Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Sicario (2015)

Sicario is a high-octane, yet grounded story of a black-ops mission with new and interesting characters. It's one of the few movies that I wouldn't change a thing about it.

Sicario is the story of a by-the-books policewoman who ends up working for a black-ops team. On the grand scale of things, one could see it as a fish out of water story; but it's more that. There are some characters that you see in other movies as well (e.g. Josh Brolin's character who recklessly runs the operation from the shadows), but the characters played by Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro were different from characters that I had seen before.

Besides characters and acting, the direction of the movie, some of the cinematic shots, and the score, all complemented each other perfectly and created a new experience - I felt like I was in the field with them.

I am not saying that Sicario is the cinematic masterpiece of the century, but it's a very fresh take on an old genre, and the filmmakers delivered a perfect product; perfect not in the sense that it is better than other films in cinema history, but a film that was as great as one could possibly make in that genre... Needless to say that it was a 10/10 for me!

Black Mass (2015)

Johnny Depp and Scott Cooper (director), tell the story of Whitey Bulger - an Irish mafia boss - in the most boring way possible!

The filmmakers intended to make a classic like Goodfellas, but failed miserably. Black Mass tells the story of cops and mafia, and the unconventional alliances between them. Johnny Depp tries to method act his way through the film, and as an actor, he does a very respectable job. Besides Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch was also a nice addition - hearing him in a Boston accent was most fun I had watching this film.

The fault of the movie lies with the writers and director. The story lacks thrills, and the characters are unsympathetic. I found myself not giving a damn for neither the good guys nor the baddies. The pacing of the movie is boring, and the colour palette that the cinematographer uses is dark and gloomy (in other words depressing).

So if you are interested in Whitely Bulger's story, do yourself a favour and just read his Wikipedia page... When I was at the theatre watching Black Mass, I thought the time had stopped and I was trapped there for eternity. Score of 3/10 might be somewhat generous...

Monday, March 7, 2016

House of Cards - Season 4

After a rather disappointing third season, House of Cards marks a return to form in the latest season. This show has been a commentary on the real-life political landscape, and some aspects are so close to the ugly truth, that it leaves a bitter grin on your face.

Season four is presented in three arcs: episodes 1-6, 7-10, and 11-13. So for those who binge watch the show (probably the most of the audience), they can take a breather after each arc. The first one tries to tie up the conflict from season 3; more specifically, the feud between Frank and Claire. Claire Hale-Underwood was one of my favourite tv characters in seasons 1 and 2. She was an equal partner and her relationship with Frank was real, honest, and perhaps simply, "perfect". In season 4, a data analyst says that this partnership is what every marriage strives to become. But in season 3, the writers (led by Beau Willimon - the showrunner) tried to make a few changes to the character and made her an arrogant, ungrateful, and self-righteous serpent exploiting her position. She blackmailed Frank into making her an ambassador (considering everyone in the government was against it), and then she got super emotional and ruined the deal with the Russian President Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen), and she didn't even apologize for her terrible mistake... The first arc of season 4 continues on the same trait, and shows how ignorant Claire can be. She is of course a competent politician, but her scheme didn't make sense at all. She seemed to have forgotten that the reason anybody listens to her is because of her position as wife of the president. By attacking Frank, she was also burning her own platform - but she was blind not to see it... In one of the episodes in this arc (I guess 3 or 4), Frank broke the fourth wall and told us the story of his neighbour who used to run away and hide in his tree-house. Frank, finding boy to be ungrateful and ignorant of his blessed life, cut down the tree to teach him a lesson. This gave me hope that Frank would teach Claire a lesson as well, but contrary to his character, Frank surrendered...

Trying to ignore this feud and how it was resolved, I enjoyed the rest of the season: The partnership is back to where it was in seasons 1 & 2, and they try to complement each other. The adversary in the back half of the season is William Conway (Joel Kinnaman) - who is a parody of the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau. Conway has a beautiful family, savvy in exploiting social media to his advantage, and as power-hungry as Frank. The character was interesting and well-written, but the actor was not 100% convincing.

Overall, Conway was a worthy adversary for Frank, and their mind-games were fun to watch. Speaking of things fun to watch, I should mention the last three minutes of the season finale. Underwoods' (Frank and Claire) last strategy for keeping their head above water was pungent, and at the same time, too close to reality. It was a return to the badassery (if that is a word) of Underwoods from seasons 1 and 2. Of course it is expected that as the president he cannot be as reckless as he was before, and that is something dearly missed from the show, but it is fun to see evil Underwoods again in the last moment of the finale.

A comment about the show in general: although it is intriguing and didn't frustrate me at all, I can't help thinking that they are dragging this show. The first two seasons covered a longer period of time (maybe one year each), whereas seasons three and four seem to happen within one year. American tv shows try to milk the cow for as long as possible... but this show deserves to go while it is still on top (before it jumps the shark). So I hope they will finish it next season. But Beau Willimon leaving his duties as the showrunner and being replaced by people on his writing staff, give the impression that Netflix wants more than one more season. I should note that the BBC version of House of Cards (the source of the current Netflix show), had three seasons, with four episodes in each season (i.e. a total of 12 episodes) - so far, Netflix has produced 52 episodes. And as they say, too much of a good thing can make you sick...

My score for season 4 of House of Cards: 8/10.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Making a Murderer - Netflix Documentary (2015)

For those who like legal dramas... THIS is the real deal!

Making a Murderer is a documentary filmed over the course of 10 years. The directors did a great job of keeping the audience intrigued while they remained impartial. I am aware of the objections from both sides criticizing the directors, but this by itself could be an indication that they remained objective and didn't take sides.

The focus of the story is on Steven Avery - a native of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, who subscribes to every stereotype that you might have in your mind. Besides the stereotypical behaviour, his cognitive faculties are considerably less developed compared to an average person. These negative biases cost him 18 years in jail due to a wrongful conviction. But as the title of the series suggests, those years might have made a murderer out of him...

Following his exoneration and release in 2003, he sued the sheriff's office for $36 million for damages. While in litigation, he was arrested again as the prime suspect of a homicide... I hope I'm not spoiling this, as most have already heard from the news that he is still in prison, and president Obama responded to a petition for his release by stating that it was a state matter...

The setting of Making a Murderer is really similar to a John Grisham novel, but of course more suspenseful - the filmmakers do a masterful job of keeping you by the edge of your seat throughout the 10 hour documentary. I felt like I was a juror and my verdict (of guilty or not guilty) changed multiple times while listening to the arguments of state vs. defence. The district attorney was a bit of sleaze ball (look up his scandals in recent years), but he presented seriously incriminating evidence. The defence attorneys, however, did an amazing job infusing reasonable doubt in my mind. Had this trial been held in California (similar to O. J. Simpson's case), most probably Avery would have been acquitted. Courtroom drama aside, this series is an interesting and thought-provoking commentary on the US legal system. For all these reasons, it was a 10/10 for me!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Spartacus - TV Series (2010 - 2013)

Spartacus is a guilty pleasure with compelling characters and surprising plot twists! Here is my brief review of the series:

Getting through the first episode was rather painful. It felt like a very cheap knockoff of 300 and Gladiator (the slow-motion shots, lousy green screen effects, etc). But if you tolerate the pilot, the show begins to find its own voice from episode 2.

I mentioned it was a guilty pleasure because it doesn't hold back on gore, violence, and sex. For some it might be even too much! But the show is more than just gore and violence. The characters (from Spartacus himself to Batiatus and Crassus) are written amazingly well; most of the choices they make, do make sense. I find this to be rare in the modern shows, especially the ones that are within the same genre as this show (e.g. Foggy Nelson on Daredevil or Laurel Lance on Arrow do really annoying/stupid things that defy every logic, just to push the plot forward).

Andy Whitfield was perfectly cast as Spartacus. He portrayed the pain, defiance, surrender, and eventual rise of the character with a delicate sense of poignancy. But in another case of life imitating art, he was defeated by an unstoppable force after a long battle (with cancer) at the age of 39 - according to the legend, Spartacus also died at 39. The showrunner - Steven DeKnight - apparently was counting on Andy's recovery and instead of a second season, he made a 6-episode mini-series that introduced us to (my favourite character of the show) Gannicus (Dustin Clare). Rise of Gannicus to the God of the Arena is as compelling as it is entertaining.

After Whitfield's passing, the role of Spartacus had to be recast; Liam McIntyre rose to the challenge and did a decent job in season 3. As expected, it took him a while to grow into the role of the leader of the slave-army. By season 4, though, he made the role his own. The series finale was entirely on McIntyre's shoulder, and he delivered it as well as anybody could.

I'd rather steer clear of spoilers in these reviews, so I would not get into the minutiae of the plots. But suffice to say that this show made me love the characters that I was supposed to root for, and dislike the antagonists while I respected and admired them. Making me care about the characters is what I loved most about this series. I can think of other shows with more respectable actors, writers, and directors, that received more accolades and awards, but failed to achieve that feat. For example, Boardwalk Empire is a show that has Martin Scorsese as executive producer, and has won Golden Globes and Emmys, but didn't invoke any emotions in me (neither positive towards to protagonists, nor negative towards the antagonists).

As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, the major reasons that I love to immerse myself in movies, tv and other forms of entertainment, is that I want to escape into a different world. Spartacus was the perfect escape for me, and I will probably revisit this show in the future. For the reasons stated above, it was a 10/10 for me.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Zoolander 2 (2016)

Celebrity cameos galore!

The first Zoolander (2001) is considered to be a classic by many movie fans. Zoolander 2 is a decent successor that doesn't live up to the highs of the first one, but it sure is fun to catch up with the old gang!

What the movie lacks in substance, is made up by the abundance of celebrity cameos. Two of the best cameos in my opinion were Neil deGrasse Tyson, who was the last person I expected to see in this film, and Benedict Cumberbatch as "All".

Among the main actors, Kristen Wiig surely deserves a shout out. Her time on the screen is really short, but she stole the show in every scene she was in - thinking of her accent and her Botoxed face still cracks me up!

I don't know if we were supposed to see a growth in Derek Zoolander's character, but it was nice to witness Magnum and Blue Steel again! I was entertained and left the theatre with a smile on my face. So I'd give it 7/10.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Coen brothers revisit the glamour and sometimes corrupt memories of Hollywood's golden age in the 50's. Josh Brolin plays the role of Eddie Mannix, a real-life fixer for studios. The movie also introduces Alden Ehrenreich, who seems to be a very promising actor... If Brolin is the heart of the film, Ehrenreich is the soul of it. The rest of the ensemble, although perfectly cast, have roles that are mostly glorified cameos.

The overarching theme of the movie is a film noir, and as mentioned, is a love-letter to the golden age. Coens show us a behind-the-scenes look at the movie making process. We basically see 3-4 films within Hail Caesar (from an epic historical sword and sandal, to a Gene Kelly-type musical). If you consider yourself a fan of film noir or the history of Hollywood, then you would thoroughly enjoy this movie. If not, then the disjointed story, number of cameos, and different movie genres within the film will confuse you. Of course this being a Coen brothers' film, you could expect to see lovable fools and eccentric characters. But I think this movie is rather polarizing.

Individual components of Hail Caesar are decent, but the whole package works surprisingly well. I give it 8.5/10.