Sunday, July 5, 2020

King of the Hill

Movie Name: King of the Hill
Year of Release: 1993
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Jesse Bradford, Jeroen Krabbe, Lisa Eichhorn, Karen Allen, Spalding Gray, Elizabeth McGovern, Adrien Brody, Cameron Boyd, Joe Chrest, Amber Benson, Kristin Griffith, Chris Samples, Peggy Freisen, John Durbin, Lauryn Hill, Katherine Heigl, Ron Vawter
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9 

Synopsis and Review:
Following the stupendous "sex, lies and videotape" and the underrated "Kafka", director Steven Soderbergh tackled the memoir of writer A. E. Hotchner. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival of 1993, where it was met with great reviews, even if it did not win any awards. The film takes place in St. Louis, during the 1930s, at the peak of the Depressing, and  follows the story of young Aaron, who lives with his younger brother Sullivan, and his parents in a hotel. His mom is forced to go into a sanatorium due to Tuberculosis, while his younger brother is sent off to live with an uncle of theirs, since the family are in dire financial problems. His father, a traveling salesman, is off for long periods of time, leaving young Aaron by himself, having to rely on the friendship of a few, and trying to avoid eviction from the hotel as much as possible.
"King of the Hill" is one of Steven Soderbergh's most under the radar films, having come out in 1993, when he was still riding the high expectations of "sex, lies and videotape", which made him a central figure for the emerging Independent film movement of the 90s (and the Sundance Film Festival in particular). The film is a coming of age story, focused on the charismatic Aaron, and his trials and tribulations, attempting to live and survive, as life throws constant challenges at him. At 12, and by himself, Aaron is responsible for going to school, finding his own food, and making sure he still has a place to live, even if the family is in a precarious situation. Soderbergh could have easily made this into a grim and stark film, but instead the narrative is filled with joy, warmth and wonder. He doesn't shy away of showcasing the difficulties this child experiences, but also depicts Aaron's adventures, and his realizations of what life, relationships and ultimately adulthood imply. It's a testament to Soderbergh's capacity, married with his stylish perspective, that the film feels fresh, pertinent and consistently engrossing. The cast is uniformly fantastic, with Jesse Bradford, Jeroen Krabbe, Karen Allen, Adrien Brody all making lasting impressions. The cinematography from Elliot Davis is stunning, as is the score of the wonderfully talented Cliff Martinez (who has worked with Soderbergh since 1989's "sex, lies and videotape"). One of the best films of this director, always worth revisiting.

A Star is Born

Movie Name: A Star is Born
Year of Release: 1954
Director: George Cukor
Starring: Judy Garland, James Mason, Jack Carson, Charles Bickford, Tommy Noonan, Lucy Marlow, Amanda Blake, Irving Bacon
Genre: Drama, Musical
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
By the time "A Star is Born" premiered on October of 1954, director George Cukor had already had another film premiere earlier in the year, "It Should Happen to You", with Judy Holliday, whom he had directed to an Oscar win with "Born Yesterday". The director was a veteran, having started his career in the 30s, and "A Star is Born" though not the huge commercial success everyone expected it to be, turned out to be one of his most iconic films. The film is the second version of this story, credited to a variety of individuals, including Dorothy Parker and William Wellman. The film follows the story of Esther Blodgett, a singer who has made a steady career and who is now consistently working with a band. In one of her performances, she catches the attention of drunken movie star Norman Maine, who is captivated by her presence, charm and singing prowess. He tracks her down, and makes it a point of having the studio realize the enormity of her talent. Esther manages to become a contract player for the studio, who in the meantime changes her name to Vicki Lester, allowing for her star to start shining in lead roles. As Esther sees herself suddenly in the spotlight, Norman's career and in particular his behavior off-camera catches up with him. Nonetheless, they both fall in love and get married, with Esther's career going from win to win, whereas Norman's fades quickly, haunted by ghosts of alcoholism.
"A Star is Born" is a story that has thus far been adapted to the big screen 4 times, with the first showing up in 1937 (directed by William Wellman), followed by Cukor's version, Frank Pierson's version of 1976 and more recently, the award winning version from Bradley Cooper. George Cukor's is one of the most celebrated versions of this story, and justifiably so. It's a film that, even with the cuts imposed by the studio, tells a story of a tragic relationship, where the love and rapport between these two people, who are also artists, though dramatically terminated, serves as a testament to the sacrifices people do for their loved ones. It's also an iconic film featuring wonderful music acts, with interesting film within a film artifices, relying on the magnetism and versatility of Judy Garland, who is wonderful in this role (it would become one of her most celebrated roles, alongside Victor Fleming's "The Wizard of Oz" and Vincent Minnelli's "Meet Me in St. Louis"). The cuts imposed by the film have a way of removing some of its impact, the same thing going for the musical numbers that at times feel a bit interwoven within each other, but there's such beauty throughout this film, that it is easily understood its charisma. The supporting cast is equally strong, even if they don't have quite as much to work with. James Mason is wonderful as Norman, even if the character is never entirely flushed out, the same going for Jack Carson, Charles Bickford and Tommy Noonan. The cinematography from Sam Leavitt is beautiful as are the costumes from Jean Louis and Mary Ann Nyberg. A classic always worth revisiting.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

Movie Name: Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
Year of Release: 2020
Director: David Dobkin
Starring: Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams, Dan Stevens, Pierce Brosnan, Mikael Persbrandt, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Joi Johansson, Demi Lovato, Jon Kortajarena, Elina Alminas, Graham Norton, Jamie Demetriou, Melissanthi Mahut
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4 

Synopsis and Review:
After the tepid response of "The Judge", director David Dobkin who made a name for himself as a director of successful comedies, such as "Wedding Crashers" and "Fred Claus", has gone back to the genre who made him a recognizable name in the industry. The film co-written by Will Ferrell and Andrew Steele, follows the story of Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdottir, a singing duo from Iceland who have known each other since children. Lars main ambition has always been to go to the Eurovision song contest, and win the competition, whereas Sigrit, mostly wants to write music, but adores Lars and wants to see him attain his dreams. Following a freak accident, where all the talent assembled to represent Iceland at the Eurovision gets killed in a boating accident (later revealed to be the result of murderous intent), Lars and Sigrit get selected, much to dismay of everyone, since their performance was marred with issues. When the duo arrives in Scotland for the competition, they immediately fall under the guise of Russian performer Alexander Lemtov, who wants Sigrit to abandon Lars and go on tour with him. Following yet another accident prone performance, Iceland somehow gets selected to go to the finals, but Lars envisioning defeat, goes back home, leaving Sigrit alone to defend their song. He has to find what his dream actually is, in order to pursue what he truly wants.
Unlike most Will Ferrell vehicles, "Eurovision..." feels somewhat tame in its approach to the institution that gives name to the feature. Whereas "Talladega Nights" and "Blades of Glory" built its satire by exaggerating the foundations of those activities/sports, exposing some of its slightly ridiculous traits, with Eurovision, the comedic opportunities are there, but the laughs sadly are not as frequent as they should be. And it feels mostly because the script doesn't really know where to take the story, the same way it doesn't really know if it should be focusing solely on Lars, or on Sigrit, leaving both their stories feeling underdeveloped, the same going for the supporting characters, who are introduced powerfully, but then squandered with very little to do (Dan Steven's Lemtov character has so much comedic potential). It's a film that has its moments, mostly due to the chemistry between Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams, both of whom go all in on their performances, but the film lacks a bite, to be truly funny and memorable. It's non-offensive, but it had the potential and the talent to go so much further. 

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Blades of Glory

Movie Name: Blades of Glory
Year of Release: 2007
Director: Josh Gordon, Will Speck
Starring: Will Ferrell, Jon Heder, Will Arnett, Amy Poehler, Jenna Fischer, Craig T. Nelson, Romany Malco, Nick Swardson, Scott Hamilton, William Fichtner, Rob Corddry, Luke Wilson, Andy Richter, Tom Virtue
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6 

Synopsis and Review:
Directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck made their feature directorial debut with "Blades of Glory", following a few celebrated shorts, one of which put them as nominees at the Academy Awards. The film follows the story of arch-rivals and ice-skaters, Chazz Michael Michaels and Jimmy MacElroy. Following their disastrous behavior at a World competition, they're both barred from ever competing again. Chazz, with his issues with alcohol and other addictions, recoils to working on kids show on the ice, whereas Jimmy, abandoned by his father, ends up working in retail. One of Jimmy's fans/stalkers uncovers a loophole in the rules of competition, one which allows Jimmy to come back as long as he has a partner. His former coach, suggests Chazz, since finding a female skater in time for the competition wouldn't be possible. As they qualify for the competition as the first ever all male duo, they clash with the award winning sibling duo of Stranz and Fairchild Van Waldenberg. They'll stop at nothing to win and stay ahead of the game.
"Blades of Glory" was a successful follow up for the ever prolific Will Ferrell, who in 2006 alone premiered Zach Helms's "Stranger than Fiction" and Adam McKay's "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby". The film is a deliriously over the top look at ice skating, a satire that both celebrates the sport, while also poking fun at the glitz and even the kitsch aspect that sometimes populates it. It's a film that lives from the sheer talent and comedic timing from the incredibly talented group of actors that the directors have assembled, with Will Ferrell leading the charge, with terrific support from Jon Heder, the phenomenal Amy Poehler and Will Arnett. The plot in itself is rather simplistic, with two arch-rivals joining forces, so they can win the Olympics of the sport, and the villainous duo who will stop at nothing to sabotage their practice and performance. Even at its most threadbare concept, it's still a very funny collective effort for all the cast, who make this film one worth watching and revisiting. 

The Howling

Movie Name: The Howling
Year of Release: 1981
Director: Joe Dante
Starring: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Belinda Balaski, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, Slim Pickens, Elisabeth Brooks, Robert Picardo, John Sayles
Genre: Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7 

Synopsis and Review:
The underrated Joe Dante started his career under the tutelage of Roger Corman. By the time "The Howling" came out, he had already started a franchise with the low budget "Piranha", which coincidentally would have a sequel directed by another Corman protege, James Cameron. "The Howling", co-written by the wonderfully talented John Sayles, tells the story of a TV reporter, Karen White. Karen at the beginning of the film is involved in an arresting story, trying to uncover the identity of a killer, who has accepted to meet with her. With proper precaution and supposedly bulletproof surveillance, Karen does indeed lure the killer, but the events that ensue, scar her psychologically. A reputed therapist, who has worked as a consultant with the TV channel where Karen works, advises her to recharge her batteries in a retreat that he is sponsoring, away from the city. Karen and her husband go to the retreat, only to find it populated by an odd bunch of people. Much to Karen's dismay and terror, she comes to find out that there's quite a lot more going on in that retreat, and that what she was running away from, has come back to find her.
Of the Werewolf films coming out in 1981, "The Howling" ended up embracing its B-movie aesthetic far more than the bigger budget venture that was John Landis's "An American Werewolf in London". Joe Dante smartly populated "The Howling" with a series of plot points and developments (and stylistic choices) which would be utilized over and over throughout a series of horror films of the 80s (not to mention all the subsequent sequels from "The Howling" series). Unlike the classic Universal film from 1941, George Waggner's "The Wolf Man", this take is no so much an exploration of the beast that exists within every man, or how the creature itself is a representation of the unshackling of sexual (and social) repression (which Walerian Borowczyk had done with "The Beast" in 1975). "The Howling" is a take on how this legacy, the Werewolf legacy that is, creates a sense of tribal communion between the people who are blessed with that gift, and how it also energizes them and sets them apart from every one else (something that they cherish and revel). Joe Dante understands the universe of this script (and the book from which it's adapted), and applies the Corman perspective on it, giving it just enough sizzle to be sexy, while also embedding just enough dark humor, which has been one of his staples throughout his career. It also has just enough frights, without ever being overtly grotesque. The characters are swiftly canvased and introduced, with Dee Wallace and Patrick Macnee, creating memorable performances. Worth watching.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Laurence Anyways

Movie Name: Laurence Anyways
Year of Release: 2012
Director: Xavier Dolan
Starring: Melvil Poupaud, Suzanne Clément, Nathalie Baye, Monia Chokri, Susan Almgren, Yves Jacques, Sophie Faucher, Catherine Bégin, Jaques Lavallée, David Savard
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Actor/Writer/Producer/Director Xavier Dolan made a splash with his debut, "I Killed My Mother", which he quickly followed with "Heartbeats". "Laurence Anyways" is his third film, and made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival of 2012. The film follows the story of Laurence Alia, a literature teacher who has been in a relationship with Fred for quite a few years. They're both clearly enamored of each other, but Laurence carries a heavy burden. He actually confesses to Fred that he has always wanted to transition and become a woman. That is his real self, and that this life he leads as a man, doesn't make him happy. Fred initially is taken aback by the situation, but comes to terms with it, and is supportive as Laurence starts the transition. As the transition starts occurring some unexpected events occur in Laurence's life, namely she loses her job, and her family, with whom she always had a somewhat erratic relationship with, is further strained. Fred also finds herself unable to continue in the relationship, even if the love for Laurence is there. Following a split, Fred marries someone, and has a child, whereas Laurence becomes a published author. A few years pass, and once they reconnect, the passion is still there, and they briefly have an affair, that only reinforces the differences in their paths. 
"Laurence Anyways" is as much of a narrative on the transition of Laurence in becoming her true self, as is the examination of a relationship that is undone by expectations and pressures from the lovers themselves and others that are in their circle of relationships. It's a film that details the evolution of Laurence as a person, her progressive confidence as she finds her own voice, and as life presents challenges and hurdles, it all makes a contribution to her resilience and of course her art. It's also a love story between these two individuals who are deeply infatuated and in love with each other, but who ultimately can't make it work due to choices and what they want out of life. This mix of love, lust and ultimately realizing where they want to be and who they want to be, is what drives them apart. The film has touches and flourishes of visual poetry that is truly fantastic, but on the other hand is also marred by an artificial tone, alongside some cliches, that remove some of its powerful statement and message. The performances are uniformly great, in particular Melvil Poupaud, Suzanne Clément and Nathalie Baye. The film also features a great and eclectic soundtrack (featuring Craig Armstrong, Moderat among others), not to mention the beautiful cinematography from Yves Bélanger. It's not an entirely arresting journey, but one worth witnessing nonetheless.

Child's Play

Movie Name: Child's Play
Year of Release: 2019
Director: Lars Klevberg
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Gabriel Bateman, Brian Tyree Henry, Tim Matheson, Trent Redekop, David Lewis, Carlease Burke, Beatrice Kitsos, Ty Consiglio, Marlon Kazadi, Kristin York, Mark Hamill
Genre: Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
The original "Child's Play" from the creative mind of Don Mancini and director Tom Holland, has gone through the remake factory, some 30 something years after the original made its debut. The direction of this remake falls upon Lars Klevberg who has to his name the film "Polaroid" and a few shorts. The film follows the story of Andy, a young boy who lives with his single mom in a small apartment (in a city that is not identified). Karen works in a big department store, and decides to gift Andy with Buddi, the latest and greatest in smart toys, which connects with digital apps and also with smart houses, essentially controlling the environment of someone's residence. Andy's Buddi decides to call himself Chucky, but comes with some issues of cloud connection. It rapidly bonds with Andy, but also starts experiencing a possessive behavior, which quickly escalates to violence. The first of its victims is the cat of the house, followed by Karen's boyfriend, who violently berated Andy. Once Andy realizes Chucky's homicidal behavior, he tries to get rid of it, with the help of a few friends, but Chucky has plans of its own, and refuses to be turned away.
What made the original "Child's Play" so interesting and iconic, was not its supernatural component (the serial killer in the body of an innocent doll), but the sense of humor behind the perversity of its concept. It has been a concept that Don Mancini has smartly finessed, as the series has continued, embracing its B-movie aspect, amplifying its dark humor and surreal plot lines. This new version of "Child's Play" sadly, loses a lot of that charm, attempting to place the onus of the murderous doll on a AI gone rogue (it's basically a Terminator/Skynet in the body of a doll). The creepiness of the doll remains, but the rest of the story is barely serviceable, and sadly without much humor. It's also a film where sadly none of the characters have much time to develop relationships between each other, which means that at some point, as events unfold, these friendships/rivalries are quickly set in motion as a means to get the story to its end. Mark Hamill does a serviceable work with Chucky's voice, but doesn't compare to what Brad Dourif has done in the previous films (or for that matter, Jennifer Tilly, who has played Chucky's bride, Tiffany). The cast is quite talented, but sadly have nothing much to do. A missed opportunity to reinvigorate this franchise.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Madame Hyde/Mrs. Hyde

Movie Name: Madame Hyde/Mrs. Hyde
Year of Release: 2018
Director: Serge Bozon
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Romain Duris, Jose Garcia, Adda Senani, Guillaume Verdier, Patricia Barzyk, Pierre Leon, Roxane Arnal, Angele Metzger
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
After "Tip Top" made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival of 2013, where it was met with tepid reviews, actor/director Serge Bozon returned with "Madame Hyde". The film follows the story of a high school teacher, Madame Gequil, who has a difficult time controlling and motivating her students. She teaches a technical course, specifically Electricity/Physics, which has a practical component, which she refuses to teach her students. She typically prepares her classes in a detached container which operates as a lab, and one evening she suffers an accident, an electrical discharge that somehow permeates across her body. She starts exhibiting different behaviors, something her adoring husband starts noticing, the same going for her students, and the principal of the school she works at. As this new power surge flows through her, this new personality slowly emerges, that makes her more confident and reassured of herself, positively, while also causing some unexpected accidents with some people she interacts with.
The story of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" has been adapted countless times to feature films, and this project in particular, features one of the most celebrated actresses working these days, the phenomenal Isabelle Huppert. While the director and the actress manage to convey the character's frustration and inability to handle her classes and the challenges associated with it, when the change does occur, it lacks the energy and the spike to make it feel more life changing and empowering. The transformation suffered by Madam Gequil ends up feeling more like a bizarre exercise in sleepwalking, and not something that is dark, but also empowering and even silently menacing. Isabelle Huppert is an actress who can play any role, but has also become well known for being able to convey a silent intensity that threatens to shatter everything in sight. Sadly her character never gets to experience that journey, and the film overall lacks energy and that actual punch to make it truly memorable. Romain Duris and Jose Garcia create solid supporting characters, but again, not enough to warrant further attention to the narrative. A waste of great talent and potential.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Il y a Longtemps que je t'aime/I've Loved You For So Long

Movie Name: Il y a longtemps que je t'aime/I've Loved You So Long
Year of Release: 2008
Director: Philippe Claudel
Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein, Serge Hazanavicius, Laurent Grévill, Frédéric Pierrot, Lise Ségur, Jean-Claude Arnaud, Mouss Zouheyri
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
"I've Loved You So Long" is the feature directorial debut of writer Philippe Claudel. The film focuses on the story of Juliette, a woman who is freed from prison after a 15 year stint. We first see her waiting for her sister to pick her up from the airport. She has come to live with her, alongside her husband, two children and father in law. Juliette is mostly quiet and remote, slowly getting reacquainted with society. She applies for a few jobs, while going to her probation officer for regular checkins. Initially skeptical and afraid of her presence, her brother in law starts warming up to her presence, the same going for her young nieces. Her probation officer, as well as a colleague of her sister Léa, also start trying to captivate her. Throughout the film we understand that there was something quite dramatic that happened to Juliette's life, which crumbled her marriage and sent her to prison. As the film moves towards its epilogue, Juliette manages to get a semblance of life going for her once again, and she finally opens up to her sister, to what happened, to her silence, and her grief.
One of the remarkable things about this film, is how confidently Philippe Claudel unveils the life of these two sisters, in particular of the silent and sullen Juliette. There are no swift resolutions for anything, no epiphany within the first encounter of two characters. These characters, are individuals dealing with challenging and gut wrenching life experiences, who individually and collaboratively have to find a way to heal, and somehow continue to live. It's a film that tackles head on the weight of decisions, of how some people find a way to survive them and continue living, while others choose to take different directions. It's a film filled with warmth, humanity, tenderness, with two terrific central performances, from the always luminous and underrated Kristin Scott Thomas, and the equally fantastic Elsa Zylberstein. A very good film worth watching.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Riddick

Movie Name: Riddick
Year of Release: 2013
Director: David Twohy
Starring: Vin Diesel, Jordi Molla, Matt Nable, Katee Sackhoff, Dave Bautista, Bokeem Woodbine, Raoul Trujillo, Conrad Pia, Noah Danby, Neil Napier, Karl Urban, Andreas Apergis
Genre: Sci-Fi, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
The third chapter in the Riddick series arrived in 2013, following the somewhat disappointing results of the big budget "Chronicles of Riddick" from 2004. Since the release of "Chronicles", Vin Diesel managed to be part of the very successful "Fast and the Furious" series (still going strong), while also joining the Marvel franchise with "Guardians of the Galaxy" (equally tremendously successful), without forgetting his attempt at another franchise with the "XXX" series (the Xander Cage series). The third film in the series, harks back to the humble beginnings of the first film, with a scope that is definitely less ambitious. Looking to move past the Necromongers, and discover Furya, his homeland, Riddick strikes a deal with the power lustful Lord Vaako. Vaako's team take him to a desolate planet, and while there try to kill him. Riddick manages to escape, but finds himself in a very inhospitable planet, filled with lethal predators. While recovering, he adopts a pet hyena, and soon realizes he has to abandon the planet, since a series of catastrophic storms are about to descend on the planet. Upon finding a dormant mercenary station, he activates the beacon, with two different teams responding to it, in order to come and claim the bounty on his head. It will be on Riddick to navigate the agendas and strategies of these two teams, who are intent on capturing him, dead or alive.
Following the lackluster reviews and commercial performance of "The Chronicles of Riddick", writer/director David Twohy went back to smaller scale thrillers with the well received "A Perfect Getaway", while Vin Diesel went back to the "Fast and Furious" series, which made him even more popular and well paid in the process. "Riddick" is a far more modest endeavor than the second film in the series, trying to capture the grittiness of the first film, while also building some further backdrop to the Riddick character. Working with a decidedly smaller budget, the film once again has a B-movie aspect to it, which means, most of the characters are rapidly defined and characterized, and the essential point of the film is Riddick's quest to escape the planet (and eventually uncover his birth planet). This film attempts to introduce some humor with the supporting characters, without much success, but once again, there is something to be said for David Twohy's attempts at capturing influences from other films, even if they are as remote as L.Q. Jones's "A Boy and his Dog" or some of the more classic westerns, of the Sergio Leone family, specifically his Man with no Name series (the Clint Eastwood series). It's a film that once again is unbalanced, in tone and even across the cast assembled, but there's something to be said for the creative team behind this series, who continues to see a narrative worth telling, even if this film doesn't necessarily add much to the cannon.