Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The East (2013)

Director: Zal Batmanglij. Cast: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson, Jason Ritter, Julia Ormond. 116 min. Rated PG-13. USA/UK. Crime/Drama.

Cult-like resistance group called "The East" commits acts of terrorism against corporate CEOs who pollute the environment, so a government-supported private firm hires an agent to infiltrate the group. The concept is quite intriguing, but the story-line doesn't live up to expectations; mainly because it takes the agent forever to figure out the firm that hired her isn't any better than the companies the resistance group is up against (writers hoping for a conspiracy thriller?). And that in-house surgery scene was ludicrous. Amazingly, there are hints at a sequel at the end. The filmmakers must have a lot of self-esteem.

Mo says:

Monday, October 28, 2013

All Is Lost (2013)

Director: J.C. Chandor. Cast: Robert Redford. 106 min. Rated PG-13. Adventure/Drama.

Old man sailing in the Indian Ocean wakes up to find his yacht damaged, and struggles to survive against all imaginable odds at sea. There's only one actor, almost no dialogue, and the movie couldn't be more engaging. Part of the time you're not even sure what the man is attempting on the boat, but you're sure he knows what he's doing, because hey, it's Robert Redford. No surprise if he was chosen just because we've known his screen presence all our lives, and we trust him. Similar to Buried, the film dares to entertain through minimalism, and fully succeeds.

PS: This is J.C. Chandor's second feature film, the first being 2011's Margin Call. This is a director to watch.

Mo says:

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Great Gatsby (2013)

Director: Baz Luhrmann. Cast: Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher., Amitabh Bachchan.143 min. Rated PG-13. Australia/USA. Drama/Romance.

Haven't read the novel, and haven't watched the 1974 Robert Redford version, and ... who am I to say Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge) made a bad movie anyway? All I dare say is, his overlong film put me to sleep at least twice; meaning not even his always-brilliant visual style (very accurately simulating the look of colored old black & white photos) managed to keep me awake. And I wasn't able to sympathize with DiCaprio as Gatsby. And I'm not a romantic movie fan. And ... okay, I just don't recommend this.

Mo says:

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Thin Blue Line (1988)

Director: Errol Morris. 103 min. Not Rated. Documentary.

An innocent bystander who was at the wrong place at the wrong time, is convicted of murdering a policeman in Texas, and brushes very close to getting the death penalty. Morris' interview documentary, magnified by Philip Glass' somber soundtrack and multi-layered re-enactments, may have been groundbreaking for its own time, but after films such as the Paradise Lost trilogy and Into the Abyss raised the "proving-the-death-row-inmate-innocent" documentary bar so unreachably high, such a master documentarian's work pales in comparison - just as Dr. No isn't as thrilling or character-driven as today's Bond movies. They're just doing it better these days.

PS: If you've seen the movie, check out its strange aftermaths here.

Mo says:

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013)

Director: Alex Gibney. 130 min. Rated R. Documentary.

Two-hour plus documentary, following the rise of Julian Assange while his popular WikiLeaks website keeps whistle-blowers anonymous; and the fall of Julian Assange, while his famed whistle-blower Bradly Manning doesn't stay anonymous. But this is not just a biographical film. It explores Assange's philosophy of free, limitless information (e.g. if an Afghan snitch dies because WikiLeaks blew his cover, well, he deserved to die, because civilians have no business cooperating with invading forces), and shows how the same philosophy undermined and crushed WikiLeaks. In other words, the film forces you to take sides.

PS: Alex Gibney is the director of the Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, the Emmy-nominated Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, and the Emmy-winning Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of GodCan't wait to see his recent The Armstrong Lie. This guy gets around.

Mo says:

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Carrie (2013)

Director: Kimberly Peirce. Cast: Chloë Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, Gabriella Wilde, Judy Greer. 100 min. Rated R. Horror.

Confession: I was never a huge fan of DePalma's 1976 version. The whole "They're gonna laugh at you!" repetition was annoying, and the closing hand-out-of-the-grave shock-shot was cheap. The remake is more intelligently directed, Carrie's and the audience's understanding of her telekinesis powers is more subtly told, and (to complete the blasphemy) Chloe Moretz and Julianne Moore, as Carrie and her mother, are more compelling than Spacek and Laurie. I respect Stephen King's message of not treating "evil" as abstract, and rather portraying people as its purveyors; when evil happens, everybody pays. But alas, it's a remake, and lacks originality.

Mo says:

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Captain Phillips (2013)

Director: Paul Greengrass. Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Catherine Keener. 134 min. Rated 134. Action/Biography.

Just couldn't wait for this cinematic rendering of the high-profile 2009 Somali pirate hijacking to be over. Was it because the tension was unbearable (which actually makes this a good film), or because other crew members had already ruined the movie by calling it a big lie? Maybe Greengrass (United 93) had made the characters too simplistic (Philips' idiotic opening conversations about their kid's future; Somalians' motivations for "Let's make a lot of money!"), or just that his overt use of shaky documentary-style photography bordered on nauseating. Without Hanks' unbelievable performance in a final scene, this would've been a NoMo.

PS: The disagreements I've had this year with RottenTomatoes have been staggering - from the MoJo-scored After Earth, that got a meager 11% on  the Tomatometer, to this movie, which got a 97% and I'm trying to forget already.

Mo says:

Monday, October 14, 2013

At Any Price (2012)

Director: Ramin Bahrani. Cast: Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, Kim Dickens, Heather Graham. 105 min. Rated R. Drama.

In Bahrani's fourth feature, Quaid plays an Iowa farmer who follows the "expand or die" motto. He initially projects as a sleazy corn seed seller, sweet-talking his customers into iffy contracts. But then, he's just trying to meet his old father's high expectations, and push the family legacy onto sons who dream of Nascar-racing and mountain-climbing. It's heartbreaking how everybody sees right through the man, how he just stares into oblivion when he finds himself in a crushing bind, how he looks just like ... us. The film has some flimsy moments, but I was pleasantly surprised at Quaid's incredible performance.

PS: Bahrani, who also made the mesmerizing Goodbye Solo, was labelled by Roger Ebert as "America's best new filmmaker". Here's his four-star review on this movie.

Mo says:

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)

Director: Bryan Singer. Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Stanley Tucci, Ewan McGregor, Eddie Marsan, Ian McShane, Bill Nighy. 114 min. Rated PG-13. Adventure/Fantasy.

They once used to make movies of similar titles, where giants were Ray Harryhausen's claymations, and were fun because we weren't expected to believe them as real. Nowadays, some believe CGI effects have become so sophisticated, they think they can make giants look real, but they really can't, so the whole thing becomes a mess. You don't know whether the director wants us to believe this as real, or have fun with it as fake. In this setting, even the king and his court look like caricatures, and again, we don't know how to treat them. Just a big mess.

PS: Shocked to see this was the same director who made The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil, and the X-Men movies.

Mo says:

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Monsoon Wedding (2001)

Director: Mira Nair. Naseeruddin Shah, Lillete Dubey, Shefali Shetty, Vasundhara Das. 114 min. Rated R. India/USA/Italy/Germany /France. Comedy/Drama/Romance.

An affluent Indian family is preparing for the wedding of their only daughter, but the festivities create a chain reaction of exposing scandals within the family. The film is remarkable at showing the inner (complicated) workings of both an Indian wedding and family, although I'm not sure this is a true representation of all Indian families, or how families generally solve the (almost impossible to solve) crises depicted in the movie. Maybe the film is trying to teach how people should behave, rather than how they actually do. But then again, morality lessons are usually frowned upon in cinema.

Mo says:

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Gravity (2013)

Director: Alfonso Cuarón. Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris. 90 min. Rated PG-13. USA/UK. Thriller/Drama.

Jaws. The Sixth Sense. Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Shawshank Redemption. Just a handful of movies that define cinema's existence. They thrill and entertain, are flawless in technique, and are powerful enough for the viewer to worry for their characters, or shed a tear for them. Well, Gravity just added to that list of masterpieces. A simple story, flowing with originality, following a single character in peril, in the vastness called space. Its script, acting, cinematography, editing, and soundtrack, make this a study in perfection. My other favorite movie of 2013 just found a strong competitor.

Mo says:

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012)

Director: Mira Nair. Cast: Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber, Kiefer Sutherland, Om Puri. 130 min. Rated R. USA/UK/Qatar. Drama/Thriller.

Not a great fan of Mira Nair's works. She makes a decent effort to picture the plight of US immigrants, but I'm not sure whether she addresses Americans in her films, or the immigrants? (The latter may sympathize; the former may not even care.) Here, with a talented actor in the lead, she makes an extremely compelling case of why a genius foreigner trained in America's most prestigious schools, may eventually join the ranks of terrorists - and that's not just because of a strip-search at the airport. Sad that we're distracted by an obligatory Hollywood standoff at the end.

Mo says:

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka) (1988)

Director: Isao Takahata. 89 min. Unrated. Japan. Animation.

"September 21, 1945; that was the night I died." When a cartoon (of all forms of media) starts with that line, you know you're in for something deep. But then watching this flashback-driven animated feature, about a teenage boy and his little sister fighting hunger in war-torn Japan, it dawned upon me how animation was probably the only way to tell this story, as only the lively colors and stark contrast of animation could enrich the drama; something impossible to achieve with live action. Not only a sad and heart-breaking cartoon, but one of the saddest films I'd ever seen.

PS #1: You can watch the full animated feature on YouTube here, although the resolution is probably not the best.

PS #2: Thank you, Ali S., for recommending yet another great animation.

Mo says: