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I found John Michael McDonagh's previous work The Guard (2011) lukewarm and trying to be funny more times than succeeding in my eye, even with some positive critics finding the humour to their liking. His recent War on Everyone (2016) has had rather poor critic and audience appreciation. I thus watched Calvary (2014) with some reservations, although I was hoping to find why there was more praise for Brendan Gleeson acting and McDonagh's writing and directing. It now seems that McDonagh may be much better with unconventional priests than with comic cops!
From the unforgettable first line of the crisp script to the last shot of the film showing a single tear, the screenplay is pure genius. It is a dark comedy, a philosophical contemplation on life, pain, loss, forgiveness and frailty. The many characters and potent actors each add their own depth to the devoted priest centrepiece who is trying to help the community, but is also very aware of the reality and the limitations of his rhetoric.
I have rarely seen a movie about a religious figure be so morally ambiguous, subdued yet ambitious. IT is not preachy or propose any universal truth, but rather explores humanity as is, raw, flawed and in search for: pleasure, closure, redemption, revenge, reparation, meaning, happiness, communication and communion. Communion as in deeply sharing and beyond the Christian shenanigans of the body of Christ. The priest who sees himself as inherently trying to do "good", and not only God's work, is an endearing character how is as flawed as all the others. He drinks, swears, gets violent on occasion, exhibits greed and has done some harm, somewhat inadvertently, to his suicidal daughter. Yet, he is real and relatable. He questions the moral compass he holds himself up to and tries to be the pillar of his town and community. He sometimes fails, but gets up and tries to do better.
He says there is "too much focus on sins and less on virtues". He finds a way to teach his daughter true forgiveness and love.
The film is ultimately beautifully filmed, acted, directed and edited and is based on a off-beat, cynical, but surprisingly smart and sensible screenplay that delivers laughs, emotions and life reflections. Bravo Mr. McDonagh. You hit the nail... to the cross.
More than a Zombie Movie and a Good One at That + History of Zombie
(If you want to skip zombie pseudo-history, please go directly to the fourth paragraph for the film)
Train to Busan (2016) is the "best Zombie movie ever" like a few reviews mentioned, but I am not a particular zombie movie fan. In fact I may have seen a dozen and do not watch The Walking Dead (2010) but do highly recommend "Men Against Fire" episode of British Black Mirror (2011) sci-fi TV series as a perfect example of social, philosophical, psychological and political warfare examination with a mutant premise, akin to zombie in some aspects.
Korean anthology of short films Doomsday Book (2012) had "A Brave New World" segment that dealt with Seoul zombies in a thoughtful, sensitive way, while Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror (2007) film (segment of Grindhouse) was the best zombie movie before Train to Busan (2016). They surpass classics DAY OF THE DEAD (1985), 28 DAYS LATER (2002) and DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004) but I haven't seen George A. Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) or his earlier NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). Re-Animator (1985), Dead Alive (1992), Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Zombieland (2009) are supposed to be lots of fun. The Evil Dead (1981) and The Evil Dead II (1987) are excellently cheesy and gory and zombie-like enough to include here.
Yet, from all these United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) productions, perfection of the craft within the genre has not been reached. Western origins of Zombies (Haitian voodoo) and Vampires (Eastern Europe) and popularization in the US and Western Europe has not allowed a fresh look at the genre (fresh flesh?). Now Asian cinema is taking things to the next level with its innovation and history with effective horror. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) and Jee-woon Kim's Coming Out (2001) are some example of the best Vampire tales every shown and they are from Iran and Korea.
Train to Busan (2016) is a zombie film that is also a great action movie and a drama that holds its own weight. The characters are admittedly mostly one-dimensional but the dramatic action, moments, movements and details make it memorable and palpable. The main relationship is a failed father-daughter relationship that is fleshed out enough to be felt at many crucial moments of the film. Secondary characters are also important and contribute greatly to the narrative and emotions. The couple expecting a baby are the perfect counterpart to our main characters while other (regular or bizarre passengers, train personnel, baseball players) play adequate parts. The suspense is real even if you need some suspension of belief at many moments!
This is an action-packed ride and expertly paced. The dilemmas are non-stop and drama keeps unfolding until the final frame. Zombies are scary and cool, the cinematography and special effects play well into the narrative. The tension is well created and the twists and turns keep on coming even if a few or far-fetched or questionable, the majority of the story is strong and holds together. More than anything this is a fun, fast and relentless ride with people we get to care about in an impossible situation after the other. What movies are made for, more or less. In this case: more!
No reused Resident Evil (2002) profitable but predictably poor franchise here. I hope to also check out the animated work from the same director including a companion piece zombie movie set in Seoul...
Pablo Larraín and Nathalie Portman make Jackie emotional, complex and real
Jackalie portmanteau could be used to describe the results of the tremendous skill Portman put into portraying the iconic Jackie Kennedy. Director Pablo Larraín takes a strong script which focuses on a compelling and complex individual faced with a drama-intense week at the highest level of personal, family and state/world turmoil and makes it visceral with his vision. Portman is pitch perfect and although La La Land is probably my favourite movie of the decade, I am not certain I can say Stone deserved the Best Actress award more than this nuanced controlled breakdown and bravery in face of adversity acting tour de force.
Inventive and risky editing (Sebastián Sepúlveda)and music (Mica Lei) are other key elements to tell this story emotionally and immerse the viewer in the near meltdown. The supporting cast shines on occasion even though Nathalie casts shadows on everyone with her brilliant role. Acting legend John Hurt delivers some soothing and straightforward philosophy as the priest who gets to hear Jackie's deepest fears and secrets - while we see some of the best cinematography from Stéphane Fontaine who has many other great visual pleasers and shockers in this and did marvels in French productions A Prophet (2009), Rust and Bones (2012) and Elle (2016). This will be one of his last role before his death at age 77 two months ago. Peter Sarsgaard who shined in The Experimenter (2015) gives a few good counterpoints and delivers some well-written lines as Bobby concerning his brother's possible legacy.
Watch Bobby (2006) for the rest of the Kennedy story five years later. A completely different but equally captivating multi-layer narrative by Emilio Estevez.
Polina, danser sa vie (2016)
Polina is pure art and passion
A modern dance piece like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly used to do in the 1940s and 1950s. Instead of the magical musical and dance acts, Polina is grounded in contemporary realism , but the magic comes from the process of perfecting one's art and pursing one's passions. I walked in this movie by accident and stayed by curiosity, sitting next to a kind movie-goer who was there for a purpose - and on purpose. I asked her briefly what this was about and she seemed to know what she was in for, and it intrigued me enough to give it a try. She also happen to ended up enjoying it immensely as we spoke more after the experience,
Not a particular dance aficionado myself, having seen a mere dozen of ballets and modern dance performances, I was impressed with Wim Wenders'homage to Pina Bausch in his beautiful daring documentary of modern dance. In Polina, neither dancer nor choreographer is at the centre, but rather dance itself, the collective dancers and their lively creations. This fiction grounds you first in the characters and their passion for life, themselves and art, namely dance in various forms, and thus amplify the artistic achievements that is stellar in its own right with emotions, conflict and conviction. Polina is because of this much better than Pina (2011) can ever be, as good as the dance choreography, venues and performances are in Wenders Academy Award nominated film.
Polina starts in Russia with what may seem a typical ballet banality, but quickly evolves into a change from Eastern to Western Europe, but an internal change, brought by challenges and exploration of one's love, limits, power, purpose and potential. The journey is unexpected and worthwhile, where failures or dead ends are seen as progress and positive understanding of a beautiful world of creators where this is no right or wrong. Beauty emerges from these discovery and Valérie Müller films the process with powerful scenes and engaging visual organic ordinary beauty.
The last dance is the ultimate gateway into the gorgeous world of dance and is much simpler but more powerful and beautiful than for example the famed American in Paris ballet at the end of American in Paris (1951) The editing and emotional tie-in to Polina's past and possible future elevates the deciding audition dance into a euphoric endeavour of love and possibilities.
La La Land (2016)
Life-Affirming Artistic Masterpiece Awaits Awards
Damien Chazelle dazzled with Whiplash (2014). Pace, acting, music, struggle and storytelling sure hit. He had toyed with the musical idea when at Harvard with low budget and black & white Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009). He now delivers beyond any expectations.
An Oscar-tying record of 14 nominations and rave reviews if just a reflection of how good this is. More than all that this movie is a collection of transporting feelings: freedom, love, passion, infatuation, nostalgia. It explores dreams, hopes, fears, sacrifices and reality. It has gorgeous and appropriate fantastic elements that add layers instead of detract from the story. Like Titanic (1997), although a different beast all together, I cried, I laughed, I smiled and was transported.
Ryan Gosling and especially Emma Stone sell ever detail with their extraordinary skills and dedication. They are often spell-binding. An on-screen chemistry and crafted from an assured writing and directing vision that take us places movies have never taken us before. The best Musical since Moulin Rouge! (2001) fifteen years ago with added cool choreography and gusto.
Cold Fish (2010) was the last movie that blew my mind in such a graphic, edge of the seat, emotional, artistic, fantastic and physical way. It also had a theme of planetarium and stars. I am so glad I saw this in theatres too and in IMAX with incredible image and sound.
Talking about sound and music, Justin Hurwitz gets 3 Oscar nods for his score and two songs: quirky City of Stars and adorable Audition (The Fools Who Dream). Audition is a tour de force visual and visceral scene from Stone and bittersweet song. Hurtitz should come home with one or likely two statuettes after been looked over in Whiplash (2014). The Jazz in both films is magical, but here there are other elements of music (even to the choice of 80s pop music in the mix) and there is the explanation of jazz origins and essence that enhances the music as art and is contrasted with John Legend radio-friendly record-selling reality which books tours and pays bills.
Sharp (C-sharp?) Chazelle deserves his two Oscars but has though competition in both writing and directing including the return of writer/director Kenneth Lonergan after bar-raising You Can Count on Me (2000) and Margaret (2011). Canadian Denis Villeneuve's Arrival (2016) which is nominated for 8 Oscars and 9 BAFTAs is also a contender although not my personal favourite film of his.
The only assured Oscar win would be Tom Cross for Editing who won for Whiplash (2014) and put every beautiful detail of Damien in a dizzying and delicate succession, but I predict La La Land could sweep the Oscars. I guess it could get from 10-13 Oscars potentially beating the 11 wins tree-way tie of epic Ben-Hur (1959), Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). It won 7 out of 7 Golden Globes and should win a fair share of its 11 BAFTA Awards nominations this Sunday. Wishing it long life and success. Hard to beat something that steals your breath and hard beat for 2 hours like this.
Not just a movie experience, a revelation! Rejoice, live, love, sing and dance...
L.A. Hollywood - La La Land is the best Hollywood film of the decade or maybe the millennium...
A Most Violent Year (2014)
Jessica & Oscar with a good script and directing by J.C.
Oscar Isaac in his prime here, fresh off leading role in Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) and before his sci-fi year with Ex Machina (2015) and Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (2015), delivers deadpan and conviction as a medium-size business owner faced with financial, fiscal, legal and physical trouble. He stars opposite Jessica Chastain, Oscar-nominated for The Help (2011) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) who plays his wife which turns out to be the most complex and interesting character. Jessica had "A Most Stellar Year" with Interstellar (2014) and her riveting performance here. She did carry her lesser role in The Martian (2015) the next year, proving to be the sci-fi year for her as well.
Isaac is a force as Abel Morales and the writing and directing builds characters and tension to a boiling denouement. He has good scenes with his wife, lawyer, employees, friends, competitors and law enforcement. He even acts a crucial scene in his native Spanish. However a deleted scene where his character scolds his oldest daughter off the road is perhaps even better than all the scenes actually left in the final cut. Make sure to look for it in the DVD/Blu-Ray.
Jessica plays the tough Anna Morales and the script could have windows for her to overact, but she is mostly able to nuance her performance and keep it believable and engrossing. Her scenes with her husband are the best, but she manages to protect his and their interests in others.
J.C. Chandor who was nominated for Best Writing, Original Screenplay for Margin Call (2011) writes a compelling story with some strong dialogue. He directs his two leads and creates a mood of suspense and thrill as we feel for the characters their bonds, their struggles and their fate.
A stunning crime drama that creeps on you and leaves you wanting more with a succulent last act. A lot of superb details in the script and a near flawless execution. Just shy of Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright power couple as the Underwoods in House of Cards (2013).
American Gangster (2007)
American Gangster = American Hero
Pros: Interesting story and strong performance by Denzel. Cons: Predictable. A few directing and acting flaws.
In the tradition of Blow (2001), here is a real American Hero...
America has been glorifying gangsters way before hip hop and gangster rap, way before television "The Sopranos" (1999), hit movies Scarface (1983) and Goodfellas (1990). Guns and seemingly limitless funds (read "fun") were an end and a mean (by a mean I refer to both the demeanor and misdemeanor, and I mean by any means necessary) before the Godfather (1972) et al. had every prototypical Italian American and his neighbour imitate Brando, Pacino, De Niro or Pesci ad nauseum and quote lines of gangster movies like people used to quote Shakespeare. The American Dream, before "American Idol " (2002) produced prefab Pop Stars, was of an entrepreneurial spirit realistically closer to the original spirits-bootlegging Scarface than say an arguably antisocial, enigmatic, Bill Gates. America's gun culture endures. Thus the title of the movie alone, alas, says a lot about the American subconscious.
This may even go beyond the United States boundaries as Hollywood and U.S. influence on the world culture is still very powerful--in Japan, you have the Yakuzas From Bonnie and Clyde (1967) to American Gangster (2007), movies about money and violence has been very popular. For example, there is a clear preponderance of high ratings for such movies in the Internal Movie Database IMDb, the most popular movie website in America and on the planet. At the time of this original article (Nov 2007), four out of the five overall best- rated movies in the TOP 250 out of hundreds of thousands are of that kind!
In this rendition of the gangster movie genre which focuses on a clever, ruthless 'black man' in Harlem's 1960s who builds a drug empire, the glorifying is not overt, yet it is not really made in a way that you will realistically root for the "good cop" instead of the "bad a*s villain". The movie has depth in content in that it deals with connected racial tension and government involvement in corruption and drug trafficking. A big angle to the tale is that bypassing regular drug channel and getting the product straight from the source in Far-East Asia with the help of the US Army in Vietnam, this 'black man' or nig*r (America's subclass or worse than nothing) was able to overshadow even the Italian Mafia's chokehold on organized crime, which unsettled more than a few people from both sides of the law. Also, the systematic corruption in New York law-enforcement agencies that permitted the fight on drug trafficking to be very lax as well as these state employees actually profiting from this decadence in the streets, was brought to light and to life quite vividly.
In this picture, Denzel dazzles and is a great villain in his portrayal of Frank Lucas, although not to the degree of his Oscar- worthy Training Day (2001) performance. He gets a chance to shine occasionally and more so towards the end, but the script and directing did not allow him to show his full arsenal on celluloid. Russell Crowe plays a cop again (L.A. Confidential, 1997) and is as subdued as his character. What I did not like is that the subplot of his personal life, although maybe interesting on paper and a worthy contrast to add complexity and not fall into black-and-white territory, did not really work and detracted instead of enhanced the picture. These were the only parts that really felt long and underused out of the otherwise well-paced 157 minutes. Carla Gugino did not really hit the mark as the wife, but it seemed to me that it was more of a storytelling mishap out of Ridley Scott's directing. He should have handled it differently to have a better impact or not use it at all and maybe spend more time on Frank Lucas' personal or "professional" life.
Besides this little lack of character development that can be seen for pretty much most of the characters, the film is a good story, well told and well placed into the context of the time and place of the narrative. The conclusion wraps everything up nicely. Thank you, come again.
Ma mère (2004)
Son of a...
Pros: Daring, intriguing, intelligent Cons: Not for everyone The Bottom Line: A refreshing take on freedom of action.
So what can be said about this movie? It is at face value, very sexual and somewhat perverse. However, once having sit through it, it is evident that the abundance of sex scenes and situations all serve the unconventional coming-of-age story. In fact, even though the scenes are more graphic than average, they are much more natural and realistic than an overwhelmingly unimaginative traditional treatment of "the love scene" . That said, those who are not comfortable seeing nudity and sex on screen (or who are, but say would like to be warned before renting this and watching it with your in-laws) should be advised.
More than the sex, there is the freedom. A different freedom than say the antisocial libertinism of Lars Van Trier's Idiots, inasmuch as that it is more thoughtful and mature. It is a conscious choice to explore deep desires and to live a life unafraid and non-accepting of personal and societal self-imposed boundaries. In that, the film succeeds wonderfully, woes you, open doors, set the stage for interesting reflections, and is bound to spark up dialogue by laying the foundation to ask the tough questions.
That said, the plot is almost an afterthought as the philosophical content is the resonating factor here. The sparking idea is that a boy is confronted with the fact that his mother is a self-proclaimed slut. A plot construction reminiscent of Kevin smith's Chasing Amy so far, yet the focus is not on accepting one's past here. Not only is the son suppose to accept and love her for who she is, he is also to embark in a eye-opening motherly exposition to this life of saturated senses, openness and constant exploration. A bond between the son and mother is formed and various characters come in and out of the boy's life, including Hansi, played precariously by beautiful Emma de Caunes. All the character's are interesting in their own way and bring other dimensions to the "alternate lifestyle" revealed.
Based on George Bataille's work written decades earlier, but put in the context of the new millennium, the film adaptation serves as a sort of compass to examine how far along we have gone in our sexual emancipation as a society.
The acting is superb, especially from an assured Isabelle Huppert and the director's vision shows in the consistency of his actors performances to support his thematic goals. The recurring music is a soft, barely audible Barber's Adagio for Strings, as Pierre, the son, contemplates life in the sand dunes of the Canary Islands. The pacing is good, as the movie builds momentum and the ending is very fitting for a film that is not afraid to tell its story.
Strange, but not over-the-top. Frighteningly and enchantingly real. The film is always, like its characters, somewhere between imaginary boundaries.
The DVD has a deleted scene, a less poignant alternative ending that I was glad was edited to the final cut and two excellent interviews with the insightful writer/director Christophe Honoré and a wide-eyed Emma de Caunes.
To watch with your mother (or not).
Human Universe (2014)
Humanity progress and the potential of the future
Brian Cox is the new face of science along with Neil deGrasse Tyson who's Carl Sagan Cosmos update is out of this world. Cox's Wonders of Trilogy made us wonder about life (5 episodes). the universe (4 episodes).and the solar system (5 episodes). Here Cox makes us think and is a bit more pragmatic and culturally sensitive to present the human perspective of the universe. The series starts strong with a link to our adaptive ancestors all the way to our impressive space achievements. Cox awaits a Soyuz reentry and rendezvous in Kazakhstan to greet cosmonauts. We have permanent presence in space (ISS) and here are humans coming back from this home
The second episode asks the tough philosophical question and proposes some answers, while the third episode asks about the likelihood of aliens, interviewing famous Dr. Frank Drake who's equation has been the base of scientific speculation since the 1960s. The episode however talks about some of its variables and implications, yet the conclusion reached at the end of the narrative is hasty and ill-explained. If that was the direction intended then the episode could have been longer, better researched or better edited.
After this still interesting chapter, the two last episodes are simply brilliant. The last one is the crown achievement of the series and perhaps also is the conclusion for the Wonders of Trilogy as well as it is extremely well-written and delivered by Brian Cox. From the initial cave in Spain to the penultimate revelation of potential Neanderthal culture & intelligence that were extinct as alternate theory, thinking and warning, the script is science and philosophy at its best. The final shot in the Space Station window is priceless and says it all. Bravo!
Americans spend 10 times more on their pet grooming than in fusion energy research which could change humanity's future We haven't put another human on the moon since 1972, 45 years ago We can do better! Thanks Brian and BBC team
Education (and entertainment) is key
Episodes 1 "Apeman - Spaceman" 10/10 2 . "Why Are We Here?" 9/10 3 . "Are We Alone?" 8/10 4 . "A Place in Space and Time" 10/10 5 . "What is Our Future?" 10/10
Effective Space Travel and Love Story
Morten Tyldum is one of the best up and coming director in my opinion and I thoroughly enjoyed his fine Norwegian crime thriller Headhunters (2011) and even more so his multi-Oscar nominated, including for best directing, The Imitation Game (2014) which may have been the best movie of that year. I was looking forward to this science-fiction project, a genre I like when it delivers on its promises, and the trailer even though it looked commercial, seemed promising. Unfortunately, it seems the critics picked the movie apart and I hesitated and doubted before seeing it, but decided that Tyldum was worth a try even with the naysayers.
Firstly, Jon Spaihts'script is actually very good and shines on occasion with philosophical/psychological dilemmas and themes without losing the human factor and contact. We empathize with the characters and are afraid, lost, torn, and even in love (yes) with them. The technology, the setting, the context and the beautiful set (real and digital), including a stunning star swimming pool and luxury rooms on this passenger spaceship. One of the character is a writer and the words take on poetic and philosophical turns to trump and triviality or banality of more predictable or run-of-the-mill sci-fi films. Of course there is some plot turns that are a bit far- fetched but all in all it is well within its dangerous and wondrous world it delves into.
Secondly, the directing makes the two leads make nuanced performance and illicit the right emotions from viewers while also keeping the oddness, awe, tension and adventurous factor.
Lastly, this film is a timeless love story with secrets, sacrifices, choices and serendipity in an attempt to understand and live a potential eventual human migration to the stars and planets with its joys and perils.
What do we do with the place and time you leave behind and what do you have to look forward to? To paraphrase the terrific and thoughtful screenplay, we are all just passengers in life... even if we want to be the captain of our lives. What is the meaning of time, life, love, loneliness? This raises great questions and leave you wanting more at the end.
This is a great addition to Tylum's body of work and to science- fiction in general. Kudos and hope this will get more recognition in the future... hopefully not in 120 years like this fictional space travel...