The month of August was a bit more productive in terms of film watching than the previous 3 or 4. Life has slowed down a little, even if this seems to be more like the typical calm before the storm.
In August I watched a total of 11 films for an average score of 3 out of 5 that could have been higher had I not watched the woeful “The Circle”on the last day of the month.
Without a doubt, the best film of the month was the Korean-American film Okja, bought by Netflix and directed by Bong Joon-Ho. Other worthy watches were The Founder, a biopic on the rise of Ray Kroc, the mastermind behind the McDonald’s empire; and The Rainmaker, a modest adaptation of John Grisham’s novel directed by the great Francis Ford Coppola.
OKJA (2017) [ 4/5 ]
Okja has it all: visual splendor, a thought-provoking storyline that says more than meets the eye, a handful of entertaining action sequences, some wonderful characters and the kind of over-the-top comedic performances that keep things light even when the film gets dark.
For director Bong Joon-ho, Okja is yet another statement piece against the ills and excess of mankind. The Host (2006) was a larger statement about man’s effect on the environment. Snowpiercer (2013) offered a post-apocalyptic view of a future where mankind had all but extinguished in a planet that had reclaimed itself after so much abuse. In Okja, the director tackle the indiscriminate practices of the food industry which, the majority of us, would rather ignore.
To do so, the film creates a wonderfully loveable CGI creature named Okja which is described as a super pig that was created in a lab by the same corporation that is now preparing to sell the meat en masse after a long PR campaign.The ultimate success of the piece is that it makes you root for the relationship at its center, that between a teenage girl named Mija (Seo-Hyeon Ahn) and her pet. In doing so, we might be tempted to advocate for better animal treatment, or turn ourselves into devout vegetarians.
JOHN WICK 2 (2017) [ 3/5 ]
The first time Keanu Reeves’ embodied John Wick he was driven by revenge. His impetus that of a man with nothing to lose.
As far as sequels go, John Wick 2 starts with the wrong footing. No longer is there an emotional motivation for revenge beyond a mere desire to stay alive. So, from the beginning, John Wick lacks that kind of kamikaze attitude that made the original so wonderfully intense.
The film does have its share of pleasures, but most are expansions of ideas and characters that were already in place on the first installment.
As it was the case before, the fighting choreography is fantastic, even if it suffers from repetitiveness, and Keanu Reeves, channeling his brooding and hyper masculine alter ego, continues to be an effective action hero well past his Matrix days.
THE FOUNDER (2017) [ 3.5/5 ]
After Spotlight and Birdman, this is now the third film in a short period of time that marks the triumphant return of Michael Keaton to the front and center of some of Hollywood’s A-list projects. This time, Keaton plays Ray Kroc, the famed businessman responsible for turning McDonald’s into a global brand. From beginning to end, this is Keaton’s film, inhabiting nearly every scene as a man so tired of failure that, when he finally encounters success, commits to stop at nothing to reach ever-greater heights. In many respects, The Founder is also the story of the modern American enterprise: a sort of modern Wild West where unimaginable riches can be attained as long as you’re willing to stomp on those whose values are at odds with unrestrained capitalism.
The Founder is a profoundly American film where money and access are the thing that dreams are made of. Keaton’s Ray Kroc is a nearly perfect representation of that ideal in an always entertaining and larger-than-life performance that effectively makes the man at its center both a villain and a hero.
ABOUT ALEX [ 3/5 ]
The moment a character walks in to his or her cheating partner is usually the moment a film runs out of ideas. Such is the case in About Alex, a film filled with half-baked storylines and half-built characters that seem to have come together, despite one’s attempted suicide, by little more than loyalty to a past spent together in college. About Alex is a film that resists its potential, taking shortcuts when the story asks for greater nuance and depth. On occasion we get moments of emotional resonance that fade away as quickly as they appeared, either by fault of the script, or by the uneven quality of the performances.
Having said that, the film does pick up towards the end, once the masks between these friends begin to fall, offering us some touching moments that get at the heart of the complicated relationships between these characters.
SILENCE (2016) [ 3/5 ]
It may come as a revelation to some that Martin Scorsese is a man of faith. In a career spanning decades that has seen the Italian American director at the helm of modern American classics like Raging Bull or Casino, there has not been much room for faith in his oeuvre beyond 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ.
Silence is Scorsese’s longest running passion project, a film deeply rooted in Catholicism, but not as an exclamation of its goodness, but rather as an exploration about the practical and human limits of faith.
Silence, like so many other Catholic-centric films, focuses on the nearly inexplicable devotion many people have towards the Bible’s teachings. Such blind abnegation, the film argues, almost capable to withstand inexcusable persecution, violence and torture.
Thematically, Silence is rich and thought-provoking but, sadly, it is also an overlong, tedious and repetitive two and a half hour affair that is filled with suffering, death, violence and unimaginable cruelty. Fortunately, the suffering pays off at the end, not by giving us a neatly wrapped happy ending, but by giving room to the other side of the coin, offering the Buddhist perspective in awesome scenes between Liam Neeson’s father Ferreira and Andrew Garfield’s father Rodriguez.
FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (2016) [ 2.5/5 ]
The latest film set in the magical universe of J.K. Rowling follows Newt Scamander, a “magizoologist” and former Hogwarts student that finds himself in the midst of a crisis when he travels to New York City.
As apparent as its connection is to the Harry Potter franchise, the film relies too heavily on that thread, thinking it can make characters we can empathize with without giving them substance. It is a shame that Eddy Redmayne, who is supposed to be the focus of the film, ends up being the least interesting of the bunch.
It’s also remarkable that such a big-ticket Hollywood production can also “boast” special effects that are far less convincing than those found in an episode of Game of Thrones.
THE RAINMAKER (1997) [ 3.5/5 ]
A procedural courtroom drama with the rather simple story of a well-meaning and noble young lawyer fighting for justice against a rotten and corrupt system.
Based on a book by the best selling author John Grisham, this Francis Ford Coppola directed film excels in making us empathize with these characters, even if the story moves forward predictably and it is all too neatly resolved when the end credits begin to roll. A young Matt Damon, fresh off his success in Good Will Hunting delivers a nuanced performance that is both intense and soft, finding a balance between a decisive and confident adult and one that is just beginning to find his own voice.
CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (2014) [ 3/5 ]
There are two parallel themes at work in the film. The first is about the psychological toll that an actress endures when her youth and the spotlight have been left behind. The second is about the connection that exists, purposefully or not, between a play she is preparing to participate in and her personal life.
Of the two, the second one is, by far, the more interesting and uncomfortable to watch, even if it becomes readily apparent what the film is trying to suggest.
As it often happens, characters who are emotionally hermetic, unable to speak truth about their inner tribulations, deny us the satisfaction of cinematic release. Thus making the film feel rather stale and impenetrable. Another problem is that Clouds of Sils Maria gives little voice to characters who seem to be important to the central story, teasing with depth that remains at an arm’s length.
The saving grace is that both Kristen Stewart and Juliet Binoche both deliver interestingly ambiguous performances that are open to interpretation.
CAMP X-RAY (201X) [ 3/5 ]
There is a good and a bad Kristen Stewart. As a soldier in Peter Sattler’s Camp X-Ray we see some of both. At times, Kristen is irresistibly natural, an extension of our awkward and most informal selves. At other moments Kristen is frustrating in that she never ceases to be that kind of actress, even if some scenes demand something a little bit different.
As valiant an effort as Camp X-Ray can be for exploring the subject of the military’s role in human rights violations at GITMO, there is a better film hidden underneath; the one that could have dared to go a step further and give Peyman Moaadi’s detainee a violent past, and not one that hints at innocence in a case of mistaken identity.
Perhaps it would have been a step too far to explore a friendship between an American soldier and a former terrorist, but it could have given the film the kind of daring reformist statement that I believe it needed.
THE ANGRIEST MAN IN BROOKLYN (2014) [ 3/5 ]
For the first time in the short history of this blog, I will give a passing grade to an absolutely terrible film. A production that lacks the kind depth, consistency and finesse that is needed in any film to have some semblance of artistry.
However, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn saves itself from total mediocrity by making Robin Williams flex his acting muscles one last time in order to sell us a rather unlikeable and angry middle-aged man who must confront his own mortality and take a look at all the bad choices he has made in his recent past.
It is, by no means, one of Robin Williams most nuanced or controlled performances, like we saw, for instance, in movies like Good Will Hunting and The Fisher King. Instead, it is perhaps Williams’ most indelible and harrowing performance given his untimely death by suicide shortly after the film’s release. I couldn’t help but see Williams’ incredibly sad eyes that, despite a wide smile and a lot of anger, could not be dismissed, even during moments of quiet happiness and cheerful introspection.
I miss his genius.
THE CIRCLE (2017) [ 1.5/5 ]
Not to be outdone by The Angriest Man in Brooklyn in terms of wasting talent, The Circle is the kind of mind-numbing exploration of science and its dangers that can make even Tom Hanks seem ridiculously unfit as an actor.
The Circle doesn’t surprise despite its every attempt to do so. The script is a mess of disparate ideas that are not explored sufficiently and with enough nuance. The parallels with Apple don’t exactly help it either because it is neither a direct imitation, nor a satire; instead, The Circle is this kind of uncomfortable in-between that does nothing but distract.
Emma Watson, who is often good, is absolutely terrible here, incapable of selling us her character’s arc, never quite providing enough insight to truly understand her motivations beyond merely superficial and obvious ones.