AMERICAN MADE review

I couldn’t remember the last time Tom Cruise has starred in a film that isn’t some kind of big budget action/adventure, I don’t know if he’s not getting offers to do more dramatic roles or he just likes doing action pictures. Whatever those reasons maybe, he’s now back in a role that’s well-suited for him.

Based on a true-life story of Barry Seal (Cruise), who is a pilot for TWA Airlines. Seal is a very good pilot, he also smuggled Cuban cigars into the States to make some extra cash. This caught the attention of a CIA agent named Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) who asked Seal to come and work for the agency. Bored at his work and also intrigued about working for the CIA, Seal accepted the offer. His job was to fly an advanced airplane with camera attached to it over South America countries and take photos of the communist armies.

After several successful missions, Seal caught the attention of drug runners including the infamous Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía). Escobar and his buddies wanted Seal to smuggle their cocaine into the States and offered him quite a bit of cash for his troubles. Since the CIA wasn’t paying him that much money for his work and his trophy wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) wasn’t too happy with their current living situation; Seal decided to take Escobar’s offer and work for the drug runners too. As the story progresses, Seal must try to balance his work for the Agency and drug runners and things will never turn out well when you work with powerful people.

This role is perfect for Cruise. The character is charismatic, cocky and greedy and Cruise looked like he had a great time playing the part. Seal’s a man who loves to take risks and of course being a greedy person, he’d never turn down a chance to make lots of money, even from dangerous people like Escobar. He’s also cares for his family and understands that he won’t be able to make the big bucks by just being a pilot. I don’t know anything about the real Barry Seal and I’m going to assume many of the things that happened in the film was made up for dramatic purposes. But Cruise shines here as the man who would do anything to be successful. Unfortunately, none of the other actors made much of an impression on me. Sarah Wright played the typical trophy/worried wife and Gleeson was kind of bland as the man of mystery. Other characters were just there to fill the scenes so Cruise can be the star.

The script by Gary Spinelli didn’t really offer anything new for this kind of genre. It’s pretty much been there done that kind of story. In fact, I thought the first half hour was kind of boring and nothing happened that got my attention. But as the story progresses, it got more interesting, but again I’ve seen these kinds of stories many times in other films and TV shows that I was not surprised at what’s going to happen next. Director Doug Liman decided to shoot the film in style of the 70s and 80s to fit the period and I thought he did a good job capturing the look and feel from those decades. His use of constant handheld and shaky cam style on some scenes were quite annoying though.

This is a good film that belongs to Tom Cruise, so if you’re fan of his then I think you’ll enjoy it. Crime dramas are hard to do these days since it’s been done so well in films from years past. So even though I enjoyed this film, I just can’t give it a higher rating.

 

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So have you seen American Made? Well, what did you think?

FlixChatter Review: The Revenant (2016)

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I have to admit that I’m not the biggest fan of Alejandro González Iñárritu. I think he’s a very good filmmaker but many of his films are way to depressing to me. Heck I have yet to see his awarding winning film Birdman, so I was hesitant to see his latest picture. But after seeing a stunning trailer a few months back, THE REVENANT became of the films I most looked forward to seeing this winter.

Set sometime in the 1820s, frontierman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a fur tracker who’s part of a pelt gathering expedition that’s being lead by Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). As the film begins, Glass and his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) are deer hunting in the forest while his group are gearing up to get on their boat. Suddently out of nowhere, a pack of Native Americans starts attacking them. In an intense battle sequence, some of the crew were killed but Glass and the rest of the gang were able to get away. Later the group came to a rest at a camp site. While out scouting for any potential dangers, Glass was attacked by a bear. He’s badly wounded but was able to kill the creature. Moments later, Henry and some of the men found him. They stitched him up but realized he might not live for long.

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One of the crew members named John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) suggested that they leave Glass to die on his own since he’s badly wounded. This of course upsets Hawk and Henry refuses to leave anyone behind. As the crew are heading back to their settlement across the mountain, it became clear that they can’t carry Glass all the way back. So Henry offer money to any volunteers who will stay with Glass until he dies and give him a proper burial. Glass’ son Hawk immediately volunteered and so did a young crew member named Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). The third person to volunteer was Fitzgerald, his only reasoning was that he wants the cash. What Henry doesn’t know is that Fitzgerald didn’t care for Glass and he never intended to wait until Glass dies. What follow is a story of vengeance and survival in the harsh winter landscape.


DiCaprio didn’t have a lot of dialogue in the film but his performance really shines as he uses all of his body and emotions to convey a man who’ll do anything to get vengeance at the people who left him for dead. It’s obvious he wants another shot at that golden statue, I’m sure he’ll get nominated again but I don’t know if he’ll win it. Hardy turned in another stellar performance as the antagonist. I wouldn’t call him a “bad” guy, his action and reasoning are quite understandable, although I don’t agree with some of the things he did in the film. The two young actors, Goodluck and Poulter, also shines as sort of the innocent characters in this harsh time.

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Iñárritu directed the film with some interesting camera work, particularly in the battle/action sequences. He also paid a lot of homage to Terrence Malick’s films. Some might call it pretentious but I don’t see it that way. The movie is quite brutal when it comes to violence, the bear attack scene was the most intense and realistic thing I’ve ever seen on screen. Then there’s the eventual showdown between Glass and Fitzgerald, it’s brutal and bloody but believable to me.

The film was shot by the always-great Emmanuel Lubezki and of course it looks spectacular. See it on the biggest screen you can find. Also, I have to mention the sound design, it’s one the best I’ve heard all year. The film was recorded in Dolby Atmos, but unfortunately the advance screening I saw was at a 7.1 surround sound. But I’m planning to see it again at a Atmos theater. So find a nice big screen theater with great surround if you can and be amazed by the sight and sound of this film.

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I don’t pay attention to any award shows but I won’t be surprised if this film get lots of attention from Oscar or Golden Globe voters. It’s one of best films of the year and as of now, it’s my favorite of 2015.

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So have you seen The Revenant? Well, what did you think?

Day 4 Review – TCFF 2015 Gala Screening: Brooklyn

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Three of my most highly-anticipated films at TCFF premiered on Saturday. Two of them are studio features, Youth & Brooklyn and one is a small indie drama The Dust Storm, which I have reviewed here along with my interview w/ one of the director and cast members.

It was quite a whirlwind day starting with the Future of Film panel at 1pm with Rob Nelson from National Society of Film Critics, Ryland Aldrich from Twitchfilm.com and Emma Griffiths, Emma Griffiths PR. It’s great getting insights from film experts on the changing landscape of film promotion/distribution and various film trends. I also got to meet director Samuel Hathaway before his red carpet (check out my interview w/ him on The Old, Old Story), as well as David Spaltro whom I met a couple of years ago at TCFF. Great to see him back in town for his psychological horror film In The Dark (review & interview post coming next week!)


So here’s one of the reviews from Day 4:

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Brooklyn

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I’ve been waiting to see this film since it premiered at Sundance and so imagine how thrilled I was when I saw it on TCFF lineup!! I’ve been a fan of Irish thespian Saoirse Ronan since Atonement, Hanna and How I Live Now, which also premiered at TCFF two years ago. Suffice to say her casting was the main draw for me to see this and she did NOT disappoint.

As an immigrant myself, naturally the story of a young Irish immigrant moving to the United States resonated with me. Of course our circumstances are very different, but I identify with the feeling of homesickness and the challenges of navigating a whole new environment. Brooklyn is set in the 1950s. It opens with Eilis Lacey, the youngest of two Irish sisters living in a small town in County Wexford, Ireland. She’s offered a chance to move to New York City by a priest, for a chance of a new life. Her older sister Rose strongly supports that idea, even if that means she’d have to be the only one looking after their mother.

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The journey on the boat is quite excruciating for Eilis, but somewhere along the way she always ended up finding a friend to help her through it. The same way when she arrived in Brooklyn to stay in a Mrs. Kehoe’s Catholic boarding house along with four other girls. I LOVE Julie Walters here, she’s definitely the comic relief with her comments like ‘no talking about the Lord’s complexion at dinner!’ or ‘giddyness is the eighth deadly sins!’ She’s strict but not without a sense of humor. The always reliable Jim Broadbent provides an excellent supporting turn as the compassionate priest Father Flood who arranged for Eilis’ immigration.

Homesickness is like most sicknesses. It will make you feel wretched, then will move on to somebody else…

I love the quote above from Father Flood to Eilis, and sure enough, soon Eilis’ able to overcome her homesickness as soon as she finds romance with an Italian boy Tony (Emory Cohen) who’s handsome and effortlessly charming. There’s a James Dean-esque vibe in his performance and perhaps that’s intentional. Soon he invites Eilis home to meet his very Italian family. I love the cultural aspects of the film, showcasing the different lives of American immigrants from different countries. There are amusing scenes such as when Eilis’ fellow boarding house friends teach her how NOT to splash spaghetti all over her blouse during dinner, and Iarla O’Lionaird as Tony’s smart-aleck-y 8-year-old brother Frankie was definitely a scene stealer!

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Life doesn’t always go according to plan however, and Eilis’ life changed abruptly that compels her to return back to Ireland. Life if full of tough choices, and that’s what happens with Eilis when she finds herself back in her home town. Suddenly there’s a decent life waiting for her in Ireland that she didn’t find before she moved to Brooklyn. A tentative romance also develops with a friend from her high school Jim (Domhnall Gleeson) that complicates matters. There’s nothing like two romantic prospects on both sides of the Atlantic that would get any girl torn, but there’s also more to it than that.
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I love how the seemingly-simple story of an immigrant girl can be so deeply poignant and moving. I remember liking John Crowley‘s British indie Boy A with Andrew Garfield, and he’s certainly has a way for capturing the anguish and torment of young people. The same with screenwriter Nick Hornby who penned About A Boy in crafting a heartfelt character-driven piece.

It’s definitely Saoirse Ronan‘s best work amongst her already illustrious career. At twenty, she’s the right age to portray Eilis, and she infused such gravitas into her role. She’s able to convey internal battle within her with just her eyes or a subtle smile, as there’s a great deal of economy of dialog in this film but everything has a purpose. Visually, the set design of 50s Brooklyn and Ireland are believable, captured beautifully by cinematographer Yves Bélanger. But to me, it’s the story that I will remember most of all. Lest Hollywood forget, well-written story is the greatest special effects of all.

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Have you seen BROOKLYN? Well, what did you think?

FlixChatter Review: Ex Machina

ExMachinaPosterThere have been a plethora of films about man and machine or man vs machine in Hollywood. From cult classics like Blade Runner, Terminator to most recent ones like Robot & Frank, Chappie, etc., clearly not all are created equal. I’d say that this Alex Garland‘s original story has some striking similarities to the 2013 tiny-budgeted British indie The Machine, given that the creator and the machine are the main key players of the film. However, Ex Machina explored the eternally-fascinating topic of ‘what it means to be human’ in a much deeper and more immersive way.

The film started out with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) being dropped by a chopper into this secluded estate of a billionaire scientist in the side of a Norwegian mountain. He’s supposed to spend a week with the CEO of a large internet search engine company, but other than that Caleb has no idea what’s in store for him. As it turns out, he’s invited to participate in a breakthrough experiment in testing artificial intelligence. After meeting the mysterious tech baron Nathan (Oscar Isaac), things just seem to be even more cryptic. I love the initial interaction between the two actors and the unpredictability and suspense of it all. First time director Alex Garland infused the scenes with a sense of appropriate eeriness, as well as a dose of humor that prevents the film from being too heavy handed or frigid.

ExMachina_Still3It’s when we meet the subject of the Turing test, a luminous female A.I. named Eva (Alicia Vikander), that things starts to get REALLY interesting. Even though Eva’s robotic parts are visible, unlike some other films where the droid looks fully human on the outside, she is as fetching as ever. It sparks intriguing questions about why Nathan created her with sensuality, with the ability to flirt and emote. The unhurried pace allows for a lot of reflective moments, thanks to the sharp and focused script by Alex Garland himself.

“One day the AIs are gonna look back on us the same way we look at fossils and skeletons in the plains of Africa” Are the arrival of droids and drones mean we’re on the verge of extinction? That seems far-fetched perhaps, but the way Garland made this film, this scenario seems almost entirely plausible. His idea of the future is ‘ten minutes from now’ and companies like Google or Apple are certainly capable of creating the future we see in this film even today.

The spirituality aspect, whether intended or not, is one of most thought-provoking aspect I’ve seen in a sci-fi film in a long time. Humans may think they can replicate ourselves and build something with *consciousness,* but is a soul something we can create? What these sci-fi films prove is the always-present and increasing desire of humans to become God.

ExMachina_Still1I’ve been a fan of Garland’s work as a screenwriter (especially 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go), so we know he’s a master storyteller. But I think he has a gift behind the camera as well, and perhaps because of his writer background, he’s more concerned about letting the story flow and immerse people into a certain realms, instead of bludgeoning us with action, action, action. Plus he’s got an International cast formed by three accomplished young actors to tell his story.

Guatemalan-American Oscar Isaac has been churning out one fantastic performance after another. He’s truly one of the most fascinating actors working today and it’s such a joy watching him mature even more as a performer. The best scene of the film, and one of my favorite scenes of the year, is the dance scene that’s both unsettling but hilarious. Isaac certainly has screen presence to match his acting chops.

ExMachina_DanceScene Irish Domhnall Gleeson is perfectly captures the naive curiosity of Caleb, as well as the young man’s intelligence and vulnerability. He’s effortlessly likable and you immediately projects yourself into his character as he navigates into this new environment he’s thrown into. Isaac and Gleeson have a good rapport together, and the human relationships are just as intriguing as that between man & machine. In the key role of Eva, Swedish actress Alicia Vikander couldn’t be more perfect in the role. There’s a certain innocence and fragility about her, but yet you know she’s far more sly than you think.

The film is appropriately R-rated for the graphic nudity. Now, I’d be the first to tell you that most of the time, nudity in movies is unnecessary and gratuitous. But I have to say that it’s not the case here, it feels integral to the plot. For the most part, Ex Machina is a quiet, reflective film. It did veers into mystery thriller territory towards the end but it’s a natural progression of the story instead of a forced divergence. It’s definitely a great film to see on the big screen and be fully immersed in the story and the characters’ journey.

Despite the relatively low budget (under $15 mil), the production values are fantastic. From Nathan’s state-of-the-art estate and his lab where he builds these machines, as well as the mountain scenery, it’s a good looking film. I also love how atmospheric the film is, thanks to the cool, ethereal-sounding soundtrack and resplendent cinematography. But the most striking of all is the robotic look of Eva, which is both mechanical as well as organic, you simply can’t take your eyes off her. We’re as drawn to her as Caleb was in the film.

ExMachina_Still2But as evident in films like Elysium, visual flair alone does NOT make a movie. Ultimately what you remember is the story and how it affects you as you watch it, and this film certainly offers plenty for the senses. There are so many scenes that linger long after the end credits role, such as one where one of the characters has a moment of doubts about himself as a human. It’s got such a haunting quality about it that adds another layer of intrigue on the human/machine exploration. It’s further proof that one doesn’t need an astronomical budget or big stars to tell a compelling and memorable story. Dazzling, provocative and haunting… everything you’d expect from a futuristic sci-fi film. An outstanding directorial debut from Alex Garland, I’m curious what he’d tackle next, both as a writer AND as a director.

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Have you seen Ex Machina? Well, what do you think?

FlixChatter Review: FRANK (2014)

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Jon, a young wanna-be musician, discovers he’s bitten off more than he can chew when he joins an eccentric pop band led by the mysterious and enigmatic Frank.

I have heard so many great things about this film and the quirky aspect of the story appeals to me. I have to say that Michael Fassbender‘s casting intrigues me most as he spends 99% of the movie wearing a giant papier-mâché head. Thankfully, that part wasn’t just a silly gimmick, but there’s an intriguing story behind it.

The film took its time in revealing what the story is with Frank (Fassbender) and why he refuses to reveal his face. Yep he even sleeps and shower with it, which drives Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) bonkers with curiosity. In fact, since the story is told from his perspective, we identify with Jon in how he feels about suddenly being thrown into this quirky mix of people. Frank is an enigmatic figure to be sure, but he’s actually the most likable personality of the entire band who pretty much treats Jon like dirt. I get that he had to earn his place in the band, but still, the contempt was quite uncalled for.

FRANKmoviestillsIn the first two acts, we pretty much spend time with the band as we witness their creative process in a remote cabin in Ireland. It’s full of quirky moments, some works and some don’t, and plenty that leaves me scratching my head. But it’s the third act where things sort of goes off the rails. As it turns out, Jon has been posting their recording sessions online and been tweeting about it constantly. Somehow that got them an invite to South by Southwest and it’s here that we learn just what’s really going on with Frank. The third act at SXSW is where I felt that the film went off the rails a few times, though the finale did reveal more about the main character in a way that still surprised me.

I have to admit that my initial response to this movie by Lenny Abrahamson was not overly positive. I was left irritated and frustrated by the pacing, the mostly unlikable characters and how sometimes the weirdness seems more gimmicky. I’m a big fan of Maggie Gyllenhaal, but here her character seems to go out of her way to be utterly unlikable. That sex scene is absolutely mental and I have to admit, it’s a bit revolting. But the more I think about this movie and read some articles on it, I appreciate it a bit more. Props to Fassbender for giving such a nuanced performance without the use of an actor’s main asset – his facial expression. Aside from Gleeson, who’s got a natural charm about him, Fassbender is truly the star here.

FRANKmoviestillThe story’s so much more than just about music, but more of the creative process, as well as a commentary about true art vs commercialism. The use of social media here is interesting too in how that could give people a false sense of fame and notoriety. I wish I had been as invested in the story however, the only time I found most emotionally involving was the finale. There are intriguing and memorable moments throughout, but I’d say that the movie itself is less than the sum of its parts. If you’ve been curious about this one though, I’d say give it a shot.

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Have you seen FRANK? Well, what did you think?

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Music Break: Five great songs/theme from Richard Curtis’ films

AboutTimePosterI haven’t done a Music Break post in a while but today I might as well hit two birds with one stone to highlight Richard Curtis. Today the British writer/director turns 57 and his time-travel rom-com About Time starring Domhnall Gleeson & Rachel McAdams opens today in the US as well, so I thought why not highlight some of the music from his films.

You could say Mr. Curtis is the King of British Rom-Com, he’s also the man behind great comedic shows like Blackadder and The Vicars of Dibley (my personal fave). He often works with Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) and Hugh Grant, in fact, all of the films I highlighted here have Grant in them! His films are quintessentially British, filled with wacky British humor and cultural references which I really enjoy, but another thing I love about his movies are the great soundtracks.

Here are five from some of my favorite movies written/produced by Richard Curtis:

She – Notting Hill

I’ve never even heard of Elvis Costello’s music before this one but I LOVE, LOVE this song and I like how it plays in the beginning to sort of introduce Julia Roberts’ movie star character. It has such sweet, melancholic melody that


Ain’t No Sunshine When She Goes Away
– Notting Hill

The song choice is just perfect for this scene, it’s as if R&B star Bill Withers knew exactly what broken-hearted William (Hugh Grant) is thinking at this moment as he goes through each season missing his sweetheart Anna. I’m not a huge fan of Hugh Grant generally but too is perfect for this role.


Love is All Around – Four Weddings & A Funeral

I remember playing this song over and over when this film first came out. The song was originally recorded by The Troggs but in this soundtrack it was performed by Scottish band Wet Wet Wet. Apparently it was so popular it remained at number 1 in the British charts for fifteen weeks and was then the ninth biggest selling single of all time in Britain (per Wikipedia). Playful and romantic, just like the movie!


PM Love Theme – Love, Actually

There are a lot of great themes in this film, I also love the Glasgow Theme but this one has such a swooning quality about it but not in an overly sappy way. It has such a rousing and ‘stately’ feel about it too that fits the fact that Hugh Grant’s character is a British state leader.


Have You Met Miss Jones? – Bridget Jones’ Diary

I initially didn’t realize that this song’s part of Bridget Jones’ Diary. I LOVE it, it’s so my kind of music as I was just telling Michael and Jack in this awesome music post. I had no clue that swing jazz is Robbie Williams’ genre, I thought he’s more of a pop star. Originally sung by Sinatra, of course it’s tough to beat the real deal, but still, it’s a lovely song that I can listen to over and over.


Hope you enjoyed the Music Break. Which Richard Curtis’ movie(s) are your favorites?