Category Archives: Seen at the cinema

Quick ‘n’ Dirty: March at the pictures

I didn’t go a lot to the cinema in March but I made up for it watching more European films (from Belgium, Spain and Denmark, to be precise). So here are my short and sweet reviews. Dig in!

Belgica: the story of Cafe Belgica and Jo and Frank, two brothers who own it. We see the evolution from hole-in-the-wall bar just for the locals with some live music into concert venue with regular gigs and selected clientele. At the beginning working at Belgica seems like the best thing in the world (sex, drugs and rock and roll) but, as time goes by, we see that it comes with a lot of baggage and pain, paralleling a heavy night of partying and drinking (more Bukowski’s style). What grabs more the attention is the music, it cleverly evolves in style with the changes of the bar and the strifes and troubles between the brothers. The cinematography is also to the point: the film begins with a red, warm hue suggesting intimacy and fun and, as the bar expands beyond control, the color schemes shift toward a harsh and cold blue. The performances of Stef Aerts and Tom Vermier as Jo and Frank are convincing and compelling. One minor quibble could be that some interesting secondary characters are not given much depth, but it’s just nit-picking. Intriguing —7.5/10

Belgica

 

Zootopia: the latest Disney animated film is set in an anthropomorphic city where mammals, predators and not, co-exist peacefully… more or less. Comedy, adventure and crime drama are well mixed together in a story that has never a dull moment. There are endearing characters like our heroine Judy Hopps, who is the first bunny to join the police of Zootopia, and cheeky ones like Nick Wilde, a fox and a hustler. There’s humour for kids and grow-ups alike (the sloths at the DMV are priceless) and a nice message about tolerance and inclusion that works well without being too corny or cheesy. The voice actors are perfect for their characters and the animation is top-notch. Maybe it’s not my favorite among Disney animated films but it is entertaining. Fun —7/10

zootopia

 

Land of Mine: the life of German prisoners in Denmark in 1945, right after the end of War World II. The Danish government decided to use thousands of German prisoners of war to remove the mines on the western coast of Denmark (put there by the Nazi during the occupation). The film tells the story of a small group of such prisoners, mostly still boys, and Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moeller), the Danish soldier in charge of them and their mission. While beautifully shot the film falls short of the mark: the story of each character feels flat, without any reasonable development or believable motives. Sgt. Rasmussen suddenly change from Nazi-hater and treating the boys worse than animals, to father-figure, especially with Sebastian (Louis Hofmann), the unofficial leader of the group. The most important issue of the Geneva Convention about prisoners of war and not behaving like the Nazis did is completely glossed over, which makes for an easy way out for the director and writer Martin Zandvliet. Stray observations: no way it’s always sunny in Denmark, even in summer; if it’s windy it’s nigh impossible to keep the sand out of your eyes; the boys have always perfectly trim hair even after months of work… doubt that a barber showed up there every few weeks! Disappointing–5/10

land-of-mine

 

A Perfect Day: another movie about the aftermath of a war, this time is the Balkans in 1990s. What is most compelling is that the main point of view is neutral, the viewer is shown the ugliness of war in an objective way without judgement or taking sides. The plot is about an international group of aid workers who are supposed to clean up wells to provide the local population with potable water. Drama and comedy are dosed well, combining interesting and insightful situations that stem from language and cultural barriers, moronic bureaucracy and personal relationships. Black humour at the expense of military authority and the helplessness of the UN is reminiscent of M*A*S*H. Benico Del Toro and Tim Robbins, as the two old-timers of the group, are spectacular and well worth watching. Alex Catalan’s superb cinematography of the arid mountain landscapes and war devastated backdrop further enhances this enjoyable dark comedy/ funny drama. Unusual and riveting —7.5/10

A-perfect-day

 

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Deadpool

Director: Tim Miller; Main Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, T.J. MillerEd Skrein;

deadpool

Self-indulgent, self-complacent, self-aware, Deadpool is the (anti-)hero we need and the one we deserve. Finally the origin story of Wade Wilson (Reynolds), a.k.a Deadpool, done right, adopting a widely (over?) used approach of starting in the middle and then going back to the beginning with long flashbacks. The foul-mouthed, verbally incontinent Wade is a mercenary that threatens, hurts or kills for money but they tend to deserved it… at least from his point of view… so he has a kind of moral compass… more or less.The routine of his life of crime and hanging out with fellow criminals is upended by…drum rolls… meeting the love of his life: Vanessa (Baccarin). So cliche right? Well, the film is very self-aware in this too and the idyllic story is a match made in psychologically scarred heaven and presented in a very “alternative” way. Naturally fate strikes: Wade has only few months to live due to multiple cancers so he leaves his beloved and accepts to be the guinea pig of a rather shady guy, Ajax (Skrein).  Ajax sports a clear British accent, dead giveaway in superhero/action movies! He is, of course, the villain of the piece! Anyway, Wade is tortured for a while but cured of el cancer. He gets superpowers but he’s horribly scarred… cue to montage: rampaging revenge and improving his gear! Fanboys and fangirls squeak with joy at the red and black suit and the ninja moves!

The writers follow the “keep it simple” rule for the plot but play a lot with tongue-in-cheek humour and references, effective breaking-the-fourth-wall moments (or even the sixteenth wall!) and the trademark verbosity of Deadpool. Behind the camera, Miller, balances well the tight-packed action scenes with moments of drama or comedy, making the film a fun ride! Wilson looks like he’s having the time of his life and he makes Wade an antihero not only you can root for but that you’d love to hang out with. Baccarin is reduced to token love interest/damsel in distress but she does it with flair. Skrein as the villain du jour is rather monotone and uninteresting, which is usually a common problem to many superhero films. All considered this is a very entertaining and more daring foray into the comic book world than its predecessors.

Final juicy tidbit is the post-credits scene: a really great use of a pop culture reference!

Brilliant —8/10

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Quick ‘n’ Dirty: February at the pictures

The last month has been mostly about Oscar nominated films… surprise, surprise! So without further ado here’s February selection of speedy reviews:

The Danish Girl: the life of Danish painter Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, pioneer transgender, and his wife Gerda, also a talented painter. I know that this is considered an Eddie Redmayne’s film, whose performance is both convincing and effective, but the one that truly shines is Alicia Vikander as Gerda. She embodied the role of loyal, supporting wife and her struggle to make sense of her life and her husband’s. I must say that she’s the one who really sold me the story and ended up making it convincing and gut-wrenching. Tom Hooper skillfully handles this dramatic tale and beautifully recreates both Copenhagen and Paris in the 1920s. Affecting —7/10

Danish-Girl

 

Carol: Todd Haynes gives us an artfully shot, intense period drama with two great actresses (Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett) at the top of their game. Therese, shop girl and aspiring photographer, meets and falls in love with the titular Carol, an older woman trapped in an unhappy marriage. Set in the fifties, this love story has all the complications that come with the social mores of the time and strongly reminds of Far From Heaven, however it’s a little more hopeful but less powerful. Cate Blanchett should always dress as a New Yorker in the 1950s, she’s spectacular. Kudos also go to Kyle Chandler for his solid performance as the abandoned husband and Sarah Paulson as Carol’s best friend. Interesting —7/10

Carol

 

Anomalisa: the quirky genius of Charlie Kaufman takes the viewer along for a ride in a weird world. Using stop-motion animation he tells a story of alienation and loneliness (which are recurrent themes in his films): a customer service guru, Michael Stone (David Thewlis), feels detached from everything but, on a business trip, meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), his anomaly, and things suddenly change for the better…at least that’s what it seems. While the plot is rather straightforward, the storytelling is multi-layered as is Kaufman’s wont and the different media is meant to add an additional twist. Unfortunately, the latter completely backfires (at least for me) because I found the facial features of the puppets utterly distracting and not in a good way. Unexpected —6/10

anomalisa

 

Hail, Caesar!: Eddie Mannix’s (Josh Brolin) life as fixer for a major Hollywood studio is very complicated and demanding. He has to deal with a difficult director (Ralph Fiennes), a pregnant starlet (Scarlet Johansson), nosy gossip journalists (Tilda Swinton), the kidnapping of a movie star (George Clooney) and his inner demons. The Coens brings back the lights and shadows of Hollywood’s golden era with their usual humour and manage to coax great performances out of Clooney, Brolin, Ehrenreich and the rest of the cast. There’s a cornucopia of references to different film genres and their cliches as well as to the lives of celebrities, mostly what should be kept from the public. I particularly enjoyed the discussion about religion with a rabbi and representatives of the different christian confessions. Lighthearted —7.5/10

hail-caesar

 

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Creed

Director: Ryan Coogler; Main Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa ThompsonTony BellewPhylicia Rashad;

creed

This film has been accused of retreading a very familiar story line and of being chock-full of sport movie cliches but, in the capable hands of two rising stars, Ryan Coogler as director and Michael B. Jordan as leading man, it manages to breath fresh air into a very stale franchise. I confess I didn’t watch past Rocky IV, maybe few bits and pieces of Rocky V. Anyway I was pleasantly surprised and moderately nostalgic watching this “sequel”.

Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Jordan) is the illegitimate son of boxing legend Apollo Creed (really? Adonis son of Apollo? For real? Not even a tongue in cheek quip about it? Ok, then, moving on). He has never known his father and has had a troubled childhood after losing his mother. However his luck changes when Mary Anne (Rashad), Apollo’s widow, tracks him down and takes him in (what would you expect from Mrs. Huxtable?). Fast-forward a decade or so and we see Donnie with a nice job, after growing up in a beautiful home and receiving a good education. Unfortunately, he feels unsatisfied and meant for something different, the shadow of his famous father looming larger and larger, spurring him towards professional boxing.

The second and third act roll out as expected. The underdog (Donnie, not Rocky) fights against all odds figuratively and literally to prove that he’s not just a name but also he has what it takes to be a champion. After being told that he shouldn’t be a professional boxer by his stepmother and by Tony Jr. (Wood Harris), who is a trainer and a family friend, Donnie moves to Philadelphia to seek the help of another legend: Rocky Balboa. It will take some convincing but Rocky eventually accepts to be Donnie’s Mickey and the tale comes back full circle. We do get the training montage with a run through the streets of Philly, it’s a bit corny but strikes the right note with a combination of energy and nostalgia without outdoing it. The fighting scenes are more Raging Bull style than the original Rocky, there are less slow motion sequences and the viewer feels right in the middle of the ring. Even the romance between Donnie and Bianca (Thompson) is not too trite and it helps explore more Donnie as a character. Unfortunately that not the case for Bianca as per Hollywood standards, a well rounded portrayal of a woman is still too tricky!

The acting is what really works to the advantage of this film. Jordan is very convincing and he has a good chemistry with Stallone. The latter gives a nuances and touching portrayal of the old champ, a little worse for wear but with still some sparks in him. Coogler succeeds in offering a new perspective on a worn out story and making it enjoyable and involving.

Uplifting —7/10

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Legend

Director: Brian Helgeland; Main Cast: Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, Taron EgertonChristopher EcclestonColin MorganDavid Thewlis;

legend2015

I had such high hopes when I walked into the cinema: London in the sixties, identical twins played by Tom Hardy, gangsters building a criminal empire in the East End… what more can a girl ask for? I was expecting Goodfellas with tea, crumpets and cockney accents but no dice, most of my dreams crushed and burned by the end of the film. The story is about the rise and fall of notorious Ronnie and Reggie Krays, how they started as street thugs, then became crime lords and finally got their just deserts. In order to better wrap up my head around this really mixed bag of a film I’ll break down my review in three parts.

The good: firstly and foremost, Tom Hardy. He’s brilliant. His portrayal of both Reggie and Ronnie is subtle, powerful and effective. With the help of a pair of glasses, some make-up and a perpetual frown, Hardy brings Ronnie to life, the most volatile and violent of the two.  No glasses, soulful eyes and something between a smile and a smirk, Hardy becomes Reggie, the sensible and (occasionally) sensitive twin. I haven’t seen an actor being this convincing at playing twins since Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers.  The second item on the plus column is the recreation of the locales and the feel of the period: East End and a touch of swinging London. Thirdly, Taron Egerton proves his skills as Ronnie’s boy toy, he is one to look out for. Didn’t I also mention Tom Hardy? I though I did.

The bad: the story is told from Frances Shea’s (Browning) point of view, Reggie’s girlfriend/wife. The excessive voice-over and the outsider’s (to the criminal world) perspective does not work well, keep the focus of the story too much on the personal side. For a gangster movie about famously vicious people, there’s very little carnage with the exception of a couple of lackluster confrontations. The film lacks verve and charisma, which is a pity considering the possibilities given by the source material. In addition, the viewer is supposed to sympathise with Frances but that doesn’t work very well either, Browning’s solid performance notwithstanding.

The ugly: Chazz Palminteri’s face. The plastic surgery has turned it into a wax mask and he lost his presence and menace as Italian mobster (and his ability to move his facial features).

Bland —5/10

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The hateful eight

Director: Quentin Tarantino; Main Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason LeighWalton GogginsTim RothMichael MadsenBruce Dern;

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Tarantino’s latest effort is an unapologetic love letter to the western genre and an extremely self-indulgent exercise of cinematic talent. Overly long shots of stagecoach and horses in the snowy landscape of Wyoming, dragged-on banter between untrusting and untrustworthy characters are a few things that do not work as well as planned. The gist of the story is: eight strangers (more or less) are forced by a blizzard to spend a day together at Minnie’s Haberdashery (thanks Tarantino, that was my word of the day!) and bounty hunter John “the Hangman” Ruth (Russell) worries that someone will try to free his prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jason Leigh) before he can deliver her to the sheriff of Red Rock. At this point, the audience has already been introduced to John, Daisy, another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Jackson), the coach driver O.B. (James Parks) and Chris Mannix (Goggins) during the aforementioned stagecoach ride with some clever exchanges. At the haberdashery they find a peculiar gallery of characters: hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Roth), retired confederate general Smithers (Dern), world-weary cowboy Joe Gage (Madsen) and Bob (Demian Bichir), who is looking after the place since Minnie and her husband are away. As a side note: the tally is up to nine not eight but I guess poor O.B. doesn’t really count.

The stage is set for the drama to unfold and the viewer is waiting for the explosion of violence in Tarantino’s style, although not before we are regaled with the background stories of most of the characters… or so we think. This western is suddenly turned into a murder mystery theatre piece, which is far from a bad thing as Tarantino already proved with Reservoir Dogs and the heist movie genre. It is however a little too slow-burning and at times you feel the lack of a more ruthless editing. With that said, all the actors but especially Russell, Jason Leigh and Jackson are a riot and a joy to watch, showing their acting chops (and having fun too!) and drawing the viewer in.

A minor quibble I have is about the soundtrack: Tarantino’s dream come true of having Ennio Morricone composing a score for one of his movies might not be all that great, it ended up being less personal and eclectic, I enjoyed Django’s music much more. As for the film as a whole, it is definitely not my favorite of Tarantino’s oeuvre, it doesn’t have enough bite and the pace is too slow. Barely up to par —7/10

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Suffragette

Director: Sarah Gavron; Main Cast: Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham CarterBen WhishawRomola GaraiBrendan GleesonMeryl Streep;

Suffragette

Heartfelt and compelling story about a fight for fundamental rights (one of many in human history) seen through the eyes of Maud (Mulligan), who goes from downtrodden worker bee in a industrial laundry and submissive wife to staunch supporter and activist of the Women’s Social and Political Union at the beginning of the twentieth century. Mulligan’s character evolves slowly, spurred by another worker, Violet (Duff), recently arrived at the laundry, and then charmed by collected, singleminded Edith (Bonham Carter), a local medical doctor. Maud is capable and smart, hard worker and loving mother but she has been told all her life that she will never amount to anything (both with words and violence) and that made her submissive and scared. However, once Maud glimpses another way of approaching life, seeing women like her stand up for themselves and fight, she starts to find her inner strength and becomes an activist. Everything begins with a public hearing of a MP’s committee for women’s enfranchisement: Maud gives a matter-of-fact but convincing testimony of her life as worker. From that moment on, the audience dives, along with Maud, in the activities of the women’s movement that, incited by their charismatic leader Emmeline Pankhurst (Streep), are taken up a notch. What follows is a series of historical documented actions: firebombing of letterboxes, blowing up empty country estates, hunger strikes during imprisonment and Emily Davison’s martyrdom at the Epsom Derby. As we follow the struggle of these women to see recognised their right to vote, we get to know also the minds of the men. Unfortunately they aren’t portrayed in a positive light. Sonny (Whishaw) is Maud’s rather spineless husband, who kicks her out of their house because of peer-pressure from colleagues and acquaintances; inspector Steed (Gleeson) is the armed response of the Government, trained to deal with anarchists, bolsheviks and Irish insurgents, who treats these women as a dangerous threat to society. The supervisor at the laundry is downright vicious and the various Government’s officials are patronising, dismissive or out for blood and all very vague entities. The only redeeming male figure is Edith’s husband, who supports and protects her as much as possible. Unfortunately he’s a very marginal character in the story, which is a pity because it would have added an interesting point of view. Sarah Gavron’s film is engaging and show us historical events that are very seldom shown at the cinema. Carey Mulligan’s performance conveys both strength and vulnerability very effectively and she’s helped by a solid supporting cast.  Illuminating —7.5/10

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Quick ‘n’ Dirty: January at the pictures

In a vain attempt to keep up with all the films I watch I came up with this new series of posts. The idea is to bundle up speedy reviews of the movies I saw at the cinema and at home for which I have neither the time nor the inclination to write a full critique. The posts will be distinguished in two types: “at the pictures” and “at home”. So, without further ado, here’s January selection of films:

 

The Lobster: intrigued by a quirky trailer and some good reviews, I went in with high expectations for a captivating indie movie with a great cast. I came out sorely disappointed and confused. The film starts with an engaging premise of a near future society with a little twist in its social mores but, then, it loses momentum making the plot more complicated and without a clear direction or thesis. Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz gives solid performances but it’s not enough. Missed opportunity —4/10

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Black Mass:  it aspires to be a new Goodfellas but doesn’t have the guts to go all the way. Irish mob in the seventies fights the competition with the help of complacent FBI agents: it sounds good on paper but it doesn’t fully deliver. Johnny Depp’s chameleonic transformation into James “Whitey” Bulger, who ascends from petty criminal in South Boston to FBI’s most wanted status, is convincing but lacks bite. Notwithstanding the efforts of a great cast, Joel Edgerton and Benedict Cumberbatch in particular, the film has an uneven pace and not enough tension to win me over. I wonder what Scorsese would have done… oh wait, he made The Departed! No guts, no glory —6/10

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay part 2: typing this long title makes me already weary! First off: splitting the last part of a trilogy in two just to milk every possible dime from the audience is not cool, especially when there’s no real need for it. The story picks up exactly where it left off but a year of waiting it’s way worse than commercial breaks to get back into the rhythm and care for the characters. So Katniss and her ragtag gang of heros need to kill President Snow to finally end the civil war in Panem and it seems that they go at it all the wrong ways; I haven’t seen so many useless deaths since George Clooney’s in Gravity. Anyway, the good guys wins but there’s a price to pay…duh! It felt flat and unengaging and the multiple endings do not help.  Watch on TV —5/10

The-Hunger-Games-Mockingjay-Part-2

 

The Big Short: Adam McKay takes on the not easy task to explain the root causes of 2008 financial crisis using as a starting point the eponymous book wrote by Michael Lewis. He takes a few liberties with the source material but he succeeds in getting through the most important facts and information with clever and funny breaking-the-forth-wall speeches and using Ryan Gosling’s character as guide for the audience. With a stellar ensemble cast at his disposal, McKay skillfully tells the story of a few individuals who saw the end of the real estate bubble coming and all the problems connected with financial derivative products. Despite the complicated and, some might say, dull subject the film is well-paced and funny with convincing performances. Special kudos to Christian Bale! Relevant and entertaining —7.5/10

the-big-short

 

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Me and Earl and the dying girl

Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon; Main Cast: Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia CookeNick OffermanConnie BrittonJon Bernthal;

Me-and-Earl-and-the-Dying-Girl

Greg (Mann) has successfully navigated the treacherous waters of high school until his senior year by being a chameleon. He cleverly adapted to the social mores of each clique thus remaining virtually invisible and unscathed. His best and only friend since childhood, Earl (Cyler), is laid-back and unfazed by the high school life; they share a passion for movies, in particular classics, instilled by Greg’s father (Offerman), an eccentric professor of sociology. Their favorite pastime is to remake them or “swede” them (you should watch Be Kind Rewind, to understand this) with, of course, poor man’s methods and interesting results. Greg’s quiet life is forever changed when his mother (Britton) guilt-trips him into befriending Rachel (Cooke), a girl who attends his school and has been recently diagnosed with leukemia.  What follows is a very authentic and captivating tale of friendship (no soppy, tear-jerker love story a la The Fault In Our Stars), that is, in turns, charming, funny, awkward and raw. Greg is forced out of his protective shell by hanging out with Rachel at school, learning to be part of its micro-society and experiencing the (most of the time) traumatic consequences of being noticed. Rachel, on the other hand, becomes part of Greg and Earl’s private world and enjoys watching their masterpieces while she has to endure cancer treatments.  This film is a well-written, perfectly-casted coming-of-age story with a nice dose of sarcasm and humour that balances its darker and more gut-ranching moments. I haven’t seen a film about teenagers so insightful and charming in a while. The three young leads give very convincing performance and carry the film on their shoulders from start to finish. Among the adult cast special kudos should go to Nick Offerman as Greg’s oddball father, a joy to watch! Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s second time in the director’s chair is a success and well-worth your time. Beguiling —8/10

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Spectre

Director: Sam Mendes; Main Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa SeydouxRalph FiennesBen WhishawNaomie HarrisDave BautistaAndrew Scott;

spectre

Sam Mendes as director, Christoph Waltz as main villain, Daniel Craig finally owing the role as 007, after good performances in Skyfall and Casino Royal, at least one age-appropriate Bond-girl (Bellucci)… this film had all the ingredients for being a worthy new chapter in the suave spy’s history. Alas, it doesn’t deliver on all its promises. To begin at the beginning: the title sequence with Sam Smith’s song is neither remarkable nor particularly memorable, so no, not a good start (it was difficult to top Skyfall, I know). Our hero is on a mission from M (the deceased one, not the current one) but he doesn’t really know what he’s chasing or looking for. The not-so-greving widow (the above mentioned Bellucci) of the man Bond most recently killed points him to a secret meeting of a secret organisation… and I was waiting for someone to say “Hail Hydra!”… I’m too jaded I guess for a serious take on an all powerful, worldwide criminal syndicate. It did work well in the sixties when the franchise started but now, after so many homages and parodies (I’m looking at you Austin Powers!), I think it lost its aura of menace and uncomprehending evil. Blofeld is not truly convincing as psychopathic megalomaniac, Waltz’s valid efforts notwithstanding, and makes the whole story a little flat. While our globetrotting spy is involved in all the classic Bond-action scenes — foot and car chases in cities,  beating up henchmen, saving the damsel in distress and gathering intelligence — on the home front M (Fiennes), Q (Benshaw) and Moneypenny (Harris) are fighting the ugly face of progress, personified by C (Scott), who wants to bring the British intelligence into the 21st century. Of course, we know from the get go that there’s more to it and it helps bringing the plot full circle in the third act of the film but…really! Demonising the digitalisation process it’s a bit old… Sarah Connor told us decades ago. Anyway, I’ve been very negative so far, so here’s the good part: the  cinematography is spectacular, the action is quite breathtaking and the cat-and-mouse chase during the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City is amazing. All actors give solid performances and the story moves along smoothly, Mendes, after all, knows his job. Maybe my expectations were too high and I felt let down, only time will tell. Spectre wants to be sinister and serious but lacks the more raw and grim elements of Skyfall to be as good as the latter. Unsatisfactory –5.5/10

 

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Sicario

Director: Denis Villeneuve; Main Cast: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro;

Sicario

Kate (Blunt) is a FBI agent used to kick down doors and catch bad guys for the good of all American people. She follows the rules but, on a rescue operation, she stumbles on something that it’s beyond understanding:  dozens of dead bodies ensconced inside the walls of a house. It belongs to a major player in the drug traffic between US and Mexico and it has the additional perk of backyard shed booby-trapped with explosive that kills two policemen. Spurred by righteous indignation, Kate joins an inter-agency task force led by Matt (Brolin), soi-disant consultant for the Department of Defense, who will show her how the war on drugs is really fought. Mat is helped by Alejandro (Del Toro), another “consultant” of the US government, who is enigmatic, apparently all-knowing and rather shady, also not American. The viewer goes along with Kate on this grim ride, discovering facts and getting information as she does, slowly realising that she stepped into a very dangerous world where police work is substituted by covert military operations and rules and boundaries are very different from what she knows and believes in. Villeneuve seems to have a knack for making films that keep you engaged and uncomfortable at the same time. The foreboding mood of the story, the constant feeling that something is not right is difficult to shake off even for the jaded, cynical viewer, all thanks to Villeneuve’s ability in combining excellent performances with a good script and expert cinematography. Brolin and Blunt sell very well their respective characters but Del Toro is the one that truly shines! I did miss him in a role he could sink his teeth in and give us something remarkable. The other interesting aspect of this film is the fact that doesn’t really give an answer to the questions it raises on the “war” on drugs, it just depicts the situation in all its stark, disheartening reality, reminding me of a very illuminating exchange in an episode of The Wire:

Carver: You can’t even call this shit a war.

Hauk: Why not?

Carver: Wars end.

Gripping —7.5/10

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Inherent Vice

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson; Main Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen WilsonKatherine WaterstonBenicio Del ToroReese Witherspoon;

Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice

The lastest film by Paul T. Anderson is somehow a crossover between The Big Lebowski and Chinatown.  This slightly surreal and meandering story starts like a classic noir: an ex-flame comes back into Doc Sportello’s (Phoenix) life asking for help. Our hero is a private detective with glorious sideburns and a penchant for smoking pot. His ex, Shasta (Waterston), once a flower child with the same proclivities, has since moved on to greener pasture: her current lover is a real estate magnate.  After her cryptic visit, Shasta disappears and Doc begins a strange journey following weird clues, stumbling on the kidnapping of said magnate, searching for a phantom ship and dealing with all sorts of crazies. He’s helped by faithful friend and lawyer Sauncho (Del Toro), deputy district attorney and occasional lover Penny (Whiterspoon) and he ends up making common cause with Dirty-Harry like detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Brolin). Set in 1970, this strange and rather convoluted tale, based on the eponymous book by Thomas Pynchon, might be slow-burning and very unlike Anderson’s previous film (The Master) but it’s captivating to follow. Doc is an oddball character and, most of the time, he’s stoned but, improbable as it may seem, he’s also pretty good at his job. In addition there’s Bigfoot, he starts out as a “benevolent nemesis” or “evil guardian angel” to Doc, but he reaches an understanding with him after their investigations  cross path. In a way, Bigfoot has similar traits to Doc: loner, determined and capable (with a visceral hate for hippies but that’s just a colorful side of his persona). This film with its eerie atmosphere and intricate plot turns out to be more  a character study on acid and it really works due to the superb performances of Phoenix and Brolin. Anderson has managed again the difficult task of keeping the viewer engaged with a star-studded, 2.5 hour-long movie based on a pretty wacky premise: chapeau! The cast in general is rather spectacular: curious, unexpected cameos and intriguing portrayals, it is clear that there’s a sure hand at the helm. The soundtrack and the photography complement the story and contribute greatly to the bizarre feeling that pervades the film throughout. Anderson’s style might not be everyone’s cup of tea and this film is even stranger than his usual fare so consider yourself warned. Mesmerizing –9/10

 

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Foxcatcher

Foxcatcher

Director: Bennett Miller; Main Cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo;

The Academy really likes film based on a true story and, this year in particular, the theme of fame and pushing beyond one’s limits. This movie has both, so it’s not a surprise that it was nominated, however it feels distant and detached notwithstanding the quality of the performance of the three leads. Steve Carell (with a fake nose, hideous teeth and dark eyes) is John DuPont: billionaire with a passion for wrestling and severe mommy issues. Channing Tatum is Mark Schultz: Olympic wrestling champion with low self-confidence, always in the shadow of his older brother. Last but not least, Mark Ruffalo is David Schultz: charismatic, well-adjusted and legendary wrestler. All three are impressive and they admirably carry the story and the film on their shoulders but they somewhat fail to engage the viewer.  The story of how DuPont created and sponsored the Foxcatcher wrestling team to prepare for the 1988 Olympic games feels like the tantrum of a petty child: bullied in school because he wasn’t good at any sport? Probably. Needing to prove to his overbearing mother that he can be a wrestler? Certainly. The film has an ominous, slow pace that goes well with the unravelling of DuPont’s psyche and, after the first half, the viewer has the feeling that something will go terribly awry. However it is not enough to achieve (cinematic) greatness, isn’t that ironic! Chilly —6.5/10

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Kingsman: the Secret Service

kingsman

Director: Matthew Vaughn; Main Cast: Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. JacksonMark StrongMichael CaineSofia BoutellaJack Davenport;

Vaughn’s latest effort is a funny, tongue-in-cheek foray into the spy world, in a way, it’s a love letter to the genre and to the 007’s films of yesteryears (I’m looking at you Goldfinger!). In his world the heros are knights in shining armor who happens to be spies and gentlemen. They have mad fighting skills, ingenious (and lethal) gadgets, dapper suits and, above all, good manners. Colin Firth is Harry, a.k.a Galahad, veteran member of a secret, independent agency, and  Taron Egerton is Eggsy, a young man with potentials who is recruited to fight the good fight. The two of them have a mentor-protégé relationship but there’s also the clash of different cultural backgrounds and the professional attitude versus street smarts, that, although pretty cliched, it’s still quite entertaining. While Eggsy is at the secret agent boot camp (more The Recruit than Nikita), that will decide if he is cut out to be a Kingsman, Harry is busy unravelling the mystery behind the death of his friend and colleague Lancelot (Davenport). To spice things up we get Samuel Jackson as Valentine, the villain with a crazy, ambitious plan for world domination and his faithful henchman Gazelle (Boutella): a lady in killer heels…literally! It’s almost as good as teeth capped with steel and a swimming pool full of sharks.  To roundup all the usual suspects there is also Michael Caine as M… oops sorry, he is Arthur in this film (well not only in this one but he’s not a butler here) and Mark Strong as Merlin, who is half way between Q and gunnery sergeant Foley. The viewer gets a lot of action scenes, a few plot twists and some over-the-top violence, that ends up being more hilarious than disturbing, more Guy Ritchie’s style than Sam Peckinpah’s. Talking about violence, there is a scene that rivals the fight of the Bride with the Crazy 88 (Kill Bill Vol.1). Vaughn gives the audience an entertaining and fun ride and the cast, while providing solid performances, is clearly having a blast as well. In addition the combination of the opening credits with Dire Straits is pretty spectacular. Always remember: manners maketh the man. Amusing —7/10

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Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu; Main Cast: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward NortonEmma StoneNaomi WattsAndrea RiseboroughAmy Ryan;

Art imitates life, or so it seems, in this film but it left me wondering if Inarritu’s last effort is  campy navel-gazing or a honest, tongue-in-cheek look at the entertainment business? I must say I’m not completely sold on the latter. Using a rather ingenious editing move (shooting the whole film in one, continuos take!) and an inspired soundtrack, Inarritu introduces the audience to a collection of different types (or archetypes) of actors and somewhat hefty themes: art and fame, vanity and self-worth. Riggan (Keaton), a once famous actor, has reached stardom interpreting a popular superhero (starts with b…finishes with …man, little on the nose maybe?) but he has fallen into obscurity in more recent years. Eager to revamp his career and be accepted by the high-brow critics, he is directing, producing and acting in a Broadway play he has adapted from Raymond Carver’s story What we talk about when we talk about love. The film follows Riggan in the few days before the premiere, while he struggles with mundane issues as director/producer and with his inner demons embodied by Birdman himself, who follows him around and talks like he has been gargling marbles. His internal conflict is sometimes fueled, sometimes abated by the people surrounding him: his manager and friend Jake (Galifianakis, casted against type and a pleasant surprise!), his recovering addict daughter Sam (Stone), his girlfriend and actress Laura (Riseborough), his leading lady Lesley (Watts), his ex-wife Sylvia (Ryan) and, last but not least, Mike (Norton), renown stage actor who lives only for the craft. There is an interesting mix of comic and dramatic moments in the story, with the right touch of surreal that reminds me a little of Michel Gondry‘s style. Riggan wants desperately to prove that he is a real artist, well versed in the craft, and not a washed up movie star, he wants to leave something behind that’s worthy and, most of all, he wants to matter. In the end this film is about very human feelings we can all relate to and understand. Keaton gives a great performance, one that can propel him back to stardom, so life mimics art after art has imitated life…ok, I have a headache now…Anyway the supporting cast, in particular Norton, is pretty amazing as well and improve the already good quality of the film. Innovative and thought-provoking —7/10

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Extraordinary Tales

ExtraordinaryTales

Director: Raul Garcia; Main Cast: Roger Corman, Guillermo del Toro, Christopher LeeJulian Sands;

Raul Garcia brilliantly assembles a collection of five animated stories adapted from Edgar Allan Poe. Each segment has its unique style of animation, colours and narrator with very different yet impressive results. The stories in question are: the Fall of House Usher, the Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, the Tell-tale Heart, the Pit and the Pendulum and the Masque of the Red Death. The grim and foreboding atmosphere that permeates each tale, and it’s so characteristic of Poe’s dark universe, is translated very effectively to the screen with the help of an apt music score and a perfect voice cast. As a curiosity: Garcia went to great lengths to recover old Bela Lugosi’s recording in order to have him “narrate” one of the segment. I particularly appreciated the nice touch of the interludes with the dead writer, represented by a crow, conversing with Death while hopping among the statues and the tombstones of a cemetery. This omnibus is quite an accomplishment just by an animation point of view: its mixture of 2D and 3D techniques, diverse textures and rendering methods suit well the mood and tone of the tales. In addition, the source material is excellent and Poe’s fans can definitely enjoy this new approach. Riveting —9/10

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Whiplash

whiplash

Director: Damien Chazelle; Main Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. SimmonsPaul ReiserMelissa Benoist;

Andrew Neimann (Teller) is a young musician, attending a prestigious music school and dreaming of nothing else but to become a great jazz drummer. As he strives for perfection, he meets Terence Fletcher (Simmons), revered teacher and leader of the best band in the school. It seems an encounter without consequences but it changes Andrew’s life, when it’s clear that Fletcher wants him in his band. It begins then a battle of wills, Fletcher always pushes his musicians beyond their limits but he takes a particular interested in Andrew and, at times, it seems that perfectionism becomes sadism. Andrew, on his part, is so absorbed by his quest for greatness that he’s ready to accept the abuses, disregarding his father’s (Reiser) concerns and discarding a budding relationship with Nicole (Benoist), a sweet girl from another college. The plot is very simple but both Simmons and Teller really sell this story of a match made in dysfunctional heaven, of driving someone to the edge: being another person or oneself. The “no pain, no gain” mantra that is the leitmotif of so many films about artists or athletes, reaches a whole new level here, turning what I always regarded as a fun, harmless thing, a drum set, into an instrument of torture both psychological and physical. I bet Darren Aronofsky, the master of cinematic obsessive behaviour, would approve and Sigmund Freud would have a field day. After yet another extreme event (showing up cover in blood and with a probable concussion to a concert) Andrew is forced by his father (who finally decided to intervene) to take a step back from music and leave school. However, he goes out with a bang denouncing Fletcher’s mistreatments and having him sacked. This would be the celebration of a sound approach to life and an uplifting ending, barring joining a rock band and having tons of fun while on world tour. Alas, this is not that kind of tale: there is a comeback and a final show down and the audience is left wondering if anyone really won or it is just a beginning of a new chapter of an enabler and his favorite addict. Chazelle has put together an interesting movie, thanks to amazing performances and refreshing directing choices; in addition jazz makes a great soundtrack. Captivating —7.5/10

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Até que a Sbórnia nos Separe

sbornia

Directors: Otto Guerra, Ennio Torresan; Main Cast: Hique GomezNico NicolaiewskyOtto Guerra;

An old man (Guerra) tells the story of his childhood in idyllic Sbornia, small peninsula separated from the rest of the world by a huge wall. He reminisces about the simple way of life with its quirks and peculiarities of his birthplace, about his father Kraunos (Gomez) and his good friend Pletskaya (Nicolaiewsky), both appreciated musicians that enlivened the evenings of the town. Besides the love for music and merriment, Sbornians have a penchant for drinking bizuwin, a beverage made with a local, slightly psychotropic plant, and axe ball, a rather unusual sport halfway between rugby and hand-pelota. The bucolic life of Sbornia is disrupted on a fateful day when the wall collapses due to an accident and the modern customs and different social mores of the outside world are brought to Sbornia. Pletskaya and Kraunos observe the reactions of their countrymen and showcase the different attitudes: while some quickly adopt foreign culture as Pletskaya, others prefer to reaffirm the Sbornian traditions and resist imperialism much like Kraunos. The latter witnesses, with increasing dismay, the dramatic changes without being able to prevent the inevitable doom. To complicate matters, Pletskaya falls in love with Coqueliquot, daughter of the magnate that is industrialising  Sbornia to produce a soda flavoured with bizuwin. The film is based on the play “Tangos & Tragédias” and it is an insightful picture of social and economical changes in a small community with plenty of humour and amazing music. The authors of the play, Nico Nicolaiewsky and Hique Gomez, have also wrote and composed most of this movie’s great songs and happens to be the voices of the main characters. The animation and the drawing style are distinctive and appealing, the story has a good pace and it’s very entertaining. Lively —8/10

 

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Il Capitale Umano

capitale-umano

Director: Paolo Virzì; Main Cast: Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Matilde Gioli, Valeria Bruni TedeschiGuglielmo PinelliFabrizio GifuniValeria GolinoLuigi Lo Cascio;

Stark and unapologetic portrayal of Italian middle and upper class through the story of two families: the Ossola and the Bernaschi, their fortunes collide after a terrible accident on a night before Christmas. The film has a Rashomon’s structure with: a short prologue showing a cyclist being run off the road by a dark SUV late at night, the previous six months leading to the night in question told by the point of view of three characters and an epilogue. Firstly the audience meets Dino Ossola (Bentivoglio), he is a small time real estate agent, his business is in crisis but he wants to make the big bucks no matter what. As it happens his teenager daughter Serena (Gioli) and Massimiliano Bernaschi (Pinelli) both attends a posh private school and are dating, perfect way for Dino to insinuate himself into the life of powerful financial banker Giovanni Bernaschi (Gifuni) and get involved in high risk but highly rewarding investments. He lies and cheats to try and get what he wants, not caring that he’s risking his children’s future. As time goes by and the financial crisis tightens its grip, things start to look grim for Dino and the ones closest to him are none the wiser: his second wife is too involved with her work as psychologist for troubled kids and his daughter has her own problems to deal with. Cue to Carla Bernaschi (Bruni Tedeschi), once an actress, she married up and lives now a cushy life among the well-to-dos, busing herself with shopping. Her life seems rather aimless until she finds a new interest: save the local theatre from being converted into condos. After getting the money from her husband, she organises the renovation and put together an artistic committee that will manage the activities of the theatre. Carla pours herself into the work and makes a tight connection with Donato (Lo Cascio) since Giovanni is too busy and worried about his business and her son too self-absorbed. The last charter is Serena’s point of view, it sheds light on a few tricky details of the story and makes it all clear about what really happens the night of the accident. I don’t want to give away the ending so I’ll just say that she ends up being the strongest character, more determined and selfless than the rest. Although adapted from a an American novel, Paolo Virzi manages to give a scary picture of the opulent and self-serving upper-middle class that lives in the small towns north of Milan, with a sharp eyes for details and social nuances. The film keeps the viewer engaged and interested to the very end, however it does leave a bitter aftertaste and a gloomy outlook of Italy nowadays, perfectly exemplified by Carla’s last line: “You bet on the downfall of this country and you won”. The cast is spectacular: from Fabrizio Bentivoglio’s rendering of Dino, unctuous, mellifluous and down right repellent to Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s pitch perfect interpretation of Carla, so lackadaisical and passive but ready to do what is necessary even if it’s despicable. Special mention to Matilde Gioli, her Serena is impressive and very relatable. Provocative and compelling —9/10

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Relatos Salvajes

relatos_salvajes

Director: Damián Szifrón; Main Cast: Darío Grandinetti, María Marull,  Ricardo DarínLeonardo SbaragliaOscar MartínezErica Rivas,  Diego GentileJulieta ZylberbergRita Cortese;

Damian Szifron wrote and directed this multi-segmented film that explores the dark and wild side of human nature. Each of the six episodes starts from a very simple premise: a plane trip, a new customer at a truck-stop restaurant, an overtaking on the motorway,  a car towed away, a hit-and-run accident and a wedding celebration; each story however evolves into something far more extreme than usual with a morbid humour and, in a few cases, very grim endings. The common denominator is always the loss of control, the refusal to be logical or sensible while facing the facts and just giving in to a more visceral and primal reaction. The first two stories are strictly about vengeance: long and carefully planned like the count of Montecristo or more in the spur of the moment like Beatrice Kiddo in Kill Bill (and equally bloody); both episodes are told with a slow pace and a mounting sense of foreboding. The fourth and fifth tales are more about “the insolence of office, and the spurns
that patient merit of th’ unworthy takes“, the former taking a very extreme turn reminding me of Michael Douglas’s character in Falling Down. The third and the sixth episodes are centered on what can happen if you cross the wrong person and how things might escalate (very quickly!) into violence. It is not a surprise that Pedro Almodovar is the producer since the mood and the flair of this film strongly remind of his early dark comedies (e.g.¡Átame!), he probably recognised the genius and the potential of these grim but very entertaining  parables. The whole cast is quite brilliant but a special mention should go to Erica Rivas for her role as deranged bride. I must say that when the film ended I was surprised, I would have watched at least another hour of these tales of ordinary folly. Impressive and riveting. —8.5/10

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