Saturday, July 13, 2019

Wine Country

Movie Name: Wine Country
Year of Release: 2019
Director: Amy Poehler
Starring: Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Ana Gasteyer, Rachel Dratch, Paula Pell, Emily Spivey, Jason Schwartzman, Tina Fey, Jay Larson, Cherry Jones, Craig Cackowski, Greg Poehler
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
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Synopsis and Review:
"Wine Country" is yet another Netflix exclusive release, this one in particular, having the privilege of being acclaimed actress/writer Amy Poehler's directorial debut. The film follows the story of a group of friends, all of whom get together in Napa to celebrate one of their birthdays. The person in particular, Rebecca, is about to turn 50. Abby who has arranged and organized the whole trip, secretly has lost her job, and every single one of the friends on the trip are going through some sort of self questioning in their own lives. As their trip progresses and they come face to face with a series of unexpected events/occurrences, what becomes more and more apparent is the friendship and love tying all these women together, something that has lasted since their younger adulthood, and has survived their hectic and filled lives. 
"Wine Country" is a film that functions as a rehash of Lawrence Kasdan's "The Big Chill", but without the death of a friend being the catalyst that brings a group of close friends together. Instead, these women, come together to celebrate a milestone anniversary, while secretly each one of them is pondering decisions, dealing with insecurities and generally trying to figure out what path lies ahead in their lives. It's a film that lives mostly and primarily from the quality of the cast assembled, particularly with the presence of Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, all from SNL, and acclaimed actresses in their own right. They all share and have a familiarity and rapport between themselves, something which allows the film to feel breezy and effortless, but the script doesn't provide enough nuance to really bring these characters to life (each of their lives are pretty much summarized in quick cliches, and the main characters themselves, really required some further investment to be fully illustrated and realized). As is, the film is a funny sketch, with a really talented group of performers, all of whom have an opportunity to have fun, but it's also quickly forgettable and rather generic. Here's hoping the next directorial output from Amy Poehler has more of her incredible personality and talent. 

Kafka

Movie Name: Kafka
Year of Release: 1991
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Jeremy Irons, Theresa Russell, Ian Holm, Joel Grey, Jeroen Krabbe, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Alec Guiness, Brian Glover, Keith Allen, Simon McBurney, Robert Flemyng
Genre: Drama, Mystery
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
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Synopsis and Review:
Following his auspicious debut with the fantastic "sex, lies and videotape", director Steven Soderbergh tackled a decidedly different material, working from a script from Lem Dobbs, whom he'd work with again on "The Limey" and "Haywire". "Kafka" though not a traditional biopic, is centered on the famed author, known for "The Trial", "The Castle" and "The Metamorphosis", to name but a few. The film introduces us to Kafka, an insurance clerk, who is also an unpublished author, living in a city which appears to be Prague, in 1919. When one of his co-workers is murdered, he starts investigating the occurrence, and finds himself tangled with an underground group, responsible for bombings around town. The goal of this group is to damage the control that a secret organization has over major events taking place in society. The root of all this control seems to lie in the castle which looms over the city, where Kafka goes, in order to understand the full scope of these occurrences. 
"Kafka" is a film that has been relegated to cult status. Upon its release, it largely flew under the radar, and unfairly so, since it's a film that takes the mantle of Franz Kafka's career, and makes it a suspenseful and claustrophobic thriller/mystery. The film is a mix of a quasi-biopic with a mystery, showcasing the influences from several of the author's books, creating in the process an interesting narrative. The invisible and oppressive authority, the conspiracy that is never clarified, the absurdity of situations, all of those are topics present in the author's work, that permeate the film. Unlike his previous film though, this one does not depict the characters as fully dimensional, but Jeremy Irons, Theresa Russell and Ian Holm, all manage to create interesting and captivating identities for themselves in this darkly lit mystery. It's a film that entertains and showcases the point of view of a great director, who at the time was still finding his path. The cinematography from Walt Lloyd is fantastic, as is the score from Cliff Martinez. An underrated gem from a great director.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Movie Name: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Year of Release: 2018
Director: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Starring: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Luna Lauren Velez, Nicolas Cage, Zoe Kravitz, John Mulaney, Kathryn Hahn, Kimiko Glenn, Liev Schreiber, Chris Pine, Natalie Morales, Oscar Isaac, Greta Lee, Jorma Taccone, Lake Bell, Joaquin Cosio, Edwin H. Bravo
Genre: Action, Adventure, Animation
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
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Synopsis and Review:
Continuing the expansion of the "Spider-Man" universe and mythology, Sony Pictures released the entertaining and stunning "Into the Spider-Verse", which featured a story from writer/director Phil Lord (who alongside Christopher Miller has been responsible for "The Lego Movie" and the "21 Jump Street" films, among many others). The film, with three credited directors (two of which, Bob Persichetti and Rodney Rothman are first time feature film directors, while Peter Ramsey, this is his sophomore effort), follows the story of young Miles Morales, a high school student who has been enrolled in a private school, much against his will. His father, a police officer, wants to succeed, and set aside his art vocation and leaning, which Miles loves dearly. While out with his uncle, Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider, and becomes a "Spider-Man", very much like Peter Parker, who already wears the suit in New York City. When Peter (and Miles) try to defraud a risky and dangerous plan from the Kingpin, Peter is killed in the process, but unbeknownst to them, what the Kingpin put in place, opens a ripple effect in multiple dimensions, one that brings multiple Spider powerful beings to Miles' New York. They collectively have to battle the Kingpin and his cronies, and each of the Spider powered beings return to their realities, before they die.
"Into the Spider-Verse" is a dynamic and stunning animated feature. The film starts with the premise of a well known story, the origin of Spider-Man, but quickly shifts into Miles' awakening and understanding of what being a Spider-Man truly entails and requires. It's a film about responsibility, being empowered to follow one's dreams, but also understanding that every action has a consequence, and that pursuing one's dreams requires sacrifice, struggle and overcoming pain. Also it ultimately is a film with a powerful lesson about relying on friends, and understanding the power of acceptance and love. If the topics of the story are somewhat familiar, specifically the tone of the film, which mixes heart, humor and action in perfect balance, the animation itself is truly wonderful to behold. The film is aesthetically beautiful with a saturation of colors that is truly bewildering, featuring shots and frames that are quite stunning. It's a stylistic delight, one that demands multiple views.
The voice cast is uniformly impeccable, with Liev Schreiber bringing his intensity to the Kingpin character, where the versatile Kathryn Hahn, is as usual, fantastic playing the villainous Doc Ock. A very good film worth watching!

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Movie Name: Spider-Man: Far from Home
Year of Release: 2019
Director: Jon Watts
Starring: Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Cobie Smulders, Zendaya, Jon Favreau, Marisa Tomei, Jacob Batalon, Tony Revolori, Angourie Rice, Remy Hill, Martin Starr, J.B. Smoove, Peter Billingsley, Toni Garrn, J.K. Simmons, Michael de Roos
Genre: Action, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
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Synopsis and Review:
In what appears to be the omnipresence of Marvel at every turn (and almost every month), director Jon Watts returns with a sequel to the 2017 "Spider-Man" feature, which rebooted the uneven franchise (which has had three versions thus far, starting with Sam Raimi's, followed by Marc Webb's and the current one under the tutelage of Jon Watts). The film takes place after the events that took place in the last "Avengers" film ("Endgame"), which has seen everyone brought back to life after the collective demise brought on by Thanos. Peter looking to get back to his every day life, has the opportunity to go with his class to Venice and Paris. He hopes the getaway will allow him the opportunity to share with Mary Jane a special moment, finally letting her know his feelings. His plans are derailed when these powerful entities start popping out of nowhere and wreaking havoc everywhere they go. They go by the name of Elementals, and Peter is caught in a dicey situation in Venice, but much to his surprise, an unexpected ally by the name of Mysterio pops up. Peter who has questioned his Iron Man legacy, and what he has been left behind with, decides to trust this person, and grant him access to the technological legacy from Tony Stark. But people aren't always what they seem, and Peter learns it the hard way.
Jon Watts has quickly and deftly learnt how to handle big budgets and large canvas storytelling, since this latest iteration of Spider-Man is a surprisingly limber and enjoyable film, even more so than the first one. The film manages to have the right amount of teenage angst and relationship development, combined with the more typical super hero action set pieces, which are quite impressive in this case. The film also benefits from the fact that the cast is uniformly completely at ease in this environment and inhabit these roles with a sense of ease and relaxation, which makes the film more enjoyable and definitely less contrived. It's a film that also wears its heart proudly, deals with the aftermath of loss, all the while showcasing thinly veiled nods to the spirit of John Hughes (the European vacation, the high school rivalries). If the whole cast is uniformly good, high marks should be given to Jake Gyllenhaal, who once again proves just how interesting of an actor he has become, with his character going through a very interesting and nuanced transition. The cinematography from Matthew J. Lloyd is solid, as is the score from Michael Giacchino. An entertaining film worth watching.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

JFK

Movie Name: JFK
Year of Release: 1991
Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman, Sissy Spacek, Donald Sutherland, Jay O. Sanders, Kevin Bacon, Joe Pesci, Sally Kirkland, Jack Lemmon, Ed Asner, Laurie Metcalfe, Vincent D'Onofrio, Wayne Knight, Michael Rooker, Gary Grubbs, Walter Matthau, Pruitt Taylor Vince, John Candy, Jo Anderson, Dale Dye, Martin Sheen, Brian Doyle-Murray, Beata Pozniak, Ron Jackson
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
The same year he released "The Doors", director Oliver Stone came out with the powerful "JFK". The film is an adaptation of the book by Jim Garrison and Jim Marrs, and it follows the story of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, whose life (and everyone else's) is altered with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. In the aftermath of that dramatic event, and following the assassination of suspect Lee Harvey Oswald, Garrison starts investigating what lies behind those occurrences. Garrison and his team start collecting evidence and different sources of information, which start defining a massive conspiracy to bring about the events that took place. 
"JFK" at the time of its release was surrounded in controversy, for the theories that it demonstrated and for the way that Oliver Stone showcased his thoughts on that subject matter. Conspiracy theories aside, what is left is a taut thriller, one that amasses a variety of narrative threads, into a courtroom drama that is filled with twists and turns, all directed with a stylistic virtuosity, that has rarely been that well executed (and that the director has never been able to replicate ever since). The central narrative, anchored on Jim Garrison's journey is somewhat stunted (he comes across as a Frank Capra hero, with his long suffering wife by his side). We never really understand or know much about this character, but Kevin Costner manages to imbue him with a purity and idealism that is reminiscent of James Stewart. The supporting cast is extensive and impressive, with Gary Oldman, Kevin Bacon and Joe Pesci creating memorable characters. The cinematography from Robert Richardson is phenomenal as is the score from John Williams. A fantastic film worth watching.

Annabelle Comes Home

Movie Name: Annabelle Comes Home
Year of Release: 2019
Director: Gary Dauberman
Starring: McKenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Michael Cimino, Samara Lee, Sade Katarina, Steve Coulter, Natalia Safran
Genre: Horror, Mystery, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
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Synopsis and Review:
The prolific "Conjuring" universe continues its expansion, this time around with another chapter in the "Annabelle" doll story. The film is the feature directorial debut for writer Gary Dauberman, who has written all the entries in the series thus far (on top of being responsible for the screenplays for "It" and "The Nun"). The film takes place in the 1970s, after Ed and Lorraine Warren take possession of the Annabelle doll and bring her to their home, in order to safely guard her in a controlled environment. While investigating a case, Ed and Lorraine have to leave town and leave their young daughter Judy with the sweet and responsible babysitter, Mary Ellen. Mary Ellen's best friend, the strong willed and emotionally bruised Daniela, decides to come to the Warren's home, since she has read about them, and personally wants to make contact with her recently deceased father. Against Judy's recommendations, she goes through the house, discovers Ed's keys, and accesses the room where all demonic artifacts are kept. What they collectively start experiencing defies logic and what is unleashed threatens their very existence.
Most of the "Conjuring" cinematic experience has been defined by films that are anchored on the definition of environments and the suggestion of horror. James Wan's "The Conjuring" is a lesson in economy of narrative, inventive stylistic choices, and character development that though taut and succinct, still allows for characters to be engaging and dimensional. "Annabelle Comes Home" takes its time for the events to start unfolding, which allows for the characters and their relationships to be shaped. Sadly, the characters are very much like clichés, and don't have that much to define them, which renders their relationships somewhat shallow. The director finds a way to balance this with a strong definition of a menacing atmosphere that becomes more oppressive as the film advances. There's tangents to what Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg created with "Poltergeist", though this film discards the family angle, focusing more on the abilities and uniqueness of Judy, the central character who is convincingly portrayed by McKenna Grace. The supporting cast is equally strong, particularly when the fantastic Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are around. The cinematography from Michael Burgess is impeccable, as is the score from Joseph Bishara. Worth watching.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Movie Name: Ralph Breaks the Internet
Year of Release: 2018
Director: Phil Johnston, Rich Moore
Starring: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Alfred Molina, Ed O'Neill, Ali Wong, Taraji P. Henson, Timothy Simons, Rich Moore, Dianna Agron, Brad Garrett, Nicole Scherzinger
Genre: Comedy, Animation, Family
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
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Synopsis and Review:
After the success of "Wreck it Ralph" in 2012, writer/director Rich Moore, with Phil Johnston by his side, brought back the sequel to the adventures of Ralph and Vanellope. The film takes place 6 years after the original, with life in the arcade being quite tranquil, until Ralph decides to throw a wrench on Vanellope's game, "Sugar Rush". The outcome of that forces them both to venture into the internet, where they have to seek out e-bay, in order to get Vanellope's game back to work. However in the process of doing so, they end up being exposed to different online games, which allows Vanellope to see the world beyond Sugar Rush, something she always dreamed of. This in turn saddens Ralph, who yearns for things to stay the way they always have been. In a clumsy attempt to keep Vanellope to himself, he deploys a virus on the internet, threatening its very existence.
If "Wreck it Ralph" was a take on nostalgia underlying video games of the past and how unlikely friendships are established, this sequel takes that step a bit further, focusing the narrative on personal growth, and the fears that come with change. It's a film that is cleverly written, underlying the message of empowering and supporting your friends and their dreams, even if that means seeing less of them: the cost of altruism and real friendship. It's a film that is populated with humor, references to modern technology, the silliness and darkness that lies within that universe, all of this wrapped up in referential humor to Disney itself and the characters that have existed in these narratives/stories. The film is stunningly well animated and is aesthetically impeccable (even if a bit over saturated), also featuring a talented array of actors providing the crucial voice work. John C. Reilly is great as usual, but he gets great support from the always hilarious Sarah Silverman. A good film worth watching and savoring. 

Anna

Movie Name: Anna
Year of Release: 2019
Director: Luc Besson
Starring: Sasha Luss, Luke Evans, Helen Mirren, Cillian Murphy, Lera Abova, Nikita Pavlenko, Anna Krippa, Eric Godon, Andrew Howard, 
Genre: Action, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 2
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Synopsis and Review:
Director Luc Besson is back with another action/thriller feature, something he has been producing for the past two decades through his EuropaCorp studio (where he has produced the "Taken" and "Transporter" franchises, to name but a few). "Anna" follows the story of young Russian woman in the 90s, who after losing her parents and an early adulthood filled with bad boyfriends/relationships, is given a chance to get a job as a spy. She's trained and is immediately put through a tough assignment where she is tasked with killing a highly protected target. Following her successful endeavor, she's immediately tasked with more missions which take her to Paris, where modeling is her cover up. As her missions get more dangerous, the more anxious she becomes to break away from that life and go on her own way. However her Russian handlers have other plans, something that comes to a halt, when their American counterparts get involved, and offer Anna a different deal. It's up to her to handle both parts and figure out a way to get out of that deadly world.
It's inevitable that "Anna" draws comparisons with the classic "Nikita", which further cemented Luc Besson's career back in 1990 (and which was remade in the US by John Badham under the title "Point of No Return"). They both have strong female leads, women thrust into positions where they have to make the best of their training, intelligence and whatever else resource they have, in order to escape dicey, and potentially lethal situations. "Anna" unlike "Nikita", feels like a very distant and poor cousin of that film. None of the characters have any depth, nuance or much of a personality, including the always excellent Hellen Mirren, who can't do much with her "handler" character (who looks very much like the Jeanne Moreau/Anne Bancroft characters from "Nikita"/"Point of No Return"). The time jumps and the structure of the film itself is one of the few things that avoids making this endeavor fall into a profound repetitiveness. The film also borrows quite heavily from David Leitch's "Atomic Blonde", including the choreographed fight scenes and the romantic entanglements/attachments of the central character. The film falters on the originality of the script, but even more so on the central casting of Sasha Luss as Anna. She's terribly cast, and is half awake throughout most of the film, has no chemistry with any of the cast members and generally feels like she's completely oblivious to everything taking place (unlike Charlize Theron, who made "Atomic Blonde"'s Lorraine feel like a lethal and tired agent in an deadly/unfriendly locale). The main cast is somewhat lost, with Luke Evans and Cillian Murphy having little to do, but the cinematography from Thierry Arbogast is excellent as always. This is by far a minor effort from an interesting director. 

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Hot Shots!

Movie Name: Hot Shots!
Year of Release: 1991
Director: Jim Abrahams
Starring: Charlie Sheen, Valeria Golino, Cary Elwes, Lloyd Bridges, Kevin Dunn, Jon Cryer, William O'Leary, Kristy Swanson, Bill Irwin, Heidi Swedberg, Bruce A. Young, Mark Arnott, Rino Thunder, Efrem Zimbalist Jr.
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Jim Abrahams has always been associated with the Zucker brothers, with the group collectively known as ZAZ. They have of course been responsible for the classics "Airplane!", "Police Squad" and "The Naked Gun". "Hot Shots!" is Abrahams first foray in solo mode into the type of comedy the group collectively and successfully help shape. The film follows the story of Topper Harley, a young pilot who has left the military following a very expensive accident. He's recruited back for a special assignment, though unknown to him and his unit, there are other interests at hand. In order to make sure he's in conditions to fly, the military has a solid medical stuff, including the beautiful therapist, Ramada Thompson, to whom Topper is immediately drawn to. As Topper gets familiar with the mission, he has to win the trust of his team, something that is strained due to family bad blood with Kent Gregory, another one of the top pilots. It will take all his smarts and resourcefulness to uncover the plot and get the woman of his dreams.
"Hot Shots!" is of course a well played satire to Tony Scott's "Top Gun" and all the films that were released around that time, which followed very similar plot points. These plot points invariably had a young rebellious lead coming to terms with a family legacy, falling in love with a beautiful woman, and traumatically losing a friend, forcing him to redeem himself and save the day. All these clichés are subverted and deconstructed by Jim Abrahams and his co-writer Pat Proft. They put Charlie Sheen and the entire cast through a series of hilarious set pieces, with numerous film quotes and parodies including Adrian Lyne's "9 1/2 Weeks", Richard Donner's "Superman", Steve Kloves' "The Fabulous Baker Boys", and the list goes on. It's a type of comedy that was perfected on "Airplane!", and that to a certain extent, still works its wonders here. It doesn't have the sense of novelty that classic film has, but it's nonetheless a very funny and entertaining comedy, with a cast that is more than up for the game. Worth watching.

Hook

Movie Name: Hook
Year of Release: 1991
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams, Julia Roberts, Bob Hoskins, Maggie Smith, Caroline Goodall, Charlie Korsmo, Amber Scott, Laurel Cronin, Phil Collins, Arthur Malet, Dante Basco, Jasen Fisher, Isaiah Robinson, Raushan Hammond
Genre: Adventure, Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Following his prolific year of 1989, where director Steven Spielberg released two films, the underrated "Always" and "Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade", the director started the 90s with an ambitious project. The film is an adaptation of the books and play by J.M. Barrie, and focuses on the story of Peter Pan. The story introduces us to an adult Peter, a successful attorney in San Francisco, married and with two children. Peter has no recollection of being Peter Pan, and is also a bit of a workaholic, neglecting his children and family to a large extent. When they go back to the UK to visit his wife's grandmother, an unexpected adventure begins. Peter's children are kidnapped by his old nemesis, Hook, forcing Peter with the help of Tinkerbell, to go back to Neverland. While there he has to get reacquainted with his tribe, find his inner magic and happy memories, or face losing his children and his own self.
"Hook" and all the adaptations of the works from J.M. Barrie continue to fascinate directors and film makers (the first adaptation is dated 1924 and the most recent is dated 2015). The fantastic Steven Spielberg seemed like a perfect fit to tackle this material, something that the Disney Studios also did in 1953 and which still retain its impact and quality. This adaptation, finds Peter as an adult, having lost his magic and his connection to family, topics that have always been dear to Spielberg's work. The film is in many ways a story of someone recapturing his sense of self, but also his integrity, and opening his eyes to the wonders of life. There's a certain Frank Capra tone to the film that is quite endearing. The film is beautifully rendered thanks to solid visual effects and production design (by Norman Garwood), not to mention the warm cinematography from Dean Cundey. The considerable cast assembled is a mix bag, with Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams making for compelling and watchable presences, while Julia Roberts is mostly forgettable, in a role that requires her to do very little. Maggie Smith as usual steals all the scenes she's in and the late Bob Hoskins, has also very little to do. It's an ambitious film from a fantastic storyteller, that though not entirely successful, still manages to be entertaining and gorgeously executed. Worth watching.