Sunday, May 26, 2019

Guilty By Suspicion

Movie Name: Guilty By Suspicion
Year of Release: 1991
Director: Irwin Winkler
Starring: Robert De Niro, Annette Bening, George Wendt, Patricia Wettig, Sam Wanamaker, Luke Edwards, Chris Cooper, Ben Piazza, Martin Scorsese, Tom Sizemore, Gailard Sartain, Robin Gammell, Brad Sullivan
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Irwin Winkler has made a name for himself as a celebrated producer, and typical collaborator of director Martin Scorsese (he produced "New York, New York", "Raging Bull" and "Goodfellas" to name but a few). His directorial feature was precisely "Guilty By Suspicion", which came out in 1991, with a script doctored by him, from an original by Abraham Polonsky (the film got selected to the prestigious official selection at the Cannes Film Festival). The film takes place in the 50s and it follows the story of David Merrill, a successful Hollywood director, who after a stint in France directing a new film, returns to the US to find his loyalty being questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. His family who has always played a second role in his life, is somewhat alienated from him, but David decides to remain faithful to his principles, and reveal nothing about himself or friends/associates. As his stern conduct remains, he finds himself unable to find work, that is until the prospect of directing a film, provided he testifies in front of congress, wins him over. As he deals with the lines of questioning from the committee, David realizes the effects these situations have had on people he has cherished and is forced to realize what his true priorities are.
"Guilty by Suspicion" is a lesser well known film in Robert De Niro's filmography since it got dwarfed by the immense exposure and success of "Cape Fear", also released in 1991. If that film was a phenomenal exercise in over the top menace and a dramatic physical transformation for the actor, "Guilty by Suspicion" is a much more subdued exercise. It's also a much needed lesson on staying true to one's beliefs, the power of freedom and transcending tyranny. The film manages to be humane, by progressively uncovering David's life, including all that he has compromised in order to be successful. It also showcases how in the end, his family, his friends, the love that permeates across his relationships, is the only real fountain of truth and loyalty. It's a film that sheds light on a dark period of history, but nonetheless a film that tackles and illustrates hard decisions and the consequences that they had in a lot of people's lives (and in many ways, the dramatic fatal ones). It's impeccably staged, featuring a stunning cinematography from the late Michael Ballhaus, and a competent score from James Newton Howard. The supporting cast is uniformly great, with Annette Bening, Patricia Wettig, Chris Cooper and Sam Wanamaker all providing a colorful backdrop to the events. Worth watching.

The Perfection

Movie Name: The Perfection
Year of Release: 2019
Director: Richard Shepard
Starring: Allison Williams, Logan Browning, Steven Weber, Alaina Huffman, Milah Thompson, Molly Grace, Graeme Duffy, Mark Kandborg, Winnie Hung
Genre: Thriller, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 2
View Trailer

Synopsis and Review:
Another month, another feature released by streaming giant, Netflix. "The Perfection" follows the story of Charlotte, a talented cellist who has had to give up her career in order to care for her mother, who in the meantime has passed away. Charlotte reaches back out to the head of the school, and goes to Shanghai to witness their selection process of a new star pupil. While in Shanghai Charlotte meets the young woman who took her role as star pupil/protege, Lizzie. The two women form a fast friendship, that quickly becomes romantic. The following day they decide to go explore a bit of the area, but Lizzie starts feeling nauseous, which becomes aggravated the further away from the city they are. In parallel with the nausea, Lizzie starts hallucinating, until they get expelled from the bus and something drastic occurs. When we next see Lizzie, we witness the aftermath of those events and the thirst for revenge she has. However she ends up unearthing a lot more than she anticipated when she goes out looking for closure.
Netflix is on a spree to create content and maintain their subscribers interested in their releases. This however means that for every superlative "Roma" that comes along, a lot of less than interesting films seem to also be getting released, which is the case of this "The Perfection" (the ration quality versus quantity, definitely seems to be falling on the latter). Richard Shepard who in the past has directed interesting features such as "The Matador" and "The Hunting Party", limits himself to illustrate in this case a rather pedestrian plot, which almost plays itself as a tv film of dubious quality. This revenge plot is uninspired, and even this committed cast can't save it from the ultimate fact that these characters are barely passable, the situations barely believable and the final twist, less than laughable. In order to make this truly unforgettable, the film needed a stronger narrative, defined characters and an actual sense of dread that never materializes. It's an instantly forgettable endeavor. 

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum

Movie Name: John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
Year of Release: 2019
Director: Chad Stahelski
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane, Asia Kate Dillon, Mark Dacascos, Lance Reddick, Anjelica Huston, Tobias Segal, Said Taghmaoui, Jerome Flynn, Randall Duk Kim, Margaret Daly, Robin Lord Taylor
Genre: Action, Thriller, Crime
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
View Trailer

Synopsis and Review:
The John Wick narrative continues, following the successful previous two installments. This series, which saw a humble beginning in 2014, directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch (uncredited), two professionals previously associated with stuntwork, both of whom have successfully carved out a fruitful directorial career, just keeps getting better, more refined and engaging. The film picks up where the last installment left - after killing someone in a sanctuary locale, John Wick is given an hour to escape, since a bounty will be placed on his head. He, alongside his dog, desperately go in search of help, picking up a few items along the way in order to make that happen. Wick manages to get to Casablanca, in the pursuit of an old associate who can get him in touch with people who know how to get in contact with the head of the organization. Wick manages to buy some time, but in order to be granted his life, he has to execute one of his old allies. What lies ahead is a series of more obstacles for him to overcome.
Much of what I stated about the second installment of the series, applies to this film. These films have a distinct B-movie aspect to them, which they wear it on their lapel with much gusto. The characters never have much depth to them, but that has never been the core significance of this series. These films have an ultimate goal of making all the events suitable excuses for very choreographed ballets of death and bullets, administered by the taciturn Keanu Reeves. As the series continues, the budgets have gotten better, and so have the action set pieces, which continue to be exhilarating, even if at times, almost exhaustive in their length. Still, it's a film not to be taken seriously, where there's a gratuitous pleasure in the havoc and mayhem that Keanu Reeves' character creates. It's not as cartoonish as Michael Davis' "Shoot 'Em Up", but also nowhere near as complex as anything that Michael Mann has ever created. The cast is uniformly solid and cynical, with Anjelica Huston, Halle Berry, Laurence Fishburne and Ian McShane, adding just enough personality and wit to keep the film watchable and fun. The cinematography from Dan Laustsen is impeccable. An entertaining film worth watching.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Insidious: The Last Key

Movie Name: Insidious: The Last Key
Year of Release: 2018
Director: Adam Robitel
Starring: Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Kirk Acevedo, Caitlin Gerard, Spencer Locke, Josh Stewart, Tessa Ferrer, Aleque Reid, Ava Kolker, Pierce Pope, Bruce Davison
Genre: Horror, Mystery, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
The Insidious franchise has found its anchor character, not on the Lambert family, which was the focus of the first two films, but instead on psychic Elise Rainier and her two accomplices, Specs and Tucker. These trio of characters was central to "Insidious: Chapter 3" and now to "Insidious: The Last Key". The film takes us to Elise's childhood in New Mexico, and how her powers manifested in her household. At the time, Elise and her younger brother, were living with their parents in a house which was part of the prison establishment of that area, since her father was the ward. Her father was strongly against Elise's "perceptions", and punished her severely, unlike her mom who was always quite supportive. After the passing of her mom, Elise eventually flees her household, due to her father's abuse, leaving her brother behind. After all these years, Elise gets a call from someone asking for help in her hometown, something she initially refuses, until she realizes the person is living in her former childhood home. She decides to go back with her team, to solve those hauntings, and finally address her own childhood demons that still populate her nightmares.
Actor/Writer/Producer/Director Leigh Whannell, has continued to expand the "Insidious" franchise, with a flurry of stories stemming from the cases investigated by Elise Rainier. Whannell of course made his name by creating the "Saw" franchise, but "Insidious" is a close second in terms of reach and popularity. The films are low budget and always manage to provide substantial returns, which always validates their return. The narrative arc however is starting to lose momentum, and this fourth film is a testament to the fact that the freshness and originality of the first film, is now starting to give way to a formula that is not very rewarding. As we get to witness the humble beginnings of Elise, we never really know much about who she actually is, aside from her gifts, and how she uses them. Whannell seems to forget that in order for the scares to be effective, the characters that are haunted have to have some dimension to them (the same going for the supporting characters). The strangeness of the creatures that populates this universe is still interesting, but it's now borderline devoid of any relevance, since the narratives in which they exist, are so threadbare. Director Adam Robitel mostly illustrates and keeps the cadence of what James Wan brought forth in the first installments, without much originality or distinctiveness. Lin Shaye and Bruce Davison manage to keep the film watchable, but as these progress the reason to pay attention is dwindling. 

Insidious: Chapter 2

Movie Name: Insidious: Chapter 2
Year of Release: 2013
Director: James Wan
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey, Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, Steve Coulter, Ty Simpkins, Angus Sampson, Danielle Bisutti, Tyler Griffin, Lindsay Seim, Hank Harris, Andrew Astor, Garrett Ryan
Genre: Horror, Mystery, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
James Wan followed the surprise success of "Insidious" with two releases in 2013, one being a natural succession to the first "Insidious", while the other was the even more successful "The Conjuring" (which would in turn launch an equally very successful horror universe with plenty films for Warner Bros.). "Insidious: Chapter 2" starts right after the events of the first film. Josh Lambert is back, or so it seems, as is Dalton, but in the process Elise Rainier, the gifted psychic was killed. Josh, now possessed by the entity who has always haunted him, killed Elise, and is intent in wreaking havoc in his own family. As the ghosts keep showing up in their household, and Renai gets more and more freaked out, Lorraine (Josh's mother) alongside the help of Specs and Tucker (Elise's former associates), have to figure who is the entity possessing Josh, and how to help him come back.
What was so remarkably interesting about the first "Insidious" was the fact that Leigh Whannell and James Wan, managed to create an environment so macabre and suspenseful, with very little flash, but very effectively, by largely playing with shadows, and the notion of an other post life existence. What  made the first film so compelling was precisely the fact that the mystique of the characters was left unchallenged. The film had some touching points with what Steven Spielberg did with "Poltergeist" - the nuclear family being threatened in their household by something out of their control, and how through resilience, unity, they managed to battle those forces. The sequel tries to extend that formula, but this time around tries to explain the existence of the creature inhabiting Josh, and to a certain extent, the universe where they exist. Sadly, even if the tone is very similar to the first film, the freshness and innovation in storytelling factors are more subdued, and what is left is an attempt to replicate/continue the first film. However the details are not quite as strong (such as Josh's attempts at killing the family), and what was originally an unseen menace, becomes something quite different. There are definitely strong elements inherited from the first film, and James Wan is a gifted storyteller, but the film could have benefitted from a more refined script. The cast is uniformly good, particularly Barbara Hershey and Lin Shaye, who always manage to bring gravitas to the proceedings. A minor film, still interesting to watch from an eclectic director. 

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Fried Green Tomatoes

Movie Name: Fried Green Tomatoes
Year of Release: 1991
Director: Jon Avnet
Starring: Kathy Bates, Jessica Tandy, Mary Stuart Masterson, Mary Louise Parker, Cicely Tyson, Chris O'Donnell, Stan Shaw, Gailard Sartain, Timothy Scott, Gary Basaraba, Lois Smith, Jo Harvey Allen, Richard Riehle, Raynor Scheine, Nick Searcy
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Following a prolific producing career which started in the 70s, Jon Avnet ventured into feature directorial territory with "Fried Green Tomatoes" (following a few directorial credits in TV). The film is an adaptation of the book by Fannie Flagg, and focuses on the lives of women in two very distinct timelines. In the 1980s, the film focuses on the story of Evelyn Couch, a somewhat timid housewife, who feels somewhat adrift, and who meets an older lady in a nursing home in Anderson, Alabama. The two strike a friendship, and Ninny Threadgoode (the older lady), starts narrating stories of her hometown, Whistle Stop, in particular the story surrounding Idgie Threadgoode. This story takes place in Alabama, in the 30s/40s, and details the growing pains of Idgie as she loses her older brother, and the relationship she forms with her former sister in law, who becomes her dearest friend. When Ruth is forced into an abusive marriage, Idgie shows up to save her, alongside the help of her staff. Ruth is pregnant, delivers a young boy, and she and Idgie start a cafe, well known for their barbecue. Sadly Ruth's sadistic husband, shows up to get her child, but is unable to do so, and eventually shows up dead, getting Idgie and her friends in trouble. Ninny continues to narrate these stories to Evelyn, including the outcome of these dramatic events, and they slowly have an impact on Evelyn's own life, who progressively finds her own voice.
"Fried Green Tomatoes" is a well executed film that primarily lives from the fantastic cast that Jon Avnet assembled. The characters, particularly the ones portrayed by Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary Louise Parker, are the ones with the lion share of the story, though it's interesting to see the arc given to Kathy Bates' character. Her progression from mousy housewife, to a woman with ambition, though not dramatically enacted, is still rewarding, mostly due to the fantastic performance from Kathy Bates. It's a somewhat placid film, that does play like a higher caliber tv film, but one that does lack a more distinct point of view, and a director with the willingness to tackle some issues that the film alludes to, but never presents openly, such as lesbianism, racism and domestic abuse. Still it's a testament to the impeccable cast assembled, that the film remains watchable and enjoyable. The score from Thomas Newman is fantastic as is the cinematography from Geoffrey Simpson. Worth watching.

The Doors

Movie Name: The Doors
Year of Release: 1991
Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Val Kilmer, Meg Ryan, Kyle MacLachlan, Frank Whaley, Kevin Dillon, Michael Wincott, Michael Madsen, Mimi Rogers, Josh Evans, Kathleen Quinlan, Crispin Glover, Dennis Burkley, Billy Idol
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
After a tremendously successful output of films in the 80s, director Oliver Stone started the 90s with two distinct insights into the America of the 60s, firstly with "The Doors", followed by the galvanizing and potent "JFK". The film focuses on the rock band "The Doors", particularly on the iconic lead singer, Jim Morrison. The film introduces us to Jim as he's going to college, where he's studying film, and where he meets his future girlfriend, Pamela Courson. While at college he also meets Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore, forming the music band with all of them. As the band becomes progressively more well known, Jim's behavior becomes more erratic, due to his drug and alcohol consumption. As he gets involved in a series of other things, they all start taking a toll on his responsibilities towards the band, their performances and general perception, until his sudden death at age 27 (in 1971). 
Being from the same generation as Jim Morrison, Oliver Stone experienced the 60s, and tried to capture it and portray it through this film. And for the most part the film is an interesting perspective into the life of excess of a rock star, however it also is a very cliché ridden perspective, since it doesn't really give much dimension to Morrison, his band members, or the women in his life for that matter. Trying to capture so much of the decade, including people's experiments with drugs, the war on Vietnam, the civil rights movement, women's liberation, Oliver Stone really threw everything into this film, peppering it with some interesting cameos from recognizable faces (for instance, Andy Warhol), but the film ultimately feels hollow, since none of the characters actually have much depth to them. It's still an impeccably shot film (courtesy of Robert Richardson), and it features a crackling performance from Val Kilmer, who really owns the role, making Jim Morrison come to life in a charismatic way, even if the script doesn't give him that much to do. An unbalanced film from an interesting director.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Dead Again

Movie Name: Dead Again
Year of Release: 1991
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Derek Jacobi, Andy Garcia, Wayne Knight, Hanna Schygulla, Robin Williams, Raymond Cruz, Christine Ebersole, Campbell Scott, Lois Hall, Richard Easton
Genre: Drama, Mystery
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Actor/Writer/Director Kenneth Branagh made a splash in 1989 with his version of William Shakespeare's "Henry V", which placed him on a path to become an heir apparent to the career/legacy of the late Laurence Olivier. For his next film he decided to tackle a different type of material, a suspense thriller. The film written by celebrated screenwriter Scott Frank (one of his first features, which he followed with Barry Sonnefeld's "Get Shorty", Steven Soderbergh's "Out of Sight" and Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report" to name but a few), follows the story of Mike Church, a detective in Los Angeles, specialized in finding missing persons. He gets a case from a local parish, who is trying to help a mute woman who suffers from amnesia, something that is so severe, that she does not even recall her own name. She also keeps having these very vivid nightmares, where she relives with precise detail, the life and death of pianist Margaret Strauss, who was seemingly murdered by her husband Roman, in the 1940s. Fresh out of ideas, Mike decides to use the services of an antiquarian/hypnotist, who starts uncovering more information about this woman, and these nightmares.
"Dead Again" is a film, that much like its director, tries very hard to be many things, but that can never find its own identity. Kenneth Branagh emulates throughout this film many suspense/noir films from the 40s/50s, but the suspense never really builds up, mostly because the situations are poorly resolved and showcased. As much as the focus of the thread of the narrative is the uncovering of Grace's past, and simultaneously uncover the identity of Margaret's killer in the 40s, none of them ever really have a sense of dread, mostly because the characters never feel more than bland sketches. The film needed a stronger point of view from a directorial point of view, and an actor who could embody Mike Church's "loser with a heart of gold" persona with a bit more grittiness and conviction. Emma Thompson and Derek Jacobi are impeccable, and try to sell the material as much as they can, but the overall film simply lacks nuance and style, something that will elevate it above the instantly forgettable note. It's a film with solid production values, but a sadly minor effort from an irregular director. 

Cape Fear

Movie Name: Cape Fear
Year of Release: 1991
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis, Joe Don Baker, Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Illeana Douglas, Martin Balsam, Fred Dalton Thompson, Zully Montero
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Following the formidable "Goodfellas", director Martin Scorsese tackled his first remake at the time, "Cape Fear". Originally directed by J. Lee Thompson in 1962, and adapted from a novel by John D. MacDonald, the film follows the story of the Bowden family. Father Sam is an attorney, while mother Leigh is a designer and daughter Danielle is still in high school. Their seemingly placid existence is thrown into disarray when recently freed convict Max Cady comes into town. Cady starts stalking the family, until his intentions are made clear. He was a former client of Sam's, and was convicted for sexual assault, however, there were further information on the case that could have given him a lighter sentence, something Sam chose not to divulge. Cady during his time in prison, got a degree, and uncovered issues in how his case got handled, and once he's out, he sets his sights on making Sam's life as miserable as possible.
Director Martin Scorsese followed a brilliant film with yet another phenomenal and virtuosic feature. Though "Cape Fear" inhabits different terrains than "Goodfellas", it's a film that has become a staple (and a classic) for its depiction of a relentless criminal, who will stop at nothing to get his revenge. Max Cady's obsession knows no bounds, no limits, and is all consuming, something that the film illustrates brilliantly. Scorsese manages to perfectly balance Cady's pursuit by showcasing the disintegration of the Bowden's existence, with their seemingly idyllic life shattering, not solely due to Cady's emergence, but also due to marital issues existing between Leigh and Sam (and some of his indiscretions). It's a film with a fantastic cast, with highlights going obviously to the fantastic Robert De Niro, but also Juliette Lewis, who managed to impress tremendously as the young Danielle. It's a film that manages to build a perfectly timed suspense and tension, as the clash between the central characters becomes inevitable, and how the games between the characters are orchestrated. It's also a testament to Scorsese's perfect stylistic approach, something that can be witnessed in the impeccable editing work from Thelma Schoonmaker, cinematographer Freddie Francis and score from Elmer Bernstein. A fantastic film always worth revisiting, from a truly phenomenal director.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Adams Family

Movie Name: The Adams Family
Year of Release: 1991
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Starring: Anjelica Huston, Raul Julia, Christopher Lloyd, Christina Ricci, Dan Hedaya, Elizabeth Wilson, Dana Ivey, Carel Struycken, Paul Benedict, Jimmy Workman, Christopher Hart, Judith Malina
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
After a solid start in the film world as a cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld made the jump into feature film direction with "The Adams Family". Based on the cartoons created by Charles Adams (which were firstly published in The New Yorker in 1938), the film follows the story of the unconventional Adams family. The story revolves around their long lost family member Fester Adams (the older brother of Gomez). The son of con artist Abigail Craven, by the name of Gordon, shows up at the family's mansion, claiming to be Fester. In reality this is all part of a ploy, in order to discover where the family keeps their riches within the vast mansion they own. This ploy is orchestrated by Gomez's lawyer, Tully, who owes money to said con artist/loan shark and who sees this as a quick way to get the money he so urgently needs. However, Gordon/Fester turns out to be more than anticipated.
Based on a screenplay by Caroline Thompson and Larry Wilson (both of whom worked with Tim Burton), with revisions by the fantastic writer/playwright Paul Rudnick, "The Adams Family" is a gothic inspired comedy, resting much of its laurels on the impeccable cast, quick wit and flawless production design. The film has a somewhat generic story development, but it is tremendously successful in creating a darkly humorous universe, one where the characters are borderline ridiculous, but never take themselves, or the situations, very seriously. The film functions as a combination of  light content with heavy visual orchestration, all this wrapped around the familiar take on a dysfunctional family comedy. It features great performances by Anjelica Huston and Raul Julia, who truly embody those characters and make them feel like odd creatures in love, still allowing for Dan Hedaya and Christopher Lloyd to also shine in their supporting turns. The cinematography from Owen Roizman/Barry Sonnenfeld is fantastic, as is the product design from the late Richard Macdonald. An entertaining comedy worth revisiting.