Sunday, August 24, 2014

Basic Instinct

Movie Name: Basic Instinct
Year of Release: 1992
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Stars: Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, George Dzundza, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Denis Arndt, Leilani Sarelle, Bruce A. Young, Chelcie Ross, Dorothy Malone, Wayne Knight, Daniel Von Bargen, Stephen Tobolowsky, Benjamin Bouton
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4

Following the huge success of 1990's "Total Recall", director Paul Verhoeven tackled another controversial screenplay from writer Joe Eszterhas (he had also written at the time Costa-Gavras' "Music Box" and Betrayed", to name but a few). The film follows the story of Nick Curran, a seasoned and experienced police detective, one with a murky past, who gets involved in a high profile investigation of the murder of a celebrity in San Francisco. The main suspect of the investigation turns out to be Catherine Trammell, a rich and beautiful heir, who is also a writer of suspense/thriller books. During the process of investigating the suspect, Nick gets personally involved with Catherine, whom he suspects is indeed the killer. It's up to him to figure out who murdered the victim, and avoid himself becoming one.
Paul Verhoeven has been an interesting director since his early films in his native country, Netherlands. His career in Hollywood has been met with both highly financially successful films, such as "Robocop" and "Total Recall", and some that have been big disappointments such as "Starship Troopers" and "Showgirls". "Basic Instinct" was a big hit in 1992, while simultaneously launching Sharon Stone's career. The film in itself was a basic standard noir detective story - an embittered lonely cop, falls for the femme fatale, who is also the main suspect of the case. Where the story tried to differ from so many previous incarnations, was the focus on the more erotic undertone of the main relationship, and the fact that the female character is given a duplicitous sexuality. Paul Verhoeven tries to bring some dynamics to the story, but ultimately the film features all the cliches known to the genre, without benefitting from any particular surprises or character developments of notice. Sharon Stone manages to create a character that exudes intelligence and seduction (much like Kathleen Turner in "Body Heat"), but sadly the film never rises up to the promise of her character. A flawed and ultimately forgetful film.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Howards End

Movie Name: Howards End
Year of Release: 1992
Director: James Ivory
Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter, Emma Thompson, Samuel West, James Wilby, Prunella Scales, Jemma Redgrave, Nicola Duffett, Susie Lindeman
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9

"Howards End" was James Ivory's third E. M. Forster adaptation, following the successful diptych that were "A Room with a View" and "Maurice". "Howards End" is from all three, the one that encompasses a larger and more dramatic canvas, one where E.M. Forster addressed issues of class, affairs and children born out of wedlock. The film introduces us to the Schlegel family in England at the turn of 20th century, particularly the older sisters, both of whom are highly educated and progressive women, known for their literary gatherings. After a misunderstood relationship between the younger sister Helen, and a young man of the Wilcox family, both families resume a cordial relationship, when the older sister, Margaret becomes friends with the matriarch of the Wilcox family. This relationship is suddenly broken by the unexpected demise of Lady Wilcox, whom unbeknown to her family, had decided to leave her family home to Margaret Schlegel. This starts a series of events that suddenly puts both families in even closer proximity.
James Ivory has always been a director who allows for characters to come to life in worlds that are built out of detail and order. In these worlds of intricate structure, there are usually characters that attempt to break these barriers - in this case, that is epitomized by both sisters, Margaret and Helen, both of whom in early 20th century represent the evolution of mentalities and feminism. The film successfully anchors itself in the dynamics of class, between these upper class families and the characters on the periphery that change these dynamics (specifically the characters played by Samuel West and Nicola Duffett). "Howards End" is a nearly perfect adaptation of the book, boasting a meticulous attention to the period, fantastic performances from the cast (in particular Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter and Vanessa Redgrave), stunning cinematography from Tony Pierce-Roberts and score from Richard Robbins (the latter two, usual collaborators of James Ivory). A fantastic film always worth revisiting.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Body Heat

Movie Name: Body Heat
Year of Release: 1981
Director: Lawrence Kasdan
Stars: William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Richard Crenna, Ted Danson, Mickey Rourke, J.A. Preston, Kim Zimmer, Jane Hallaren, Lanna Saunders, Carola McGuinness, Michael Ryan, Larry Marko
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9

"Body Heat" was a debut for many of the key players involved, namely for director Lawrence Kasdan (who had at the time been only responsible for the screenplay of "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back"), and for actress Kathleen Turner. The film follows the story of small town attorney Ned Racine, who gets involved with a mysterious and beautiful blonde, by the name of Matty Walker. He realizes she's married to a  much older man, but they embark on a torrid affair. As the relationship evolves, Matty slowly convinces Ned to kill her husband, so they can both resume their lives together, with her as the sole heir of his estate. However once the plan is established and executed, things slowly start unraveling for Ned.
"Body Heat" is a modern classic that updates a lot of the pulp stories from the 1940s and 1950s, with the concept of the mysterious femme fatale, who lures the gullible man to her deceitful web (much like Barbara Stanwyck in "Double Indemnity" for instance). Lawrence Kasdan successfully builds the environment where these characters exist - from the humidity of Florida, through the characters that inhabit this small town (where everyone knows everybody). The actors are also very well cast, particularly the central pair, played by William Hurt and Kathleen Turner - they have an instant chemistry and bring authenticity and credibility to situations that might have been otherwise ludicrous  (so much that Kathleen Turner had the femme fatale persona "glued" to her for most of the 80s). The fantastic soundtrack from John Barry also became associated with the genre. The film is a perfect combination of thriller, suspense and erotic relationship put on screen. A classic always worth revisiting.

Sunday, August 10, 2014


Movie Name: Collateral
Year of Release: 2004
Director: Michael Mann
Stars: Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith, Mark Ruffalo, Peter Berg, Bruce McGill, Javier Bardem, Irma P. Hall, Richard T. Jones, Bodhi Elfman, Debi Mazar, Emilio Rivera
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Michael Mann has forged a career, that though not very productive, has primed for its detailed execution. "Collateral" followed his well received "Ali" (the biopic on Muhammad Ali), but went in a direction of creating more of a suspense/thriller exercise. The film follows the story of Max, a cab driver who has the ambition of creating his own limousine business. Max on one of his routes, picks Vincent, an apparent businessman, who hires him to drive around all night while he finishes his businesses. Much to Max's horror, he accidentally discovers that Vincent is in fact a hired assassin. It's up to him to escape from that situation and simultaneously save the life of Vincent's last target.
Michael Mann has always excelled in creating atmospheres and situations that feel real and very tied to the scenario he is depicting. His attention to detail, paired with his ability to allow the characters to be flushed out and more than just cliches, allows "Collateral" to be more than just a cat and mouse story about a killer in pursuit of his prey. It's a film about the loneliness of living in anonymous cities, about the need to establish connections, and indeed a suspense story and a lesson of how quickly things and situations can change. The film has a great cast, starting with Tom Cruise playing a menacing figure, Jamie Foxx credibly creating an every day man filled with dreams and ambitions, Jada Pinkett Smith and Mark Ruffalo. The cinematography from Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron is beautiful, as is the score from James Newton Howard. A wonderful film always worth revisiting.


Movie Name: Hercules
Year of Release: 2014
Director: Brett Ratner
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Rufus Sewell, Aksel Hennie, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Reece Ritchie, Joseph Fiennes, Peter Mullan, Rebecca Ferguson, Joe Anderson, Nicholas Moss
Genre: Action, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3

Director Brett Ratner is back, following "Tower Heist", his previous bid budget comedy that failed to get much traction (both with audiences and critics alike). "Hercules" follows the well known story of the mythological greek hero, son of Zeus and the mortal Alcmene. The film portrays Hercules as a mercenary hero, with a group of allies, who help those in need in exchange for a proper amount of money. His resourcefulness and good nature is tested when he is called upon the King of Thrace, to help out battle a formidable enemy. However things, like most of his own stories, are not what they seem.
Brett Ratner has made a career for himself directing films that range from comedies to family films, where the common denominator seems to be a need to please the largest crowd possible. "Hercules" again follows this formula - the film is all too pleasing, slick, with efficient visual effects that create a level of credibility that is expected in big budget Hollywood films these days, but without any edge. Whereas John Milius' "Conan" for instance, went for a visceral look where the violence felt present, this "Hercules" is anchored more in a realm of fantasy (almost like the similarly mediocre efforts that were Louis Leterrier's "Clash of the Titans" and Jonathan Liebesman's "Wrath of the Titans"). What ends up redeeming this film is the fantastic supporting cast that Brett Ratner managed to assemble, namely Ian McShane, John Hurt, Peter Mullan, Rufus Sewell, which give the film both it's humor and sense of menace. Visually the film benefits from the beautiful cinematography from Dante Spinotti, but the production design is a bit all over the place (the tapestry of sets that was built feels almost too fake for it's own good). This is a film that though not terrible, would benefit from a director with a distinct vision (for instance Tarsem Singh's "Immortals" is a good comparison), to elevate it from instant oblivion.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Movie Name: Guardians of the Galaxy
Year of Release: 2014
Director: James Gunn
Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Lee Pace, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Glenn Close, John C. Reilly, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Benicio Del Toro, Laura Haddock, Sean Gunn, Djimon Hounsou
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

Director James Gunn made a splash with the irreverent horror film "Slither" in 2006, which was followed by the independent "Super" in 2010. His new Marvel Studios feature, "Guardians of the Galaxy" is a definite jump forward - mostly in terms of budget and visual artistry. The film follows the story of Peter Quill, a young boy who is kidnapped from Earth in 1988, only to become a space mercenary in his adulthood. By force of circumstances, he's teamed with a group of individuals, all of which possess unique capabilities, in order to stop a menace under the name of Ronan, from destroying the entire universe.
Marvel Studios has become for the better and for the worse, a studio churning out new films at a regular pace. Like every production facility, it anchors the stories on hooks (and formulas) that keep their audiences engaged and traditionally instantly perceptive of where the heroes and their foes lie. The directors that have been hired to handle their properties, are for the most part, professionals with little or no experience in big budget films, which also means that their quest for a more personal and artistic vision is also severely kept in check. "Guardians of the Galaxy", for all of it's irreverence, and different cast of characters, also feels very formulaic and similar to what Marvel has already presented with "The Avengers", or even "Thor". Stories where these odd alien creatures of enormous power, are defeated by the resourceful hero (heroes), who team up to battle these towering foes. That being said, "Guardians of the Galaxy" manages to have a good balance of humor, while allowing the characters to interact, without being submerged in action set pieces where the special effects overtake everything. It's a film where the visual effects and production design are stunning, and where the actors, in particular Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and Bradley Cooper, have fun with their characters, bringing some energy and humor to an otherwise cliche ridden screenplay. A film worth watching.