the group members and what made them such a potent artistic force.

Straight Outta Compton also feels like a film that was tinkered and edited in post-production to take away the focus from weaker actors: O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Corey Hawkins, playing Ice Cube and Dr. Dre respectively; and give the spotlight to the always great Paul Giamatti, playing the sleazy and conniving manager, and actor Jason Mitchell, playing the late rapper Eazy-E with surprising emotional conviction.

DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) [ 3.5/5 ]

Spike Lee has always been one of those directors whose persona has loomed large in my decision to approach his work trepidatiously. His oeuvre is one that I have only recently began to dip my toes in, first with Chi-Raq, and now with what many critics call his masterpiece: Do The Right Thing.

In defense of the modest 3.5/5 score I give the film, I found that Lee’s work in this predominantly African American treatise may be one of those that, in order to be appreciated, both time and successive viewings may be required.

While his most recent work in Chi-Raq is one that attempts to tackle many large subjects through a tight and clear story; Do The Right Thing is the kind of large, expansive, complex and theatrical exposition about racial relations in the United States that I found to be more relevant as a historical document rather than as an artistic piece. My problem with it is that I simply could not make the transition from the almost whimsical African American micro-universe that Spike Lee had created in almost 90 minutes of film to the very violent and tragic last act. It was an abrupt and hard transition that I simply could not get on board with, despite appreciating the boldness behind the choice.

In addition, I found it unfortunate that Spike Lee made the decision to also take on the lead role, often looking flat opposite an excellent cast of actors.

MOTHER! (2017) [ 4/5 ]

A film so intense that I left the theater feeling exhausted. In the days that followed my trip to the theater, my esteem and appreciation for Darren Aronofski’s latest piece grew, and could easily become a favorite in the years to come.

If you’re so inclined, you can find my full review of the film here

TOWER [ 4/5 ] (2016)

I was introduced to this very good documentary courtesy of the best podcast on film out there: filmspotting.net

The film is one that deals with a very current subject, mass shootings, but it does so by focusing on the victims, both dead and alive, of a single tragic episode without precedent that occurred at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966.

The documentary, directed by Keith Maitland, is as nuanced an exposition of the horror of such an experience as you’re likely to find. It’s both affecting and engaging, creatively crafted using a style of animation that is both painterly and evocative, capturing the emotional drama, while softening the horrific violence.

A must-watch for cinephiles aspiring to make documentaries on tough and difficult subjects with tact and attention to detail.

THE BIG SICK (2017) [ 4/5 ]

Based on the real circumstances that surrounded the relationship of writers Kumail Nunjiani and Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick is a breath of fresh air in the romantic comedy genre.

Apart from being genuinely funny from beginning to end, the film was surprisingly touching, giving each one of its characters tangible and credible personalities, with only the occasionally cheesy one-liner.

It helps that the relationship at its center worked, and both Kumail and Zoe Kazan deliver crafty performances that are witty and surprisingly nuanced.

The Big Sick is clearly a labor of love inspired by love. One of the best films of 2017.

THE DEAD ZONE (1983) [ 2.5/5 ]

One of the biggest disappointments of late. The Dead Zone is one of those cult films that has survived the passage of time based solely on the curiosity of cinephiles willing to invest a couple of hours to explore the odd pairing of director David Cronenberg and a rare lead performance by Christopher Walken.

The actor plays Johnny Smith who, after a 5-year coma, wakes up to find his fiancé has moved on, his job is gone and, more importantly, that he has psychic powers he must suddenly contend with.

Even when there is something of merit to be found in the film’s interesting explorations of the psychological ramifications of wielding such power, Cronenberg’s execution is terribly uneven.

The dramatic scenes feel staged, the performances unnecessarily heightened, the camerawork is sloppy and the major set pieces anticlimactic.

SNATCHED (2017) [ 2.5/5 ]

After the success and unexpected quality of Amy Schumer’s first starring role in a feature film in 2012’s Trainwreck, I half-expected the stand-up comedian to follow it with something catastrophically bad (in what the industry commonly calls the sophomore slump).

What is surprising about this mind-numbing slapstick comedy is that there is enough comedic chemistry between Goldie Hawn and Schumer as mother and daughter to make the film bearable.

Having said that, I still wish Schumer and Hawn could have done something a lot more worthwhile.

Film Review: Mother! (2017)

Mother! is a long nightmare filled with paranoia, jealousy, anger and lovelessness. It is, as anticipated by film festival goers, a divisive film. While audiences have given it on average an F according to Cinemascore, critics have been a bit more receptive to Aronofsky’s latest cinematic experiment.

The film’s detractors speak about its overindulgence, lack of restrain and penchant for melodrama. While the film’s admirers will point to its value as a deeply metaphorical cinematic statement that commits to large and small ideas alike.

My feelings about the film, almost a week after I first watched it, are still wavering somewhat, not knowing if I fall in with those who already awash the film with praise, or those that appreciate its ambition and vision while questioning its choices.

By no means a perfect or pretty film, one thing that cannot be said about Mother! is that it is boring or unimaginative.

Like much of Aronofsky’s work before, Mother! is the kind of film that, instead of escapism, offers no respite and no time to catch our collective breath. It is a film that finds its emotional center in unrequited love, but that eventually reveals itself to be about many more things. Mother! is the kind of experimental cinema that escapes categorization. It is scary, exhilarating, melodramatic, satirical and occasionally funny. It is also Hitchcockian in the sense that it loves to manipulate and tease the audience, hinting at possible resolutions that are nothing more than cinematic instruments of deception that rely on horror lore to deceive us.

At the center of the film are Javier Bardem and the much younger Jennifer Lawrence (a detail that does not escape Aronofsky). We begin the film with a woman burning, her flesh consumed by fire. Moments later, Bardem who plays “Him” (per the film’s end credits), picks up what appears to be a crystal from the ashes. As he places it on a kind of altar, the house around him begins to set itself anew, replacing the burned wood for painted walls and beautiful woodwork. As the renewal gets to a bed, a woman, Jennifer Lawrence, rolls toward the camera and away from the sheets.

At first, we presume the sequence is nothing else that the passage of time and that the woman burning in the fire was perhaps a previous partner, but soon enough, the movie goes back to that rock, which Bardem’s “Him”, an acclaimed poet, zealously protects as he struggles to find a way out from writer’s block. While he struggles to find inspiration, his companion labors to bring the house they both share to its former glory. Lawrence’s performance for most of the film’s running time is physical, walking around the house, washing dishes, cleaning, priming and painting. When we meet them, there are only passing conversations between the two. He is too consumed by his work, while she fulfills the role of a housewife fighting to keep the relationship alive.

One of the interesting things about Mother! is that Aronofsky ultimately uses these characters to build a story that points to larger ideas. There is, for instance, something to be said about the relationship between a great artist and his muse that perhaps echoes Aronofsky’s own personal experiences (the director divorced his actress wife Rachel Weisz in 2010 after nine years of marriage). It also becomes increasingly obvious that, among other things, the film is imbued with biblical parallelisms, which is an aspect of the film that may be entirely lost on those with a limited knowledge of theology.

Beyond the metaphors tucked in between the lines, what I found most interesting was Aronofsky’s direction. It is frenetic, claustrophobic and, at times, disorienting, staying very close to its characters, following Jennifer Lawrence through nearly every bit of film. As told by Aronofsky himself in recent interviews, the script and context for Mother! poured out of him all at once, over the course of a few days at a frustrating and angry time in his life. Unsurprisingly, the anger he felt when writing, translated not only to a story that revels in paranoia and a sense of helplessness, but also to the way the film is shot. It is filmmaking of the highest caliber, adding to the story and giving it some resonance, rather than hampering it or distracting us.

As I said at the beginning, Mother! is by no means a perfect specimen. It has the feel and the quality of an cinematic experiment, rather than that of a carefully calibrated and finished product. Like the house it confines us too, it has a kind of rawness that is not bulletproof when analyzed and dissected. More than a perfectly realized story, Mother! is about the larger statement and about the feelings it manages to bring to the fore.

Did it need to make all of the weird choices it did? Maybe it did not. On the one hand, it is prone to exaggerate, always opting for larger, louder and more shocking, making it one of the least accessible films you’ll see this year. On the other, it is a deeply personal endeavor that is consistent when seen as a larger whole or as part of a larger body of work.

This is Aronofsky near his very best.

Rating: 4 out of 5