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In the mid-'80s, I discovered the TV programme At the Movies, in which two film critics (Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel) passionately talked about movies... all kinds of movies, from the most recent film directed by Federico Fellini to A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. I became an addict to that programme and I watched it every Sunday, even knowing that months, maybe years, would go by until I could watch some of the films they talked about. In the mid-'90s, I made a new discovery thanks to the then incipient Internet (or CompuServe, specifically): the film reviews written by Ebert, which were much deeper and more substantial than the 5 or 6 minutes he and Siskel could dedicate to a movie in the TV programme. I read hundreds of those reviews, and I think their best attribute was the casual and accessible style in which they were written. I allowed myself this indulgent autobiographical passage for two reasons: the first one is establishing the fact that I'm a big admirer of Ebert's; and the second one is because, honestly, I don't have much to say about the documentary Life Itself. It's a sincere and emotive tribute to Ebert's life, with contributions from many friends and relatives, including his tireless wife Chaz, his grandchildren, Marlene Iglitzen (Siskel's widow) and filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese (who was also a co-producer of this film), Werner Herzog and Ava DuVernay. Life Itself is definitely a good documentary, even though it occasionally gets too intimate that it seems to exploit the painful final months in the critic's life. But, after all, the genuine reflection of Ebert's life is in his writings, and that's all we need to understand the person. Knowing the dates, places and events of his biography end up being secondary when he compare them to the huge contribution to cinematographic critic, and that's why I prefer to remember his words instead of the chronological trivia or the details of his illness. Nevertheless, Life Itself is a solid documentary which will be undoubtedly appreciated by the fans of Ebert's; but if you want to understand the reasons of his importance, I suggest you to visit rogerebert.com, or watch Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, one of my favorite films, which also says a lot about Ebert and his love for cinema in each one of its shapes.
Some months ago, I read the comic The Secret Service, and I loved it. Its story is absolutely perfect: very dynamic, internally consistent and with the precise degree of humor in order not to be taken too seriously despite its violence and catastrophic global threats. Oh, and it also had an abundant number of "geek" references to delight the fans of comics. Therefore, I was very interested in watching the film Kingsman: The Secret Service, and even though I found it entertaining, but it didn't live up to the high expectations set by the comic, mainly because co-screenwriters Matthew Vaughn (who was also the director) and Jane Goldman decided to "improve" the story altering abundant elements and breaking the balance of the well built characters. But, well... those complaints will only be relevant to the few people who read the comic, so I will now try to focus myself on the movie itself. The basic premise of Kingsman: The Secret Service is interesting: a centennial secret organization of expert British agents dedicated to the protection of society, not due to a mandate of the Crown, but due to a moral duty; and since they are independent from the government or political institutions, they avoid harmful influences which could corrupt their noble mission. Colin Firth brings an excellent performance as the classic "knight spy", and he also displays a wide dose of charisma. On the other hand, Taron Egerton feels a bit insipid and not very charismatic as the apprentice Eggsy. And it was obviously a pleasure to see Michael Caine as the leader of the organization. The violence is quite bloody, totally justifying the "R" rating and giving us an idea of what action cinema can be like when it doesn't care about commercial interests which prefer a pre-teen audience. On the negative side, the screenplay feels occasionally too erratic, seeking the correct proportion between the two sub-plots (the investigation of missing celebrities and Eggsy's training), but not always achieving it. Another thing I didn't like was the superficial way in which the villain was written; the character has so many affectations that they destroy any sensation of purpose or threat. In conclusion, I think I would place Kingsman: The Secret Service at the same level of Kick-Ass, which was also directed by Vaughn: in both films, the action is pleasantly bloody, not all the characters are well written, and even though the concept is interesting, it's not always handled with enough ingenuity to take full advantage of it. Nevertheless, I think I can give a moderate recommendation to Kingsman: The Secret Service as an entertaining action film, despite not being totally satisfactory. And besides, it served for me to lower the expectations for future cinematographic adaptations of other extraordinary comics (Saga, Sex Criminals, Alias). It's an unavoidable fact I will have to accept. The fans of Howard the Duck's know what I'm talking about.
The Face of Love is a brilliant film with perfect performances and a fascinating screenplay about the risk and comfort of clinging to the past, using it as an excuse to evade the present and ignore the future. The great Ed Harris makes an excellent work in his dual role, bringing an appropriately warm and vulnerable attitude and achieving moments of an abundant emotional intensity. Annette Bening very solidly navigates the line between sincere love and sickly obsession, and the sadly deceased Robin Williams is absolutely credible as Bening's character neighbor and friend. Before watching The Face of Love, I thought it was going to be a generic autumnal romance, but the film ended up being something much more interesting than that, presenting us an interesting psychological perspective which is rarely examined in modern cinema. In conclusion, I liked The Face of Love very much, and I definitely recommend it, specially to those who want to see an excellent adult drama, which is lacking of clichés and full of deepness.
I wasn't very interested in watching Wild, because I don't like those films dedicated to delight themselves in the suffering of the characters (examples: 21 Grams, The Burning Plain); and this movie is based on a true story who decided to make a walk in order to overcome a devastating personal tragedy. Fortunately, Wild didn't end up being one of those films... even though that doesn't mean I found it very good. The main problem from Wild is the fractured structure from its screenplay, which doesn't adequately tell the story or fully develops the main character, making her walk feel more like a whim than a genuine search of sense, or an atonement for the bad decisions she made. Many people compared Wild with Into the Wild, but I liked that film much more; in that one, we could really feel the main character's catharsis, as well as his relentless search of deep personal truths. Wild examines the same subjects, but on a superficial and almost intranscendent way. The emotions this film should generate shyly poke out only occasionally, and it's thanks to the solid work from Laura Dern and Gaby Hoffman in supporting roles. As for Reese Witherspoon's performance in the main character, I didn't like it, because she never transmits the tiredness and ravages her character suffers. Director Jean-Marc Vallée's previous filmography includes the excellent films The Young Victoria and Dallas Buyers Club, both of them full of emotions and fascinating characters. In Wild, he didn't work with a such a good screenplay as the ones from those films, but he could at least manage not to make the film boring. In conclusion, I don't regret having watched Wild, but it didn't leave me very satisfied. Nevertheless, I think I can give a slight recommendation to this movie, specially to hikers who want to have some fun pointing out all the mistakes the main character makes. I personally lose my breath when walking just some blocks, so I don't have enough basis to judge someone who walked 1700 kilometres.
I thought The Possession of Michael King was going to be an interesting "science against superstition" exercise, but unfortunately, the film didn't have that ambition, and it falls short on all those things which could have rescued it from its frustrating mediocrity. The story starts well with a moderately interesting motivation for its main character, whose skepticism regarding religion and supernatural subjects is transformed into a personal crusade as a consequence of a tragedy. But afterwards, when the supernatural manifestations come, the screenplay immediately loses its vaguely pseudo-scientific focus in order to follow an excessively predictable route completely lacking of ingenuity or originality. In fact, one of the "demonologists" interviewed by the main character explains the stages, symptoms and consequences of demonic invocation, and then, the film proceeds to exactly show us what it had announced, without deviating too much or focusing on the central subject, leaving us with a routine "possession" lacking of surprises or dramatic impact. And the documentary format whimsically fluctuates with pretty much frequency. When the main character loses control of the situation, the use of the hand- held camera becomes too forced, and generates various inconsistencies (for example, the camera captures the incorporeal voices which besiege the main character, but nobody else listens to them? How convenient!). In conclusion, I didn't like The Possession of Michael King, mainly because it lacks of the necessary discipline to go farther in each one of its aspects, starting by abandoning the documentary pretension and exploiting the advantage of a more conventional cinematographic style. Sometimes, we need distance and perspective to appreciate the horror. Besides of a camera which justifies its presence.
Why the hell did I go to see Annie? The answer is: Will Gluck. This director/producer/screenwriter has been involved in various projects I liked, both in cinema (Fired Up!, Easy A) and TV (The Loop, Andy Richter Controls the Universe, Grosse Pointe). On the other hand, he also made the tedious romantic comedy Friends with Benefits. And it's true that Annie received very negative reviews, but I had curiosity in watching it, because Gluck's style doesn't always "connect" with the audience and the critics. After having watched Annie, I have to say I didn't find it as bad as many people did... but I definitely didn't find it good either. I was moderately enjoying the first half hour of Annie, because that's where Gluck's style is mostly noticed; but after that, the film gets increasingly boring and irritating. A divisive factor for many spectators will surely be the "ethnic readjustment" of the characters. The purists of Broadway, the 1982 film and Harold Gray's cartoon (yes, strictly speaking, Annie is an adaptation of a 1924 comic) might be against that, but in my personal case, that was indifferent to me. Quvenzhané Wallis and Jamie Foxx made their best effort in their characters, but they are frequently betrayed by the cloying routines of the screenplay. In conclusion, I found Annie (2014) a waste of time, and I can't recommend it, not even to the fans of Rose Byrne's (like me; she's definitely one of the most adorable actresses nowadays).
On its simplest level, American Sniper is a war film of a solid manufacture, with perfectly defined good ones and evil ones and without any doubt about the causes or morality of the conflict. In other words, it's like any video-game (Call of Duty or Battlefield come to mind) with vaguely defined characters, abundant urban combat and simple but functional drama which outlines the most elementary emotions (guess what happens to the soldier who is excited for his wedding). Don't misunderstand me... I like those video-games very much, and I have enjoyed similarly unidimensional films, such as Lone Survivor and Act of Valor. But I think I expected more from American Sniper due to the difficult subjects handled by the screenplay and, specially, the controversial true events which inspired this film. Chris Kyle has been equally described as one of the biggest military heroes of the United States, and as a racist cold-blooded killer who murdered out of pleasure (not only during war, but supposedly also in New Orleans, during the looting after Katrina hurricane, even though this hasn't been confirmed), and he once said "I wish I had killed more people during war". For better or for worse, screenwriter Jason Hall decided to exclusively adopt the hero perspective, ignoring the problematic position of North American invasion in Iraq. I understand his commercial and narrative decisions; the fantasy sells better than the reality, and besides, we have already seen many movies which denounced the uncertainty of that conflict. However, American Sniper feels less like war cinema and more like propaganda. Unless director Clint Eastwood pretends to make another film which portrays the other side of this war (something like what he did with the diptych of Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima). But it doesn't seem he's going to do so. Anyway, this is a film review, and not a politics commentary, but those were my thoughts while I was watching American Sniper. For the rest, this is a decent and realistic war film with solid performances and fluid direction, even though the screenplay has an abundant number of clichés. On the positive side, the absence of a subtext helps us to get involved into the chaos of combat, and comprehend that old homily about war better: during the most difficult moments of battle, when every second can lead them to death from any direction, the soldiers don't fight for their country or abstract political ideals, but for their partners. However, on the other hand, I would have also liked to see an ideological foundation to support the skirmishes between collapsed buildings and patrols over the streets of Fallujah. Bradley Cooper brings a very good performance in the leading role, and Sienna Miller is also credible as the housewife who doesn't understand why his husband is so distant after his return to the United States. I wish I could mention more actors, but they weren't able to leave any impression in their hollow roles of friends or victims. In conclusion, American Sniper is a competent war film with an appropriate balance between drama and action, even though it's not very memorable in either of both aspects. Regarding war tales, I prefer the previously mentioned Act of Valor and Lone Survivor. As a drama about the psychological ravages of war, I liked The Hurt Locker much more. And regarding the true events of Kyle's life... I prefer not to give and opinion.
It seems that the found footage/pseudo documentary technique is (relatively) cooling down in horror cinema. Some years ago, the films from that genre employing that style were seen more frequently. At the same time, that technique is gaining popularity in other genres, as we have seen with the thriller End of Watch, the disaster film Into the Storm, the juvenile comedy Project X, among other ones (I'm currently very interested in watching Project Almanac, due to its travel in time component). But well, the point is that there aren't as many horror pseudo-documentaries as before, but among the ones which still remain, we can find some competent ones, such as The Atticus Institute. Built as an authentic documentary with interviews, fixed photography and videos from different sources, this film tells us an interesting story about the formal investigation of extrasensory powers in a scientific context, taking advantage of many events from the real world in order to add credibility to the testimonies of "witnesses" who experienced the horrors unleashed by the well intentioned Dr. Henry West and his psychic star, the unbalanced Judith Winstead. That was a good decision, because the story isn't very realistic by itself, even though it occasionally displays some ingenuity. I have to mention the fact that there isn't too much horror in The Atticus Institute. This might disappoint some fans of the genre, but I personally found it appropriate due to its academic tone. There's a constant sensation of danger, but director Chris Sparling (who is more well known as the screenwriter of the excellent Buried) preferred to follow the rules of a documentary, showing the necessary to establish the situation without stylistic ornaments or a manipulation of our emotions. After all, we are supposedly watching a serious "documentary", and not the tedious home videos of teenagers trapped into an abandoned building. In summary, The Atticus Institute works better as a pseudo-documentary than as a horror film, something which isn't bad in my own opinion. I didn't find it an excellent or particularly memorable film, but I can give it a moderate recommendation, mainly because of its good rhythm and the decent performances from the whole cast, highlighting William Mapother and Rya Kihlstedt. Comparing The Atticus Institute with films of a similar structure, I would place it above Lake Mungo and at the same level of The Bay.
Life Partners can be described as a romantic comedy with the typical components of the genre 8boy and girl meet, fall in love, break up, reconcile). It can also be described as a "chick flick" with slight feminist touches. And it can also be considered "gay cinema", because it portrays the amorous ups and downs of a group of lesbians in Los Ángeles. In fact, Life Partners is all that and more... and at the same time less. The screenplay covers many aspects, and it ends up falling short in each one of them. This doesn't make the film bad, but it avoids it from being particularly amusing, deep or memorable... it's just tolerable through 93 minutes of hollow narrative calories with a minimum intellectual nourishment. The main pro of Life Partners is the solid performances from Leighton Meester and Gillian Jacobs, who are both completely credible as friends with similar tastes and personality, but different levels of maturity. The main problem of the film is that nothing feels genuinely deep or dramatic. Things happen... there are cheers which don't inspire joy... other things happen... there are conflicts lacking of an emotional impact... and that's how the film goes by, more like a series of insipid vignettes than as a genuine tale about friendship, growth and reconciliation. However, Life Partners didn't bore me, mainly because of the competent works from Meester and Jacobs. Nevertheless, I wish this film had gone farther in any of its facets: funnier as a comedy, more passionate as a romance or more subversive as a gay manifest.
Sometimes, it's difficult to evaluate the technical and narrative attributes of a film which exposes socially relevant or culturally significant subjects... something which, thinking about it well, is appropriate in the big context of cinema as an artistic discipline. In other words, when the message is very important, it doesn't seem prudent to focus on dramatic arches, structure or even less "entertainment" too much (specially when the historical fidelity takes precedence over the Hollywood formulas). I said all that to express the fact that I found the film Selma occasionally a bit irregular, but nevertheless, recommended and very interesting due to its emotive and inflexible depiction of transcendent events in modern History. That's the main strength of Selma, but not its only attribute. The whole cast makes an excellent work in their roles, starting by David Oyelowo, who brings an extraordinary performance in the leading role. The rest of the cast is equally worthy of applause, highlighting Tom Wilkinson, André Holland and Wendell Pierce. I also liked the cinematography, which is slightly desaturated in order to bring the film a retro air which increments the gravity of the scenes, as well as the perfect soundtrack. On the negative side, I have to go back to the previously mentioned irregularity. I appreciate the effort made by screenwriter Paul Webb to cover all the possible aspects of the story, but that ambition ends up bringing us some unnecessary and kinda forced scenes which distract the attention from the main matter. And I also noticed a tendency to the monologues which explain things which are more or less obvious, because they summarize thing we have already seen on the screen. However, Selma is a solid and satisfactory film which I can recommend with confidence, despite a few brush-strokes which are a bit out of place.
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