Mother!

September 14, 2017 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan”)
Written by: Darren Aronofsky (“The Fountain”)

If you’ve ever had someone approach you and utter the words, “I had the weirdest dream last night,” and your first instinct was not to automatically run in the other direction before the storyteller began to describe their incomprehensible nightmare in extreme detail, you might find filmmaker Darren Aronofsky’s new thriller “Mother!” profound in a bat-shit crazy kind of way. Aronofsky has created the cinematic version of sleep paralysis. It’s vivid, uncomfortably terrifying and once you snap out of it, you’ll never want to experience it again. Ever.

Without attempting to plunge deep into the psychobabble metaphors Aronofsky amplifies to frustrating proportions (this coming from a critic who loves some good symbolism), “Mother!” follows an unnamed married couple, played by Oscar winners Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”) and Javier Bardem (“No Country for Old Men”), as they watch their quiet life get disrupted by the arrival of unexpected guests.

When a stranger (Ed Harris) shows up at their door and is invited to stay by Bardem’s famous writer character, the friendly gesture sets off a series of events that lead to the unraveling of Lawrence’s medicated character’s sanity as her mind and home fall apart piece by piece. Joining Harris’ character in overstaying his welcome is his boorish wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), and later their two bickering sons, who turn the visit from discordant to destructive.

Is every insane thing happening around Lawrence simply a figment of her imagination or is Aronofsky making it a point to draw a faint line between reality and possible hallucinations. Like Natalie Portman’s ballerina character in “Black Swan,” the existence of Lawrence’s lucidness is left to the viewer to wrangle over, but what is obvious is that Aronofsky has embraced his sprawling, chaotic narrative without remorse.

Maybe that’s a sign of a groundbreaking director. Aronofsky has created a picture about obsession and, in turn, has become a manic of his own making. He’s much better telling human stories like in “The Wrestler” or even “Requiem for a Dream, which is still just as nerve-wracking as “Mother!” It’s a bold move and he should be commended for the original and ambitious albeit preposterous content. What we could use less of Aronofsky doing, however, is making a film that doesn’t add up to much more than two hours of navel-gazing and waxing philosophical. With “Mother!,” he can’t seem to check his ego at the front door.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

May 26, 2017 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Javier Bardem
Directed by: Joachim Ronning (“Kon-Tiki”) and Espen Sandberg (“Kon-Tiki”)
Written by: Jeff Nathanson (“Catch Me If You Can”)

Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” is unlikely to turn any newcomers into enthusiastic fans of the franchise, but if you’re planning on making the fifth entry in this 14-year-old franchise your starting point, then please do yourself a favor and watch “The Curse of the Black Pearl” before heading to the theater this Memorial Day weekend. Gore Verbinski’s 2003 film remains one of the all-time great adventure films, deftly mixing sharp-witted humor, unsettling creepiness, and exhilarating action. The series has been chasing that magic to varied results ever since, but directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg have created an installment that continues to steer the franchise away from the overlong, convoluted mess that was “At World’s End.”

Since its inception, one of the recurring motifs of the Pirates franchise (not to mention countless other series) has been fathers and sons. That notion rears its head again in “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” where a fresh-faced Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) is searching for the trident of Poseidon, which can help free his father from his eternal servitude as captain aboard the Flying Dutchman. The way that search unfolds is, in trademark “Pirates” fashion, complicated and devoid of logical motivations, but somehow Ronning and Sandberg fashion a slick and entertaining summer movie.

With a running time of 129 minutes, “Dead Men Tell No Tales” is the shortest entry in the franchise, and the absence of Verbinski’s bombastic approach occasionally makes the film feel small in its scope. To its credit, the film never stalls or drags its feet. In fact, the script from Jeff Nathanson and Terry Rossio spends a lot of time setting up story and fleshing out characters. It’s not Tennessee Williams levels of character depth, but it creates a level of investment.

That level of investment is heightened by the familiar faces of Captain Jack, Barbossa, and Gibbs. If you’re a fan of the franchise, you’ll be pleased with great character moments and interactions. Johnny’s Depp’s Jack Sparrow seems a bit dialed down and sometimes even more Mad Hatter than Jack. This is probably due to the fact that the script requires him to be a bit of a bumbling idiot and not the “greatest pirate ever” we know from previous installments. That being said, the moment between him and Paul McCartney’s Uncle Jack is even better than you could have imagined.

The addition of Thwaites Kaya Scodelario, theoretically the future of the franchise, isn’t as devoid of chemistry as the tepid romance we were given in “On Stranger Tides.” The two make a fun bickering couple. Scodelario plays an astrologer who sports both brains and brawn. I’d be interested to see how they flesh her character out in future installments. Golshifteh Farahani steals the movie as a creepy witch, but her character exits the film far too soon, as does David Wenham’s Scarfield. Finally, Javier Bardem’s Salazar makes for a truly memorable and terrifying villain, injecting the dark and violent edge that had been missing from the franchise.

Characters in a “Pirates” movie are nothing without the action scenes they are thrown into, and “Dead Men Tell No Tales” has some really great set pieces. There’s a “heist gone wrong” scene early in the film that reintroduces Captain Jack in a humorous way, an exciting “guillotine execution gone wrong” scene featuring multiple levels of competently filmed and slickly edited chaos, and a chase scene in the film featuring undead sharks is unarguably a franchise highlight.

This is the second time that the “Pirates” franchise has advertised its latest movie as the final adventure. Given the way the story unfolds in “Dead Men Tell no Tales,” particularly an enticing post-credits tease, it’s clear that Disney fully intends to keep their swashbuckling franchise going as long as it keeps selling tickets. It’s a mixed bag, but an entertaining one nonetheless. If you’re a fan of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, you’ll find lots to love here. In a market saturated with superhero franchises (entertaining as they may be), why should we complain about more adventures with Captain Jack Sparrow?

To the Wonder

May 3, 2013 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams
Directed by: Terrence Malick (“Tree of Life”)
Written by: Terrence Malick (“Tree of Life”)

In the quickest follow-up to a film in his 30 year career, director/writer Terrence Malick delivers “To the Wonder,” a drama so polarizing it earned a series of boos and cheers when it debuted at the Venice Film Festival last September. “To the Wonder” comes after Malick’s Oscar-nominated – albeit still as dividing – “Tree of Life” starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. While it might be considered a companion piece to “Tree,” “Wonder” is less experimental and far less emotionally gratifying than its predecessor. In fact, of the six films Malick has directed since 1973’s “Badlands,” it’s the only one I cannot recommend.

As with every Malick film, viewers can insert their own personal meaning behind the thinly-plotted “Wonder.” Ben Affleck stars as Neil, a man who falls in love with single mother Marina (Olga Kurylenko) in France and brings her and her daughter back to Oklahoma to start a new life together. When things don’t work out (it’s not evident why they don’t since all Affleck does is stare into the distance for most of the film), Marina moves back to France and Neil rekindles a romance with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a childhood friend who is now a rancher. When that relationship ends, Marina comes back. Plotted sloppily between the love triangle is a secondary storyline about a priest (Javier Bardem) who has lost his faith. In perfect Malick form, he walks around aimlessly trying to find it.

For a majority of the film’s 112-minute run time (a short film for Malick’s standards), not much happens. Affleck has tickle-fights with Kurylenko and McAdams on beautiful backdrops as Wagner, Hayden and Rachmaninoff music blend with sparse, meaningless dialogue. There is also verbose narration in French and Spanish that tries hard to be poetic, but proves ineffective. Malick shoots Kurylenko and McAdams like a father who is chasing his twirling toddlers with a video camera he just got for Christmas. It was probably great footage in his mind, but no one else is going to want to see it.

Of course, you can’t dismiss the beauty of “Wonder” with Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (“Tree of Life,” “The New World”) at the helm again. Here, he makes a field of grain and a parking lot at a Sonic Drive-Thru restaurant look immaculate. Still, “Wonder” is exactly why Malick detractors don’t give him a fair shake. And this time they’re right. The imagery is incredible, but it’s a pretentious mess. With three more projects already in the canon for the next two years (“Knight of Cups,” “Voyage of Time,” and an untitled piece), here’s to hoping Malick’s sudden craving for rapid filmmaking isn’t his downfall.

Skyfall

November 9, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench
Directed by: Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition”)
Written by: Neal Purvis (“Casino Royale”), Robert Wade (“Casino Royale”), John Logan (“Gladiator”)

Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, the first James Bond movie I properly saw was 1995’s “GoldenEye,” which was also the first Bond movie featuring Pierce Brosnan as 007. Though most people are probably more fond of the classic Nintendo 64 video game based on the film than the actual movie itself, “GoldenEye” marked the beginning of the end for the 50-year-old Bond brand as the world knew it. The excesses and mediocrity of Brosnan’s subsequent turns as 007 led to the 2006 ground-floor reboot “Casino Royale,” featuring Daniel Craig as a blonder, grittier, more realistic James Bond. As the “Batman Begins” of Bond films, if you will, it lit the fuse on a new series with the fresh creative vision and streamlined storytelling that the character desperately needed.

The latest entry in the series, “Skyfall,” kicks off with one of the series’ trademark action-packed cold opens featuring Bond and fellow MI6 agent Eve (Naomie Harris) tracking a mercenary with a stolen hard drive containing the names of NATO secret agents through Istanbul. A rooftop motorcycle chase and a fistfight atop a moving train give way to Bond being presumed dead after plummeting from a bridge after being shot. Months later, when an expert computer hacker triggers a gas explosion that destroys the MI6 office of M (Judi Dench), 007 returns to London. A former agent named Silva (Javier Bardem) is behind the attack, Bond learns, and is intent on releasing the names of the agents and exacting his revenge on M.

Perhaps best described as “The Dark Knight” of the 007 franchise, “Skyfall” is first and foremost a great movie, not to mention one of the greatest Bond movies ever. Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”) builds on the stripped-down reboot stylings of “Casino Royale” and “Quantam of Solace,” doling out more pieces of Bond’s backstory than ever before and re-introducing classic 007 staples like geeky gadget master Q (Ben Whishaw) and an ejection seat-equipped Aston-Martin. Mendes also turns in the best-looking Bond film to date, from his focus on mirrors and reflections to hand-to-hand combat shot in silhouette against the dancing neon of the Shanghai skyline. Bardem’s Silva makes a fantastic foil to Craig’s broken Bond, each of them representing a different path taken after being abandoned in the field by their surrogate mother, Dench’s world-weary M. No diamond-skinned villains or hat-hurling sidekicks here; these are complex characters treated as such, plumbing depths never before visited in any Bond adventure.

Minor stumbles in the plot annoy more than anything, such as a barely-used femme fatale (Bérénice Marlohe), the millionth “missing hard drive filled with secret identities” in a spy movie, and an unforgivably goofy computer hacking plot thread (seriously, Hollywood: we all know how computers work now…knock it off with the stupid hacker tricks and fantastical graphics), none of which are enough to keep “Skyfall” from completing its mission with excitement, style, and a surprising amount of emotional resonance.

Biutiful

January 24, 2011 by  
Filed under CineStrays

Starring: Javier Bardem, Maricel Alvarez, Hanaa Bouchaib
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Babel”)
Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu (debut), Armando Bo (debut), Nicolás Giacobone (debut)

While poetic and immaculately shot on a grey palate to make the city of Barcelona look like a place you wouldn’t want to send your enemy, “Biutiful,” the fourth feature-length film from Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu (and the first without longtime screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga), is a structural mess. Doing what he does best, Iñárritu shows us human emotion at its weakest and does so with a searing performance by Academy Award winner Javier Bardem (“No Country for Old Men”). But the layers upon layers of narrative Iñárritu experiments with as a writer don’t come from the same fine-toothed brush as Arriaga. After two and a half hours, Iñárritu has muddled depressing idea after idea with what he believes to be craftiness. Instead, it ends up being one of those films you can admire, but not necessarily like very much.

Eat Pray Love

August 13, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem, James Franco
Directed by: Ryan Murphy (“Running with Scissors”)
Written by: Ryan Murphy (“Running with Scissors”) and Jennifer Salt (debut)
 
When it comes to travelogue-type romances where a woman goes on a journey of self-discovery to exotic places around the world only to be swept off her feet when she least expects it, there’s not much a narrative can do with that setup that hasn’t been done before.
 
It’s not, however the cliché structure that is the problem with Julia Roberts’ new film “Eat Pray Love,” based on the memoir by writer and world traveler Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s actually quite interesting to watch Elizabeth (Roberts) admit she is unhappy and bail out on life to search for greener pastures. But “EPL” only scratches the surface of a story that deserves more than just spaghetti lunches, beautiful beaches, and Roberts’ ear-to-ear smile.

In “EPL,” director/co-writer Ryan Murphy (“Running with Scissors”) delivers plenty of eating, praying, and loving, but bows out before really doing any affecting. All the tools are there at his disposal, starting with Roberts herself. As Elizabeth, a woman who decides to take a year off to travel to Italy, India, and Indonesia for a little “me” time, the film is cast well. There is a vulnerability to Roberts that is as intriguing as when she plays her more outgoing characters.

Where “EPL” takes shortcuts in its storyline is when Roberts bring a plus one. Besides a charming relationship she has with a medicine man on her trip to Bali, no one else she shares screen time with is present long enough to define the importance of them in her life. In one scene, Elizabeth is walking the streets of Italy as a loner. Two scenes later, she’s having dinner with close friends who have wedge their way into the plot without a sense of how they got there in the first place.

Even with the men in her life – Billy Crudup plays the jilted husband; James Franco plays the lover post-marriage; Javier Bardem plays the man who reawakens her soul – there no time for real connection. Even at 135 minutes, “EPL” skimps on the details. In doing so, we can never really engage in Elizabeth’s suffering or the healing process it takes her to find true enlightenment (an idea that doesn’t translate well on screen no matter how gentle Murphy makes it).

By the end of her trip, Elizabeth is saved. It would have been a lot more moving if we were allowed to see at least some of the damage she began with.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

August 27, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz
Directed by: Woody Allen (“Match Point”)
Written by: Woody Allen (“Scoop”)

Calling a Woody Allen film the best film of this summer (excluding animated trash-compacting robots, of course) might rub some comic book fans the wrong way, but with “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” the New York City-born auteur has returned to form and does it out of his East-Coast element.

The setting might not be in Manhattan like many of Allen’s films, but in Spain, the three-time Oscar winner has found a fanciful way to display his unique take on the difference between passion and love in both relationships and fine art.

In the film, Oscar winner Javier Bardem (“No Country for Old Men”) plays Juan Antonio, a Spanish painter who makes an indecent proposal to two American tourists vacationing Barcelona for the summer. When Juan Antonio audaciously walks up to Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) and asks them to spend a weekend with him, the duo is bemused by his debonair style and disregard for possible rejection.

Vicky is engaged to be married and has no interest in Juan Antonio but joins him anyway, while Cristina, who had noticed the smooth talker earlier at an art gallery, is easily persuaded to take up the offer. Although it is a lovely weekend for the trio, the scheduled sexual escapades are altered when Cristina becomes ill and Vicky is left to fend off Juan Antonio’s charm.

The complexities of these characters are revealed even more when Allen pulls an ace from his sleeve in the second half of the film when he introduces us to Juan Antonio’s ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), who’s fierce attitude and semi-psychotic behavior has been the downfall between her and her heart’s conquistador.

It’s Cruz’s intense performance that is the show-stopper in “Barcelona.” In her best role since earning an Oscar nomination for Pedro Almodovar’s 2006 film “Volver,” Cruz owns the screen as a woman scorned, not only by a love lost but also by life itself. When her and Bardem share scenes, the raw emotion and brutally honesty of the film climaxes. Whether the ex-lovers are fighting in the streets of Barcelona or when Juan Antonio is pleading with Maria Elena to speak English when she is talking in front of Cristina, Allen’s definitely got a handle on searing verbal conflict.

Cruz deserves another Oscar nomination this year in the Best Supporting category. Along with her performance, director Allen’s trek across the Atlantic is inspiring despite missing the boat on his last two voyages with “Cassandra’s Dream” and “Scoop.” But in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” Allen writes a foursome of characters that epitomize what the word “desire” means. It truly is a sexually-engaging (and not just because of the buzzed ménage a trois scene between Bardem, Cruz, and Johansson) and fascinating cinematic travelogue of neurotic narrative.