Saturday, January 12, 2019

Back to the Future Part III

Movie Name: Back to the Future Part III
Year of Release: 1990
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Mary Steenburgen, Elisabeth Shue, Thomas F. Wilson, Lea Thompson, Matt Clark, Richard Dysart, Pat Buttram, Harry Carey Jr., James Tolkan, Marc McClure, Wendie Jo Sperber, Jeffrey Weissman
Genre: Action, Comedy, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
After the success of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", director Robert Zemeckis tackled the direction of the two sequels to his enormously entertaining "Back to the Future". The first sequel premiered in 1989 and the second in 1990. The film finds Marty McFly stranded in 1955, and having to resort to Doc Brown yet again, but this time around, to go back in time to retrieve the Doc Brown from 1985, who accidentally was sent back in time to 1885. When Marty does get back to 1885, he gets tangled with another of Biff Tannen's ancestors, a criminal by the name of Buford 'Mad Dog' Tannen. As usual in his adventures, Marty miraculously manages to overcome Tannen, and he and Doc try to get the car on the rail-tracks in order to get back to 1985. However this time around, Doc has created emotional ties with a schoolteacher, by the name of Clara Clayton, which makes the separation a lot more difficult. 
The very talented Robert Zemeckis, is someone who has made a career for himself by being able to create compelling narratives, ones that marry deft, emotional and well layered screenplays, with technical prowess,  a marriage that makes his features truly memorable. "Back to the Future Part III" is the closure to one of his most successful films, and sadly not the most compelling one. His most action centric films always manage to combine humor, with just enough daredevil action, to make them engaging and satisfying, however the combination of science-fiction, western revival and comedy, is somewhat unbalanced and somewhat contrived. What was so deliriously satisfying about the previous installment, was the fact that the director (and the cast), knew they had the liberty to play with timelines and just generally play with pop culture references - the tone was definitely zany and almost hyperbolic when compared with the somewhat restrained first film. The third chapter tries very hard to be reverential to the Western genre, and it ends up not being sufficiently funny, nor sufficiently Western driven. The helium balloon which was powering the very funny series, deflates somewhat in this chapter. The film features nonetheless the committed Michael J. Fox alongside Christopher Lloyd, both of whom try to elevate the material as much as possible. The cinematography from Dean Cundey is wonderful, as is the classic score from Alan Silvestri. A somewhat minor chapter in an otherwise stellar series.

Awakenings

Movie Name: Awakenings
Year of Release: 1990
Director: Penny Marshall
Starring: Robert De Niro, Robin Williams, John Heard, Julie Kavner, Penelope Anne Miller, Max Von Sydow, Ruth Nelson, Alice Drummond, Richard Libertini, Anne Meara, Dexter Gordon
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
"Awakenings" is the third film in Penny Marshall's directorial career, and follows the successful "Big", which was a turning point for both her and Tom Hanks' careers. "Awakenings" is an adaptation of the book by Dr. Oliver Sacks, and follows the events that took place in his career when he dealt with a group of patients who had survived the encephalitis lethargica epidemic (which lasted between 1917-1928). The film takes place in 1969, and the adaptation places the center of the narrative upon the relationship established between Leonard Lowe, a patient who had been catatonic since he was 11 years old, and Dr. Malcolm Sayer (the proxy for Dr. Sacks). When Dr. Sayer manages to change the medication for the patients, after much research and hurdles, that trial run slowly produces effects and brings Leonard to life. This awakening, allows him to restart his life, develop new relationships, much to the disbelief of his elderly mother. This awakening is however not without issues - Leonard's mood starts shifting and he starts developing tics that indicate that the medication may not be entirely successful.
"Awakenings" is a fictionalized version of Dr. Sacks' book, and covers the events surrounding his tenure in an Hospital in the Bronx, where through a series of trials, he managed to change medication routines, and impact the lives of patients who had been catatonic for decades (this is obviously a mere snippet of the tremendous work performed by Dr. Sacks). The film and the screenplay give the overall story un-necessary embellishments, by adding love interests for both Leonard and Malcolm (which in the case of Robin Williams' character wasn't even realistic since Dr. Sacks was in fact gay). Those embellishments are extended to the portrayal of Leonard who suddenly, upon waking up, becomes a savant, telling the shy Dr. Sayer that life is all about taking chances, seizing the day and generally exploring the reality that surrounds us all (he goes from catatonic to New Age Guru). The film is more successful when it captures the emergence of Leonard from his sleep, and Malcom's attempts at saving these patients whose lives have been stunted by such a terrible ailment. It's a film that lives primarily from the two main performers, with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams balancing each other perfectly, with the first one creating a character dazzled by everything he discovers, while Robin Williams channels his enormous energy inwards, and creates someone shy, but deeply emotional and committed. It's a somewhat forgettable film, but nonetheless a watchable one due to the talent assembled. 

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Sex and the City 2

Movie Name: Sex and the City 2
Year of Release: 2010
Director: Michael Patrick King
Starring: Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis, Chris Noth, Candice Bergen, Jennifer Hudson, David Eigenberg, Evan Handler, Jason Lewis, Mario Cantone, Willie Garson, Alice Eve, Liza Minnelli, Lynn Cohen, Art Malik, Raza Jaffrey, John Corbett, Max Ryan, Noah Mills, Michael T. Weiss, Kelli O'Hara, David Alan Basche, Condola Rashad, Penelope Cruz
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 1 
Watch on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Following the astounding success of the first film, Michael Patrick King quickly gathered the cast of the first film and show, and returned for a sequel. The film once again follows the adventures of Carrie Bradshaw and her friends. Samantha now in her 50s, is battling menopause, Miranda is dealing with some complications at the office and Charlotte is handling a house with two small children demanding a lot of attention. Carrie in the meantime is having issues with her married life, since her husband loves staying at home and watching TV, while she desires a life that is more socially engaging. The girls all get what they want, a break from their domestic challenges, when Samantha gets an all paid trip to Abu Dhabi, courtesy of a film producer who has worked with Smith Jarrod in his latest feature. They all get a nice luxury vacation, one that goes smoothly, until Carrie sees her ex fiancée, Aidan, who fires up her attention. 
"Sex and the City 2" further removes the characters from any remotely relatable traits they once had, and goes flamboyantly into the deep waters of kitsch. The film is truly a testament on creating a feature based literally on nothing. There's little to no relationship drama at this point with these characters, and instead of opting for a view/insight of what it means to grow older and how that impacts relationships, the film sails into the shallow and offensive traps of taking the heroines to an exotic locale, where they learn some lessons about cultural differences, while simultaneously regaining an appreciation for the domestic life that was driving them insane. What made the show interesting, was always the ability to show glimpses into the lives of these different women, how they tackled relationships and expectations surrounding them. That has all been swept away in this film, which chooses to portray and reduce the characters to episodic moments of laughter or epiphanies that don't mean much. It's a film that isn't very funny, nor very relevant, and that does a disservice to the cast and the legacy of the show. The one single aspect to commend, is Penélope Cruz's willingness to even cameo in this film, and bring with her an ease and relaxed feel that is all but gone from the entire narrative. Avoid at all costs. 

Sex and the City

Movie Name: Sex and the City
Year of Release: 2008
Director: Michael Patrick King
Starring: Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis, Chris Noth, Candice Bergen, Jennifer Hudson, David Eigenberg, Evan Handler, Jason Lewis, Mario Cantone, Willie Garson, Joanna Gleason
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3 
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Synopsis and Review:
Ater the end of the show "Sex and the City" in 2004, Michael Patrick King, one of the show runners and producers, decided to continue the story of the four main characters. "Sex and the City" is his feature directorial debut, after a lengthy career in television. The film follows the story of Carrie Bradshaw, after she has turned 40, and is settled in a stable relationship with Mr. Big, aka, John Preston. Her friends in the meanwhile, have also continued to experience different trials and tribulations. Miranda and Steve care experiencing some rocky moments in their marriage, while Charlotte has an adopted little girl, while still attempting to get pregnant. Samantha is in the meantime is living in LA with Smith Jarrod, handling his career and keeping her publicist business moving forward. When Carrie and Big decide to get married, the entire event gets out of the hand, and has an unexpected outcome, sending the girls on an unexpected trip to understand what went wrong, and also self analyze their own lives.
Part of what made "Sex and the City" show relevant, was the fact that it anchored a distinct female point of view, from a group of young women, dealing with adulthood, relationships, sex and what does come next as you age. Towards the end of the show, the storytelling became less about the vicissitudes of women's lives in a big metropolis, and more about the lives of those living in the lap of luxury, though Kim Cattrall's character did provide a somewhat grounded perspective as her character went through some emotional and health turmoils. The film "Sex and the City" is like an amalgamation of three episodes of the latter part of the show, which means, less insightful, less realistic (if that was even part of what described the show during its run), and definitely more artificial and manicured. What made the show perennially entertaining was the fact that it was rough around the edges at times, particularly during the first three seasons, where all the characters had their ups and downs, and were shown in a very humane manner. The film bypasses all that, and focuses instead on what apparently the creators thought the audience wanted to see: fashion shows, sex innuendos, and living the high life. It makes for quick viewing, but sadly for little substance. Cynthia Nixon as usual, manages to create a character that is just brazen enough to make this endeavor watchable. 

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Alice

Movie Name: Alice
Year of Release: 1990
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Mia Farrow, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Joe Mantegna, Judy Davis, Cybill Shepherd, Julie Kavner, Robin Bartlett, Blythe Danner, Gwen Verdon, Caroline Aaron, Bob Balaban, Keye Luke, Holland Taylor, June Squibb
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Following the well received, critically and commercially, "Crimes and Misdemeanors", director Woody Allen went in a lighter note, and returned with his yearly opus, "Alice", which premiered in December of 1990. The film follows the story of Alice, a very rich and lovely woman, living in Manhattan, with her husband and children. Alice has a personal trainer, an interior decorator, and a busy social life, but starts complaining about her back, and the lack of having a career. She goes to a Chinese doctor, who prescribes some potent, and magical herbs and teas, that start surfacing all sorts of buried things that Alice has kept inside. For starters she remembers and engages fondly with her past fiancée who passed away, Ed. She also gets the nerve to flirt and consider an affair with a divorced Jazz player, by the name of Joe. And she finally realizes her ambitions of writing are more driven by guilt, than actual talent, while also discovering her husband has been cheating on her for quite some time. The treatments allow for Alice to truly get in touch with who she is, and in the process re-awaken the woman she always wanted to be.
"Alice" is a film that brings back the Woody Allen focused on lighter topics, but this time around, he chooses to do so, by focusing his comedic perspective on the of re-awakening someone's purpose in life. Alice is a woman who is haunted by family decisions and by some episodes of her past, and yet, someone whose present has been lavishly rewarded, with a luxurious life in Manhattan. As her life progresses, these past anchors that have always haunted her, start surfacing and manifesting themselves physically, something that the magical herbs solve, and provide a catalyst for some good humor, but also for some realizations. It's a film that is smartly built, mixing themes of nostalgia, emotional longing and resolution, but also growth, acceptance and the happiness of finding inner peace. It also features a knockout performance from Mia Farrow in the central role, one who goes from timid to seductress, in a few short minutes, and back to confused shortly after. The cinematography from Carlo Di Palma is stunning as are the costumes from Jeffrey Kurland. A very good film always worth revisiting.

Edward Scissorhands

Movie Name: Edward Scissorhands
Year of Release: 1990
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder, Dianne Wiest, Anthony Michael Hall, Kathy Baker, Alan Arkin, Robert Oliveri, Conchata Ferrell, Caroline Aaron, Dick Anthony Williams, O-Lan Jones, Vincent Price, Susan Blommaert, John Davidson
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Tim Burton continued his revelatory career in the 90s, with "Edward Scissorhands", one of his first truly personal films, based on a story of his own creation. The whole narrative follows Edward, a young man invented by an old genius, who sadly passed away before being able to finish Edward, leaving him alone and with scissors for hands. Edward lives remotely, in the old inventor's home, and is discovered by Peg Boggs, a nearby neighbor, who is also an Avon sales person. Witnessing his isolation and sadness, Peg decides to bring Edward to town, to live with her family. While initially unaware of most of everything that pertains to living in society, Edward soon dazzles everyone with his creative mind, and his abilities with topiary and hair. His entanglement in the lives of the community, while initially well received and cheered upon, quickly turn sour, with dramatic results.
"Edward Scissorhands" is a beautiful fable, one that mixes a lot of what James Whale had done with Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein", but brings that same context into American suburbia, and distills it with his gothic and overall stylistic approach. It's a film that cemented his point of view, one that is typically associated with heroes that don't fit in with normal society, and that are rendered and categorized as freaks or outcasts, but who in the end, have a way of capturing or creating poetry and beauty, only to be in many occasions, pushed aside or even brutally mistreated. Edward, is one of his most iconic characters, due to his personality traits (kindness, quiet, focused but also oblivious), but also because of his presentation, with the disheveled hair, the dark leather suit, and the scissors for hands. Burton also creates suburbia as a land of boredom and yet filled with bright colors, an overly saturated realm of excitement for Edward, who is accustomed to dark surroundings in his decaying castle. It's a film that allows for the message to come across loud and clear - how quickly we judge, and how we never listen, choosing most of the times to trample and destroy what we don't understand. It's a beautiful film, featuring fantastic performances from Johnny Depp, Dianne Weist, Alan Arkin and Kathy Baker. The cinematography from Stefan Czapsky is fantastic, as is the score from Danny Elfman. A great film always worth watching.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Music with an Impact - 2018


2018 was an interesting year for music. The political climate that is being felt all over the world, permeated across the work of these diverse and accomplished artists. The overall tone was definitely introspective, reflective and filled with different textures, something that Thom Yorke's work for "Suspiria" (the soundtrack) can attest and exemplify perfectly. On top of new releases, I was also able to discover some previous releases from artists who have become my favorites.
Below are my favorites of 2018.

Jon Hopkins - Utopia
Nils Frahm - All Melody
Tim Hecker - Konoyo
Robyn - Honey
Beast - Ens
Thom Yorke - Suspiria
Gas - Rausch
Neneh Cherry - Broken Politics
Janelle Monae - Dirty Computer

Jon Hopkins - Monsters
Clark - Death Peak
Geotic - Abysma

Monday, December 31, 2018

Scanners

Movie Name: Scanners
Year of Release: 1981
Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Jennifer O'Neill, Stephen Lack, Patrick McGoohan, Michael Ironside, Lawrence Dane, Robert A. Silverman
Genre: Horror, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Brilliant director David Cronenberg followed his excellent "The Brood" with yet another fantastic feature, which explored the limits of the human body, and how it keeps evolving and morphing into something else. The film follows the story of Cameron Vale, a young man who is initially, on the streets living of scraps and leftovers. We quickly learn he has telepathic abilities, which he can't control. He gets captured and taken to ConSec, a private company that is running a "scanner" program, under the tutelage of Dr. Paul Ruth. "Scanners" is the designation given to people with telepathic abilities, and there's a current war raging between different factions, with ConSec wanting to leverage their abilities commercially, and an opposing one, under the leadership of Darryl Revok, who has far more sinister motivations. Dr. Ruth sends Cameron underground, so he can unveil Revok's motivations, and simultaneously uncover an underground ring of Scanners. What Cameron discovers is far more complex than what anyone expected. 
David Cronenberg has been able to build a fantastically diverse body of work. "Scanners" is one of his original screenplays, one that tackles body mutations, one of his recurring themes, during a large part of his career. These mutations are not intended to demonize the characters or to portray them as demigods, they are typically reflections on the constant evolution of the human body and how that impacts the relationships between human beings (and to a certain extent, how that conditions the notions of morality, good versus evil and also the sexual dynamics). "Scanners" is a perfect example of his point of view, since it manages to embed his concepts of mutation within the fabric of society, and how the corporate world/capitalism ambitions to monetize these changes. The film has great visual effects from Chris Walas and his team, alongside the fantastic score from Howard Shore and cinematography from Mark Irwin (all usual collaborators of Cronenberg). A great film from a truly unique talent.

The Terminator

Movie Name: The Terminator
Year of Release: 1984
Director: James Cameron
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Paul Winfield, Lance Henriksen, Rick Rossovich, Bess Motta, Earl Boen, Dick Miller
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Director James Cameron started his career working with Roger Corman, and had an opportunity to direct the sequel to Joe Dante's "Piranha", with "Piranha II: The Spawning" in 1981, which he directed with assistance of other professionals. "The Terminator" was his first solo directorial assignment and the first collaboration with star Arnold Schwarzenegger, then making a name for himself after John Milius' "Conan the Barbarian". The film follows the story of Sarah Connor, a waitress living in LA, who suddenly finds herself as the target of a seemingly unstoppable man, intent on killing her. In her defense comes Kyle Reese, a young man who reveals that he is from the future, as is the man trying to kill her, whom he reveals to be an actual machine, going by the name of Terminator. Sarah and Kyle have to resort to their intelligence and wit to escape the persistent Terminator.
James Cameron was able right from the start, to understand that action films only resonate with audiences if there are actual characters to care for. "The Terminator" is able to draw the central characters quickly, and establish their motivations and their arc. Sarah, Kyle and the Terminator, all have very clear goals/motivations, and though their backgrounds are economically exposed, it makes them all compelling enough for the audience to embark on their journey. "The Terminator" is a B-Movie at its core, with a dash of futurism incorporated, and it's a testament to the capabilities of the director/co-writer, that the results influenced so many films that came out in the 80s (and afterwards), specifically on post-apocalyptic films. The actors are all solid in their roles, even if none of them are very memorable, but they all went on to bigger ventures after this, where they were able to showcase their versatility and talent. The cinematography from Adam Greenberg was solid, as was the music from Brad Fiedel, which became iconic and associated with this series. An emblematic film from a very talented storyteller. 

Sunday, December 30, 2018

X-Men 2

Movie Name: X-Men 2
Year of Release: 2003
Director: Bryan Singer
Starring: Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Brian Cox, Anna Paquin, Rebecca Romijn, Shawn Ashmore, Aaron Stanford, Alan Cumming, Kelly Hu, Bruce Davison, Katie Stuart
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
After the surprise success of "X-Men", director Bryan Singer was given more time and budged to carve out a worthy sequel to that film, which came in the shape of "X-Men 2". The film follows the adventures of the superhero team, as they face a foe hailing directly from the Government: Colonel William Stryker. He invades the mutant school, capturing young mutants in the process, while simultaneously capturing different team members, in different circumstances, all with the goal of getting access of Cerebro. His ultimate goal, is to use the machine, combined with Professor Xavier's abilities, and destroy all mutants on Earth. It's up to the team, with the help of a few new additions, and unexpected allies, to tackle this herculean threat. 
"X-Men 2" is a lesson of how a perfectly honed screenplay, successful vision and visual style, can blend to create an impeccable action film. The story marries a series of interesting topics, such as political threats, persecution of minorities, and includes very relevant metaphors for topics such as coming out experiences and family dynamics in those contexts. All of these within the domains of a big budget visual effects film, is indeed pretty remarkable and quite intelligently built. The film is also impeccably edited, in the sense that it goes from action set pieces, to plot development, to character insight, just enough to keep the momentum going. The visual effects are also fantastic, but don't undermine the story/narrative, instead making it blend seamlessly with the characters that they pertain to. And the actors finally manage to build a level of comfort with the characters and within the group, which makes them surpass the almost campy factor that hovered over the first iteration of the series. It's a lesson on how to perfectly orchestrate a dynamic and thoroughly orchestrated film, without relying too heavily on pyrotechnics, while also benefiting from great work from cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel and editor/composer John Ottman. A solid film from an irregular director, but one worth watching.