Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Rampart (2011)

Director: Oren Moverman. Cast: Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster, Sigourney Weaver, Jon Bernthal, Cynthia Nixon, Anne Heche, Brie Larson, Steve Buscemi, Robin Wright, Ned Beatty, Ice Cube. 108 min. Rated R. Crime/Drama.

Inspired by the 1990s LAPD Rampart scandal, Harrelson is a dirty cop who in her daughter's words, is a "racist, bigot, sexist, womanizer, chauvinist, misanthrope homophobic." So this probably isn't a protagonist you sympathize with. But then ... he really does take down the "bad guys". Just that he has his own ways, and his ways are usually illegal. So amazingly, you feel sorry for the guy. The surprising cast of great performers, each playing small parts, is not enough to make the somewhat disjointed story interesting. Or maybe the director expected me to be well-versed on the real-life scandal.

PS: I wish Sigourney Weaver was given more prominent roles, more often.

Mo says:

Friday, April 25, 2014

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)

Director: Christopher Landon. Cast: Andrew Jacobs, Jorge Diaz, Gabrielle Walsh, Katie Featherston. 84 min. Rated R. Horror/Thriller.

Glad I gave this franchise another chance, because how can the fifth installment of a series be "good", while the previous films kept getting worse and worse? Yes, again the whole issue of continued camera-holding during some unimaginably horrific moments of this "found footage" story, is as ludicrous as can be. But they've made some creative attempts here. The setting is completely different, and the last scene suddenly connects all five films in a way that I would call ... yes, baffling. Let's just say the concept includes time travel; now opening the possibilities for many more sequels to Paranormal Activity.

PS: Forget the Tomatometer score. After you've seen the movie, make sure you check out this article.

Mo says:

Monday, April 21, 2014

Byzantium (2012)

 Director: Neil Jordan. Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Sam Riley. 118 min. Rated R. UK/USA/Ireland. Fantasy/Horror.

There's a common principle among Neil Jordan movies: He doesn't make masterpieces, but his films cannot be ignored either. Continuing on Let the Right One In's theme of the dilemmas of female vampires in a contemporary society, here he follows the story of a 200-year-old mother and daughter who are persecuted by men of their own kind - how the mother struggles to survive and protect them by her old traditional ways, and how the teenage daughter struggles to break free (any different from normal mothers and daughters?). An aesthetically beautiful movie to watch, even if you don't believe in vampires.

Mo says:

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Physician (2013)

Director: Philipp Stölzl. Cast: Tom Payne, Emma Rigby, Ben Kingsley, Stellan Skarsgård, Olivier Martinez. 150 min. Germany. Adventure/Drama.

There was once a 1986 novel of a fictional British youngster who traveled to Persia to learn medicine from Avicenna/Ibne-Sina, the greatest physician of his time. For a cinematic adaptation, the basic elements of that fictional story were flipped upside-down in 2013, and through great actors, impressive production values, terribly weak direction, and preposterous screenplay cliches, now the story shows how the young man's wisdom acted as a savior to Avicenna and the patients he treated. But hey, Westerners were always saving Middle-Easterners (even through the Dark Ages), and history is written by its victors. So what's to complain?

Mo says:

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Under the Skin (2013)

Director: Jonathan Glazer. Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay. 108 min. Rated R. UK. Sci-fi/Drama.

An alien seductress (Johansson) lures men into homes, for other members of the species to use their skin as a cover - but then something in the seductress awakens. Or at least that's what I think the story-line was. It's an artistic rendition of Species combined with The Little Mermaid, with a haunting soundtrack, a slow pace, and hypnotic imagery that aspire for a 2001: A Space Odyssey effect. Just watch how close that bizarre opening sequence comes to living in another (alien) dimension.I know; an art-house sci-fi sounds weird. But this movie won't let go for some time.

Mo says:

Grand Piano (2013)

Director: Eugenio Mira. Cast: Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Kerry Bishé, Alex Winter, Dee Wallace. 90 min. Rated R. Spain. Mystery/Thriller.

Imagine the movie Speed ... with the hero sitting at a piano! The prodigy of a recently deceased piano grand-master starts playing at his first concert after a 5-year hiatus, but sees a message on his sheet music: "Play one wrong note and you die". This throws him into a frenzy to find the killer's identity/location/motivation, and save both himself and his sitting duck wife in the audience, all while expertly playing the piano. With obvious references to Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (and negligibly implausible moments), this is a joyride not to be missed.

Mo says:

Monday, April 14, 2014

Afflicted (2013)

Director(s): Derek Lee, Clif Prowse. Cast: Clif Prowse, Derek Lee, Baya Rehaz. 85 min. Rated R. Canada/USA. Horror/Thriller.

The "found footage" horror sub-genre has come a long way since The Blair Witch Project ... mostly going down. During a round-the-world trip, a college kid is afflicted by a disease (heavily inspired by a Stephen King novel). Although the nature of the disease is clear right off the bat, the movie goes on elaborating for half an hour to make it idiot-proof. And then characters speak their motivations for every single thought and action into the camera, proving even they're suspicious holding a camera under the worst circumstances is implausible. In a crowded market, this was a very tough So-so.

Mo says:

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Just Like a Woman (2012)

Director: Rachid Bouchareb. Cast: Sienna Miller, Golshifteh Farahani, Bahar Soomekh. 87 min. Rated R. UK/USA/France. Drama.

Two women, an American (Miller, trying to prevent obscurity as an actress) and an Arab (Farahani, trying to break out of obscurity as an actress) end up together under astonishingly artificial and coincidental circumstances, and hit the road for a belly dancing gig. The contrived story with oh-so-intellectual deliberations about racism is told through some very boring dialogue, and one wonders if the only reason to make this movie wasn't the exotic concept of belly dancers in America, then what was. Stay away, because the very experience of watching this movie was exotic enough.

Mo says:

Julia (2008)

Director: Erick Zonca. Cast: Tilda Swinton, Saul Rubinek, Aidan Gould. 144 min. Rated R. France/USA /Mexico/Belgium. Crime/Thriller.

Tilda Swinton is a dirty alcoholic with a heart of gold who has hit rock-bottom, and grabs an opportunity to use a millionaire's grandson as bait to extort some major dough. And everything that can possibly go wrong after that does. This is a gripping two-hour plus thriller that never misses a beat, and at several crucial moments reminds us what an incredibly versatile Swinton is. It's entirely her movie, and it was a breath-taking experience to watch how she manages to remain believable during the most unbelievable situations. But you know what? Ebert's four-star review does a better job:

"Tilda Swinton is fearless. She’ll take on any role without her ego, paycheck, vanity or career path playing a part. All that matters, apparently, is whether the movie interests her, and whether she thinks she can do something interesting with the role. She almost always can. She hasn’t often been more fascinating than in “Julia,” a nerve-wracking thriller with a twisty plot and startling realism."

PS: Thank you, Ali S. Awesome recommendation. Again.

Mo says:

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Mr. Nobody (2009)

Director: Jaco Van Dormael. Cast: Jared Leto, Sarah Polley, Diane Kruger, Rhys Ifans, Juno Temple. 141 min. Rated R. Belgium/Germany/Canada/France. Sci-fi/Drama.

Nemo Nobody is able to use time in reverse, and at age 118, as the last mortal on Earth, narrates the many lives he lived, choosing a different path at a critical intersection of life. The parallel narration of multiple stories in this incredibly imaginative film spanning from the past into the future, reminds of movies like Cloud Atlas and About Time. But wait: this was made before those other ones, and I'm amazed how such a thought-provoking sci-fi starring decent actors and incorporating concepts such as the Big Bang, the Big Crunch and String Theory, slipped through the cracks.

PS: Thank you, Farshid. Wonderful recommendation.

PPS: This is streaming on Netflix.

Mo says:

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Noah (2014)

Director: Darren Aronofsky. Cast: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Nick Nolte, Frank Langella. 138 min. Rated PG-13. 

Annoying at best; insulting at its worst. As though the biblical story was already proven fact, Aronofsky takes huge liberties on the tale's most basic elements, and projects his extremely personal interpretation of the Noah story via a spectacular tapestry, and a sadistic manipulation of the viewer's emotions towards the end. Spice it up with elements from The Last Temptation of Christ, The Shining, and Lord of the Rings, and Noah makes you feel sorry all this effort, talent and budget went into making such a twisted retelling - by a good director whose audacity may even offend non-believers.

Trivia: Strange gathering of duos from other movies: Crowe and Connelly co-starred in A Beautiful Mind, Connelly starred in Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, Watson and Lerman were both in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Crowe and Lerman co-starred in 3:10 to Yuma, Winstone and Lerman co-starred in Percy Jackson & the Olympians. Not that it means anything.

Mo says:

The Grandmaster (2013)

Director: Kar Wai Wong. Cast: Tony Chiu Wai Leung, Ziyi Zhang, Jin Zhang. 130 min. Rated PG-13. Action/Biography/Drama.

A movie about the legendary Ip Man ... again! With all the movies out there, I'm getting suspicious: either we're not being told the whole picture, or filmmakers are making stuff up about him. This version features prominent Chinese actors guided by a prominent director, but the story is all over the place. Couldn't figure heads from tails whether this was a romantic, historical, biographical, or epic drama (or all of the above). Flashbacks distort the narrative flow, and the last 10 minutes are entirely extra. Of course, we're reminded for the nth time that Bruce Lee was Ip Man's student.

Mo says:

Monday, April 7, 2014

Le Week-End (2013)

Director: Roger Michell. Cast: Lindsay Duncan, Jim Broadbent, Jeff Goldblum. 93 min. Rated R. UK/France. Comedy/Drama.

An old couple spend their "unplanned" anniversary weekend in Paris: the man has the lifetime habit of telling the sarcastic truth, and the woman isn't sure spending 30 years of her life with this man was a very good idea. Sound familiar? It's the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight version of an old couple, and the viewer tries to predict whether the two will still be together by the end of the movie. But the screenplay assures the movie is above and beyond that. Watch this with a group; you'll be thinking/discussing the significance of honesty and devotion ... in your own marriage.

Mo says:

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Director(s): Anthony Russo, Joe Russo. Cast: Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Emily VanCamp, Frank Grillo, Toby Jones, Garry Shandling, Jenny Agutter, Stan Lee. 136 min. Rated PG-13. Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi.

Now this is how a superhero movie should be. Full of high-stake action, sprinkled with both humorous and tragic moments and numerous surprises, with a newly-introduced breathtaking villain, and the hero going through a personal dilemma: Am I fighting for the right side? The theme of the protagonist's employer selling him out to dark forces, happening in multiple recent franchises (Batman in TDKR, James Bond in Skyfall), is perfected here. There's even an origin story of a new superhero, and isn't Robert Redford's stamp of approval considered a sign of merit? It's as good or even better than The Avengers.

PS: " 'The path of the righteous man ...' Ezekiel 25:17 ", on a tombstone. Loved it.

PSS: Pantea and Ali, thanks. Wonderful time.

Mo says:

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Immigrant (2013)

Director: James Gray. Cast: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner. 120 min. Rated R. Drama.

New York, 1920s. Two Polish sisters land in Ellis Island; one is held in quarantine for tuberculosis, and the other (Cottilard) struggles as a prostitute to pay for her treatment. With Darius Khondji's beautiful sepia-colored cinematography portraying a "Dickens-in-NYC" story, this film will dissipate any rosy picture you had of immigrants coming to Ellis Island to build their lives in the land of dreams. Don't expect any sophisticated twist, because the simple story and incredible performances by Cotillard and Phoenix are compelling enough. Makes you wish they made more movies like this.

PS: Thank you, Maryam, for the great recommendation of this otherwise obscure film.

Mo says:

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Divergent (2014)

Director: Neil Burger. Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Zoë Kravitz, Ashley Judd, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer. 139 min. Rated PG-13. Action/Sci-Fi

Overlong Hunger Games lookalike, by a director who doesn't dare a personal touch and just goes with the mainstream Hollywood flow, spiced with some Lenny Kravitz nepotism ("Daddy! You were in The Hunger Games, so why can't I be in this?!"), mainly about training teenagers for combat. Believe it or not, it takes almost two hours for the training to end and the story to start. It's a movie that from the very opening credits you feel it's mediocre. Disappointing turn by the director of somewhat interesting movies such as Limitless and Interview with the Assassin. A very borderline So-so.

Mo says:

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Blue Caprice (2013)

Director: Alexandre Moors. Cast: Isaiah Washington, Tequan Richmond, Tim Blake Nelson. 93 min. Rated R. Biography/Crime.

The 2002 D.C. snipers, and their "father-son" relationship: how John Muhammad, the loner with a restraining order from his children, recruited teenage Lee Malvo and brainwashed him to take out random targets during a three-week terror spree. The slow-paced but well-directed film is wise at not focusing on the shootings per se, and rather on how bizarre ideologies gain momentum from scattered social roots. But at the end, I didn't learn anything interesting about the nature of these individuals, and the point of making a movie about them was lost upon me. But again, maybe that's exactly the point.

Mo says:

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Snowpiercer (2013)

Director: Joon-ho Bong. Cast: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer. 126 min. Rated R. South Korea/USA/France/Czech Republic. Action/Drama/Sci-Fi.

To fight global warming, a gas is dispersed in the atmosphere; a plan which backfires, and freezes all life on Earth - except for the inhabitants of a high-speed perpetual-motion train, the "Snowpiercer". The Hollywood debut of Korean director Bong is the most intelligent combination of sci-fi, high-octane action, and thought-provoking sociopolitical theories since The Matrix. If you had the chance to bring down an entire world whose sole fuel is corruption (i.e., our own world), would you do so, and end your own existence? Mark my words: this will become a turning point upon its US release in June.

PS: Ali S., you hold the record for directing me towards three movies that scored a MoMagic!

Mo says: