Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) (2013)

Director: Paolo Sorrentino. Cast: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli. 142 min. Not Rated. Italy/France. Comedy/Drama.

A writer in Rome who's seen'em all and done'em all, and has written only one novel throughout his life, is celebrating his 65th birthday, when suddenly, he's intrigued by any sign that can offer life new meaning; a story device to explain why he never wrote another novel. One of those strange foreign movies that requires patience, and I understand when I use "foreign" and "patience" in the same sentence, I've already lost 99% of you. But this beautiful Italian film, somehow reminiscent of Cinema Paradiso, provides moments that linger for quite awhile - especially the one involving birds.

PS: Thank you, JZ, for introducing the film.

Mo says:

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Director: Martin Scorsese. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Cristin Milioti, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley, Shea Whigham, Fran Lebowitz. 180 min. Rated R. Biography/Crime.

The true-story rise and fall ... of a New York stock broker. Scorsese and DiCaprio create one of their greatest collaborations ever, about the sickening but very palpable American (or general human) greed, and how it infiltrates the commonest people - overshadowing great movies like Oliver Stone's Wall Street. You think with the current viewer attention span of a 4-year-old, it would be tough to get through three hours movie time; but Scorsese delivers without a hitch, cruising through this fascinating/disgusting lifestyle, and not even a moment to look at your watch. Think of it as Goodfellas on Wall Street.

Mo says:

The Spectacular Now (2013)

Director: James Ponsoldt. Cast: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Kyle Chandler, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Bob Odenkirk. 95 min. Rated R. Comedy/Drama/Romance.

Recently watched Love Story, and was amazed how fake, contrived and predictable this popular movie was. Fast-forward to 2013, and similar to The Perks of Being a Wallflower, we have high-schoolers who are real people - with real emotions, and real problems that are dealt with in a very authentic, heart-breaking manner. Starts as a comedy and ends in deep drama, with believable performances by Teller, and three up-and-coming actresses: Woodley (The Descendants), Larson (Short Term 12), and Winstead (Smashed). Think of Before Midnight and The Spectacular Now, and you realize romantic movies will never be the same.

Mo says:

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

American Hustle (2013)

 Director: David O. Russell. Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Michael Peña. 138 min. Rated R. Crime/Drama.

This is what happened: For months, they advertised the guts out of a decent director's movie of four great actors playing larger-than-life hustlers in the oh-so-cool 70s. So I'm already expecting a masterpiece. But then the movie starts, and it keeps going. And I'm not sure where it's going. And it's too much Scorsese Goodfellas/Casino-style narration/editing/cinematography. But then, there's this one scene: Bradley Cooper, at a momentary triumph, laughing his head off, imitating Louis C.K.'s character. And it's so well done. That one scene, and every prior element that made that scene possible, deserves recognition.

Mo says:

A Hijacking (Kapringen) (2012)

Director: Tobias Lindholm. Cast: Pilou Asbæk, Søren Malling, Dar Salim. 103 min. Rated R. Denmark. Drama/Thriller.

A Danish ship is hijacked by Somali pirates, so it's impossible to watch this without making comparisons to this year's Captain Philips, which thankfully sheds light on A Hijacking's strengths. The story cancels out any controversial "inspired-by-a-true-story" Tom Hanks-embodied heroics, and invites the viewer to live and endure with the crew members, their captors, and the negotiators who remotely struggle to gain their freedom ... for four long months. Gradually, human life becomes extremely precious, and the long wait makes any loss too devastating. Watch this for a European, humanistic point-of-view on the subject.

Mo says:

Monday, December 23, 2013

My Top 10 Christmas Movies

Everybody's posting their own favorite Christmas movies, so I'm not falling behind.

I know people mention a movie among their favorite Christmas films just because it shows a Christmas ornament for a fraction of a second, but I'm not going  as far as listing Prometheus here just because there was a Christmas tree on board the ship. Still, some of these are definitely devoid of any Christmas spirit; I mean ... what do you expect from Kubrick?

Here's the list, in alphabetical order, with films spanning almost 70 years. Weirdly, the list contains two Tim Burton films, and The Nightmare Before Christmas is neither one of them:

1. Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992)

2. Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988)

3. Die Hard 2 (Renny Harlin, 1990)

4. Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton, 1990)

5. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)

6. Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984)

7. Home Alone (Chris Columbus, 1990)

8. In Brudges (Martin McDonagh, 2008)

9. It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)

10. Love, Actually (Richard Curtis, 2003)

Edward Scissorhands would be my favorite Christmas movie ever.

In case you have any movie of your own to add, there are two good lists to use as reference, here and here.

And here's a lame movie quiz:

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Following (1998)

Director: Christopher Nolan. Cast: Jeremy Theobald, Alex Haw, Lucy Russell. 69 min. Rated R. UK. Mystery/Crime.

Christopher Nolan's first feature film. Using the style later he perfected in Memento, Nolan tells the story of a loner who as an inspirational source for characters of a new book, follows random people in the streets, studying their behavior. When he breaks his own first rule (not to follow the same person twice), that person wises up, and turns out to be a thief, who takes him along as a side-kick on burglaries. Through flash-backs and flash-forwards, we're taken through several mind-bending twists, with a surprise ending. No bias - you can see the dawn of a genius filmmaker.

PS: Streaming on Netflix, here's some interesting trivia:

"As Christopher Nolan's debut feature, it was designed to be as inexpensive as possible to make: scenes were heavily rehearsed so that just one or two takes were needed, thus economising on 16 mm film stock, the production's greatest expense, and for which Nolan was paying from his salary. Without expensive professional lighting equipment, Nolan mostly used available light. Apart from providing the script and direction, Nolan also did the photography, editing and production himself."

Mo says:

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

Director: Peter Jackson. Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry. 161 min. Rated PG-13. USA/New Zealand. Adventure/Fantasy.

More of the same. Yes, the production design is insanely well done (like always), and Smaug the dragon is a visual feat beyond your wildest dreams. But again, there's one action sequence after another, with repeating camera roller coaster point-of-view shots, and Legolas' arrows saving the day at the last minute, ad nauseam. The 3D HFR format (high-frame rate; 48 frames per second instead of the usual 24) was a strain to the eyes, creating a "soap opera" effect reminiscent of old British TV shows. If you have a crushing urge to watch this, feel content with 2D.

Mo says:

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Hunt (Jagten) (2012)

Director: Thomas Vinterberg. Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkopp. 115 min. Rated R. Denmark/Sweden. Drama.

The emotionally-charged account of a kindergarten girl leads to a male teacher being accused of pedophilia, obviously giving other parents the jitters, and suddenly the whole town is on the teacher like a pack of wolves. He's fired, handcuffed, prosecuted, and banned even by the local grocery store. Eventually, his entire livelihood is (very believably) destroyed. It's a social horror that can happen to anybody: becoming the victim of a mob mentality, depending on what the society is super-sensitive to, based on the testimony of an unreliable witness. My favorite new actor, Mads Mikkelsen, makes the pain excruciatingly palpable.

Mo says:

Monday, December 16, 2013

Disconnect (2012)

Director: Henry Alex Rubin. Cast: Jason Bateman, Hope Davis, Alexander Skarsgård, Michael Nyqvist, Paula Patton. 115 min. Rated R. Drama.

Three stories narrated in parallel, about educated people using the internet, Facebook, their iPads, and their cellphones, to build relationships with other entities online, and then trusting them, and then sharing their most personal info and intimate secrets, without even having seen the person face-to-face before, or confirming whether the virtual identity they're connecting with truly exists in the outside world - ending in the loss of their own privacy and existence. Disconnect is the story of us; it's the story of our times. Surprising turn by Jason Bateman, who before this was almost a nobody in movies. Not anymore.

Mo says:

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Frozen (2013)

Director(s): Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee. Cast (voices): Kristen Bell, Josh Gad, Idina Menzel. 108 min. Rated PG. Animation.

After many years, Disney is finally practicing originality again. This one is still based on a Hans Christian Anderson story ("The Snow Queen"), but a Disney animation where the protagonists are two headstrong sisters, characters are different shades of gray, some are conspirators hiding as heroes, and all villains are male, are concepts I do not recall the cartoon-making giant attempting at before. And the imagery ... let's just say watching this 3D animation was an immense pleasure in 2D. Makes you wish the icy cold winter shown, would go on forever.

PS: The following disclaimer appeared during the end credits; given the rampant insanity of political correctness, I wouldn't be surprised if this was serious:

"The views and opinions by Kristoff in the film that all men eat their boogers are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The Walt Disney Company or the filmmakers. Neither The Walt Disney Company nor the filmmakers make any representation of the accuracy of any such views and opinions."

Mo says:

Frances Ha (2012)

Director: Noah Baumbach. Cast: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver. 86 min. Rated R. Drama/Comedy.

Another art-house movie that makes feeble attempts at looking intelligent (e.g. filming in black-and-white). The story of a dancing student who in terms of words and actions demonstrates the intellect of a Neanderthal, definitely unable to live anywhere near human civilization, let alone live in New York City where the story is set. Is this an extension of American media's attempt to make stupidity look cute? I'd seen the film a few weeks ago, and the reason I wrote about it now, was only because I discovered actress/co-writer/director's wife Gerwig was nominated for a Golden Globe today.

Mo says:

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Lovelace (2013)

Director(s): Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman. Cast:  Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard, Sharon Stone, Robert Patrick, James Franco, Bobby Cannavale, Hank Azaria, Debi Mazar, Wes Bentley, Eric Roberts, Chloë Sevigny. 93 min. Rated R. Biography/Drama.

True story of pornographer-turned-activist Linda Lovelace, actress of Deep Throat, the most notorious blue movie in American history. I was initially disappointed in the character development during the first half, confused whether the director is portraying Lovelace as an idiot, or an intelligent victim? But suddenly midway through, there's a change of narrative style, which effectively differentiates how we (as viewers) perceive celebrities, from who they really are. With astonishing performances by Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick in supporting roles, similar to Boogie Nights and Star 80, this is a deeply sad and disturbing film about the adult entertainment industry.

Mo says:

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Director: Francis Lawrence. Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Jena Malone, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Toby Jones. 146 min. Rated PG-13. Action/Sci-fi.

Book 1, book 2, book 3. That's the order of which I enjoyed the "Hunger Games" books - the first my favorite. The movie adaptation of the second book, "Catching Fire", performs the rare feat of panning out the story better than the book, thanks to a few small but dramatically significant changes (mostly pointed out here); to the extent that the second movie is as good as the first one. Still amazed at the writer's knowledge of political science: picturing how totalitarian regimes work, and how revolutions become corrupt. And Woody Harrelson is always such a wonderful supporting presence.

Mo says:

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Nebraska (2013)

Director: Alexander Payne. Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk. 115 min. Rated R. Drama.

Similar to About Schmidt (and almost as engaging), Payne is at it again, exploring the plight of old age - this time picturing Bruce Dern as a demented small town old man under the illusion that he's won a million dollar sweepstakes, and a son whose trying to convince him otherwise. But it's not about the story. It's about showing us in cold, depressing black-and-white how the old stubbornly cling on to non-existent dreams in a decaying terrain, and how impossible it is for generations to bridge the gap. Maybe the only solution, is to let them enjoy their dreams.

Mo says:

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Blue Is the Warmest Color (La vie d'Adèle) (2013)

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche. Cast: Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos. 179 min. Rated NC-17. France/Belgium/Spain. Drama/Romance.

It's that time of the year, films vying for Oscar nominations, and the time to get lured into watching these artsy art-house movies - in this case winner of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival Palm d'Or, by the choice of a jury headed by the greatest filmmaker of all time (yes, chosen by Spielberg). A story of two girls who fall in love and talk to other people about everyday mundane stuff, where somewhere around two of the three-hour running time could have been cut out to save us time; including the NC-17 rated scenes. So now you've been warned.

Mo says:

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok) (2003)

Director: Joon-ho Bong. Cast: Kang-ho Song, Sang-kyung Kim, Roe-ha Kim. 132 min. Unrated. South Korea. Crime/Mystery.

On one hand, it's the real-life story of how the South Korea police force by the thousands couldn't capture a serial killer who raped/murdered up to ten women from 1986 to 1991, and without spoiling anything, was very similar to San Francisco's Zodiac killer. On the other, it's a cinematic presentation of how sure we are about the things know, how wrong we are about them, and how you make a two-hour plus movie, just to reach a single final shot of the protagonist, looking at the camera, looking at us, and the whole world suddenly comes crashing down.

PS: Thanks you, Ali S. This was probably the best recommendation you've ever made.

Mo says: