Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Love Hurts

Like his contemporaries Peter Jackson and J.J. Abrams, fan-favorite Guillermo del Toro (‘The Devil’s Backbone,’ ‘Blade 2,’ ‘Hellboy,’ ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and ‘Pacific Rim’) has established himself as one of the most geektastic filmmakers of our time.  Interestingly enough, the Guadalajara native’s latest feature combined his trademark visual style and panache with the sense and sensibilities of a Jane Austen novel.  An engrossing tale of gothic horror with romance at its heart, ‘Crimson Peak’ may be del Toro’s best since ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ from a storytelling standpoint.
"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."  The wife in this instance is Edith (Mia Wasikowska), a headstrong young woman and aspiring novelist from Buffalo, New York at the turn of the 20th Century who’s smitten by the rather charming Mr. Darcy, by which I mean Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a baronet from England who may lack "possession of a good fortune" but certainly not pride and ambition.  Against her wealthy industrialist father’s wishes before his untimely demise, she marries Sir Thomas and moves to the forbidding and run-down mansion he shares with his enchanting but mysterious sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), realizing too late that she’s residing at the very place the ghastly apparitions of her childhood warned her to beware of, a place called ‘Crimson Peak.’
‘Crimson Peak’ is a story of elaborate schemes and tragic romance, but it is also a creepy, unsettling and deeply atmospheric gothic chiller.  Del Toro is a master at building slow-burning suspense, imbuing the movie with a pervasive sense of dread and impending doom.   While the climactic ending seems a bit rushed, it really can’t be helped once the “cat is out of the bag.”  Del Toro also deserves much credit for not toning the movie down to a more commercially viable PG-13 rating, as there are some disturbing images and scenes which made even a jaded horror fan like me cringe.
Grade: A
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The Mediator

The latest collaboration from celebrated director Steven Spielberg and veteran A-list actor Tom Hanks is the Cold War melodrama ‘Bridge of Spies,’ which recounts the historical events surrounding the Francis Gary Powers-for-Rudolf Abel spy swap across the Iron Curtain in 1962.   I’m sure you’ve all heard of the infamous U-2 pilot shot down over the Soviet Union while on a top secret reconnaissance mission for the CIA in 1960, but the behind-the-scenes efforts that brought him back remain a relatively unknown footnote in our nation's history.
Although ‘Bridge of Spies’ isn’t the first Hollywood treatment of what is commonly known as the “U-2 Incident” (that honor belongs to a 1976 TV movie starring “Six Million Dollar Man” Lee Majors, believe it or not), Spielberg nonetheless crafted a riveting and tightly paced thriller on a subject as unexciting as a prisoner exchange.  He managed to pull it off by providing unexpected depth and character to the key players of this affair, in particular James B. Donovan (Hanks) and Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance in a remarkable performance), the soft-spoken Russian spy arrested by the FBI for espionage in 1957.  From the movie's opening scene in which Abel displayed his well-honed spycraft evading J. Edgar Hoover’s finest with consummate ease, ‘Bridge of Spies’ pulls the viewer into its intricately set-up cloak-and-dagger world and never lets go.
More than just a spy movie, BoS also provides us with a valuable history lesson and a glimpse into the politics and fears of the pre-Cuban Missile Crisis Cold War era.  As the legal counsel assigned to defend Abel for the sake of formal due process under the law, Hanks’ Donovan is an honorable and wise man doing a thankless job, not to mention prescient in his prediction that Abel is much more valuable alive as a potential future bargaining chip (not surprisingly, his specialty is insurance law).  If you have an interest in this period of our nation's history or simply want to see the work of a master director, BoS should not be missed.
Grade: A
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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Martian Chronicles

Astronaut-in-peril movies make great drama.  Since Tom Hanks’s Jim Lovell uttered the famous words “Houston, we have a problem” in Ron Howard’s riveting 1995 cinematic account of the Apollo 13 mission, there has only been one other such movie, Alfonso Cuarón’s phenomenal multiple Oscar winner ’Gravity’ starring Sandra Bullock (Reviewed here:  That is, until now.  In ‘The Martian,’ Matt Damon delivered one of his best performances to date as NASA astronaut Mark Watney, a botanist who became stranded on Mars after his fellow Ares 3 crew mates mistook him for dead while evacuating from the Red Planet due to a severe storm.
Adapted from the 2011 bestseller by Andy Weir, ‘The Martian’ is another fine addition to the astronaut-in-peril subgenre.   What’s compelling about these movies is that we get to witness American innovation and ingenuity first-hand in solving challenging practical engineering problems (like “fitting square pegs into round holes,” to use another ‘Apollo 13’ reference) under extreme life-and-death situations.  While the pace of ‘The Martian’ is more measured than that in ‘Gravity,’ it is in many ways superior to the 2013 seven-time Oscar winner, thanks largely to Damon’s bravura performance.  His Watney is a fascinating character who’s at once engaging, charismatic, clever, optimistic and full of wry humor, a true “MacGyver in space” who elicits chuckles from such witty observations as being the first Mars colonist because he grew crops or a “space pirate” since he’s hijacking the Ares 4 Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) when international maritime laws apply.  The movie gets away with “breaking the fourth wall” by having Watney maintain an ongoing video log while speaking directly to the camera in order to chronicle his experiences for posterity, which provides the audience with a more "personal" viewing experience.
With an excellent ensemble cast including Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig, Michael Peña, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover and what had to be the two prettiest astronauts to ever fill a spacesuit on-screen, Jessica Chastain (Ares 3 mission commander/disco lover Melissa Lewis) and Kate Mara (specialist Beth Johanssen), ‘The Martian’ is the latest tour de force from acclaimed director Ridley Scott, arguably his best since the Roman swords-and-sandals epic ‘Gladiator.’
Grade: A+
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The Man from Medellín

What if we take on the Mexican drug cartels the same way we combat terrorism?  That, in essence, is the central question director Denis Villeneuve’s ultra-violent and sobering new crime thriller attempts to answer.  With ‘Sicario,’ the relatively unknown French-Canadian director, whose previous credits include the Hugh Jackman vigilante thriller 'Prisoners' and the Jake Gyllenhaal head-scratcher ‘Enemy,’ just put himself on the radar as a singular talent to keep an eye on.
After playing Tom Cruise’s training sergeant in the sci-fi alien invasion flick ‘Edge of Tomorrow,’ British actress Emily Blunt further cemented her action-heroine creds as Kate Macer, an FBI Special Weapons and Tactics agent attached to an inter-agency task force headed by the laid-back Matt Graver (Josh Brolin).  Initially believing that the purpose of this special task force was to surveil and apprehend a local drug figure with connections to a ruthless Mexican cartel who's responsible for a series of gruesome murders in Arizona, Kate discovered to her increasing alarm that its scope went far beyond and she may be in over her head.  Adding to her anxiety was the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a Colombian national and “consultant” on the task force whose role and motives remain somewhat unclear.
Like Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Traffic’ and Oliver Stone’s ‘Savages,’ ‘Sicario’ depicts the “War on Drugs” not in black and white but shades of grey.  It’s not something to be “won” but rather “managed,” and it is perfectly okay to “fight fire with fire” so to speak.  ‘Sicario’ is brilliant filmmaking because it’s not simply a crime thriller but also a grindhouse revenge flick and gritty war movie.  It’s as if Quentin Tarantino, Kathryn Bigelow and Michael Mann collaborated to make a movie.  Then there’s Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro, whose quiet demeanor belies a menace just below the surface that’s resolved perfectly in the film’s climactic final scene.  Visceral, cathartic, gripping, suspenseful and thought-provoking, ‘Sicario’ is by far the best movie on the “War on Drugs” to date because it literally depicts it as one.
Grade: A+

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