Monday, January 15, 2018

City of Ghosts (2017)

Director: Matthew Heineman. 92 min. Rated R. Documentary.

Harrowing story of modern journalism, showing the day-to-day lives of the very, very brave men and women of Raqqa, Syria, the self-declared capital of ISIS: the ones inside secretly capturing and sending out images of ISIS' ghastly atrocities, the ones outside in Turkey and Germany broadcasting them to the world (through the website Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, "RBSS"), while constantly on the move and being taken out by ISIS agents, one by one. The fact that Raqqa was recently captured by American-backed Syrian forces provides a slight sense of relief throughout the film, but the horrors of fundamentalism linger.

Mo says:

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Post (2017)

Director: Steven Spielberg. Cast: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons. 116 min. Rated PG-13. Biography/History.

This "Pentagon Papers exposé" can be considered a prequel to Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men (1976), as Spielberg recreates the Washington Post offices mood and look from that film to a tee. And while that film was about sniffing out the truth against all odds, Spielberg adds a few more ingredients for his (first?) Trump era movie: speaking out the truth, even at your peril, even if you lose longtime friends. First time Hanks is out-shined by another actor (of course, the mighty Streep), and the climactic ending is spoiled, because after all, the Post still exists today.

Mo says:

Friday, January 12, 2018

All the Money in the World (2017)

Director: Ridley Scott. Cast: Michelle Williams, Mark Wahlberg, Christopher Plummer, Romain Duris, Charlie Plummer, Timothy Hutton. 132 min. Rated R. Biography/Crime.

The true hostage-taking story of 16-year-old Paul Getty III, grandson of "the world's richest private citizen", set in a dark 70's mood reminiscent of Spielberg's Munich. Scott's latest ponders: compared to money itself, what is anything worth? When that's the goal, worrying about ethics, honor, family, shame, ... is not only meaningless, it's laughable - highly conceivable as Trump's modus operandi, and possibly Scott's target. While Plummer's performance is laudable, his last-minute replacement of disgraced Kevin Spacey is both distracting (which scene is CGI?), and overshadows the true powerhouse act delivered by Williams, as the mother desperate to secure her son's release.

PS: Can you believe Ridley Scott? Eighty-year-old filmmaker delivering both a decent sixth blockbuster episode of a franchise, and a Trump-themed movie about greed with a sudden switch of an actor at the final moment, all in the same year. The man is a true gem.

Mo says:

Thief (1981)

Director: Michael Mann. Cast: James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Willie Nelson, Jim Belushi, Robert Prosky, Dennis Farnia. 122 min. Rated R. Crime.

Imagine someone, waking up in the morning, taking a shower, dressing up, eating breakfast, preparing to get to work on time. That’s James Caan's "Thief": a professional, detached from everyday mundane issues (including death), calmly treating his work as a job like any other. Just remember the dozens of crummy 80's-90's crime movies, every single one of which happened in LA, to understand the hypnotic concept-driven contrast Michael Mann pulls off - a notion he later expanded in Heat (1995) (as though it wasn't already perfected here). And the accompanying Tangerine Dream soundtrack is a match made in heaven.

Mo says:

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Mayhem (2017)

Director: Joe Lynch. Cast: Steven Yeun, Samara Weaving, Steven Brand. 86 min. Unrated. Action/Horror.

A zombie movie in disguise: a viral infection suppresses all forms of emotional inhibitions - and the protagonists are infected too! Hence, extreme violence runs amok, and our hero and heroine take part in its full glory. The fact that the violence is a metaphor for corporate ruthlessness in America (a character notes one of the female board members sounds nicer ever since she's been infected), is the stamp of a true zombie film - in lieu of its lack of brain-eating undead. But that's where the fun ends, and all you have left is characters spilling lots and lots of blood.

PS: Steven Yeun (Glenn from The Walking Dead) better be careful. He can get stuck doing zombie films for the rest of his life.

Mo says:

Loving Vincent (2017)

Director(s): Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman. Cast: Douglas Booth, Chris O'Dowd, Helen McCrory, Saoirse Ronan, Jerome Flynn. 94 min. Rated PG-13. UK/Poland. Animation.

This film is like a beautiful canvas ... literally. Using motion-capture, more than 100 animators tell a flashback story of Vincent van Gogh's last days, by painting over images of live actors with van Gogh's post-impressionist style. So the artist's aficionados will recognize numerous of his famous paintings smuggled into the story. The imagery is so hypnotizing, so calming, you not only understand van Gogh's brilliance ... you're distracted from the story, and paradoxically find yourself dozing off. I appreciate the insane amount of work to bring this film to fruition. Just that film was probably not the right medium.

Mo says:

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Molly's Game (2017)

Director: Aaron Sorkin. Cast: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Chris O'Dowd, Bill Camp, Graham Green. 140 min. Rated R. China/USA. Biography/Drama.

I'm not well-rounded in poker, but even if you are, you'd still need to be fully caffeinated to follow Aaron Sorkin’s first shot at directing. The grand-master writer of The West WingA Few Good Men and The Social Network, has created such an impressive product of rapid dialogue, dizzying editing and spell-binding acting (with great monologues by Elba and Costner, and Chastain's continuing crusade of strong female roles in a male-dominated world), you’d suspect this to be Sorkin's attempt at self-promotion, declaring: "This is how you make a movie." Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Trivia: This film reunites Kevin Costner and Graham Greene, the main stars of Dances with Wolves (1990). Cool, huh.

Mo says:

The Florida Project (2017)

Director: Sean Baker. Cast: Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe. 111 min. Rated R. Drama.

Honest truth: just a few minutes in, I was thinking this is a combination of Tangerine's storytelling, and Wes Anderson's visual style. And of course! It's made by Tangerine's director. Can't pinpoint a specific story-line here; other than it displays random vignettes in the lives of a few cute, smart, foul-mouthed preschoolers in a Florida motel/project, how their parents survive, and how their heart-of-gold manager (Dafoe) fends for them. You will laugh, you will mesmerize, and you will cry - but by God, you'll never be bored, and think twice the next time you pass by one of these projects.

Mo says:

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

Director: Jake Kasdan. Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Bobby Cannavale, Colin Hanks. 119 min. Rated PG-13. Fantasy/Adventure.

Remember the unseen jungle in the 1995 original, where the Robin Williams character returned from after 26 years? Well, we see it here now. Other than that, a modern switch from board-game to video-game, and a subtle homosexuality theme slipped in by changing a character's gender and having her/him fall for another male ... the sequel is a remake: players are accidentally (and much less believably) sucked in, and need to act as a team to end the game. There's even a cruel/crazy/loving father waiting for his son to come home. Enjoyable fun, and "the Rock" can surprisingly be funny.

Mo says:

Friday, December 29, 2017

Loveless (Nelyubov) (2017)

Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev. Cast: Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin, Varvara Shmykova. 127 min. Rated R. Russia/France/Germany/Belgium. Drama.

I don't recall watching a movie where characters thrived through such simmering hate - without inflicting bodily harm on each other. The story is about a couple going through an ugly divorce, and the gnarling hatred between them (and an in-law) is so brutal, it's eating them alive ... in lieu of their son going missing. Not sure if this is a reliable snapshot of the current Russian society, as the director has been accused of casting a negative spotlight on his country. Still, I found myself deeply involved, wondering how these characters are able to function, carrying such heavy burdens.

Mo says:

I, Tonya (2017)

Director: Craig Gillespie. Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Bobby Cannavale. 119 min. Rated R. Biography/Sport.

In preparation, I recently watched the 30 for 30 documentary, The Price of Gold. Then during I Tonya, realized the movie attempts something confusing: it assumes you already know the story with all the details (weird expectation), but never uses the extra luxury it provided itself by passing that narrative hurdle, to deliver director/writer level introspection into the real-life characters; which begs the question: is this solely an opportunity for Margot Robbie to prove how well she can impersonate? Because after all, she's one of the producers. Supposed to be a movie; not a half-baked reiteration. Not a photo-op.

Mo says:

The Shape of Water (2017)

Director: Guillermo del Toro. Cast: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg. 123 min. Rated R. Canada/USA. Fantasy. 

Guillermo del Toro continues his Pan's Labyrinth style of telling fairy-tales for grownups containing sex, violence and profanity, but fairy-tales nonetheless. Here he counteracts an American subculture of racism and homophobia by trying to promote and normalize diversity, through (of all things) ... bestiality. The ensemble of Hawkins, Shannon, Spencer and Jenkins shine throughout, and del Toro again boasts his usual strong, captivating visual style, but I have yet to click with the man's concept of a good movie - even though evidence (e.g., the Netflix documentary Five Came Back) suggests he's probably a lovely guy to chat with.

Mo says: