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
View Trailer

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
View Trailer

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
View Trailer

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.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Dark Phoenix

Movie Name: Dark Phoenix
Year of Release: 2019
Director: Simon Kinberg
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Evan Peters, Nicholas Hoult, Jessica Chastain, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Scott Shepherd, Ato Essandoh, Halston Sage, Lamar Johnson
Genre: Action, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
View Trailer

Synopsis and Review:
After the disappointing results from "X-Men: Apocalypse", writer/producer, and first time director, Simon Kinberg, has taken the directorial duties away from the perennial Bryan Singer. The film follows the events from the previous film and finds the mutants experiencing a welcoming status everywhere, including a direct access to the President of the US. They're called on an emergency surrounding a space shuttle that is in dire need of assistance. When they reach their destination, they are able to save the crew, but at the expense of Jean Grey being exposed to some entity who seems to envelop her. As the team makes their return, Jean seems fine, but starts experiencing some outbursts of power, which mixed with her fears of hurting someone, drive her away. As the team tries to help and bring her back, Jean resists with dramatic results, forcing the re-emergence of Magneto, who has since retired. Suddenly on Jean's trail is also an alien species under the guise of seemingly harmless humans.
The issues behind the shooting and the ever changing release dates of this film have been widely reported, however all matters considered, it's still a fairly entertaining film, though deeply flawed in a variety of manners. The Phoenix saga, which hailed from the collective minds of Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and John Byrne, was a lengthy one, and the film takes a considerable departure from it. Simon Kinberg somehow eschews some of the events from "X-Men: Apocalypse", and introduces the team now under the tutelage of Mystique, going on their adventures, while a considerable amount of internal turmoil is brewing, particularly when it comes to Charles Xavier's leadership. The film is successful at establishing these relationships, and the actors are comfortable in their roles (even if a bit complacent), however as the storyline develops, and the pursuit for Jean begins, there's never a sense of urgency that is created, or despair to rescue her from herself and the harm she has inflicted and can potentially inflict. Some characters are also quickly forgotten, while the villain is terribly under-defined, with the talented Jessica Chastain not faring particularly well with that particular role (the robotic, emotionless stares and line deliveries don't really work in this case). What is left is the rapport between the actors who have inhabited these roles since 2011, and they alongside some impressive visual effects, make this film worth watching (even if immediately forgettable). The cinematography from Mauro Fiore is impeccable, as is the score from Hans Zimmer.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Paddington

Movie Name: Paddington
Year of Release: 2014
Director: Paul King
Starring: Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Ben Whishaw, Julie Walters, Madeleine Harris, Samuel Joslin, Nicole Kidman, Matt Lucas, Imelda Staunton, Michael Gambon, Peter Capaldi, Jim Broadbent, Kayvan Novak
Genre: Comedy, Adventure, Family
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
View Trailer

Synopsis and Review:
Director Paul King made a name for himself, directing some great British tv comedies, such as "Come Fly with Me". "Paddington" is his second feature film, and is of course an adaptation of the story of the iconic Paddington bear, who was created by author Michael Bond in 1958. The story follows Paddington as he comes from Peru to England, in the hopes of knowing more about the country. His aunt and uncle, both met an English explorer who told them all about London and the affable nature of people there. Following the death of his uncle, and the retirement of his aunt, Paddington is encouraged to come to London and find solace there. Paddington however, finds himself in a train station, lost and with no sense of where to go, that is until Mary Brown discovers him, and decides to bring him home, against her husband's agreement. Mary decides upon the name Paddington, since that's where the young bear has been found. As Paddington tries to locate the explorer who was so kind and friendly to his family, he also becomes a target for Millicent Clyde, a taxidermist working for the Natural History Museum. He has to look for the explorer with the help of the Brown family, in the hopes of finding a new place to live.
"Paddington" is the rare children's film that manages to be comedic without relying on pop culture references or catchy tunes from soon to be forgotten pop mavens. It's a film that is heartwarming, cleverly written and acted, which relies on the combination of heart and physical comedy, that harks back to some of the stunts performed by Buster Keaton for instance. The lovely and sweet bear learns all about the sweetness of the Brown family, who take him in, though initially he is expecting the worse, as he knows no one, and most people in London seem oblivious to his presence. The film is impeccably shot, with fantastic visual effects that render the lovely bear in the scenes with the actors, making the interactions feel authentic. The villain of the story, portrayed by Nicole Kidman, though without much to do, is not a risible caricature, but personifies a darkness and malicious intent without being grotesque or in poor taste. It's a film that is economical in the narrative, but made with such attention to detail, such humor and heart, that is difficult no to surrender to its charm. Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Julie Walters, Nicole Kidman and the fantastic Ben Whishaw are all impeccable. Worth watching!

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Rocketman

Movie Name: Rocketman
Year of Release: 2019
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Starring: Taro Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Gemma Jones, Steven Mackintosh, Tom Bennett, Matthew Illesley, Kit Connor, Charlie Rowe, Tate Donovan, Celinde Schoenmaker, Stephen Graham, Sharon D. Clarke
Genre: Drama, Music
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
View Trailer

Synopsis and Review:
Actor/Director Dexter Fletcher has followed his uncredited work on "Bohemian Rhapsody" with another take on an iconic musician, this time around the celebrated Elton John. The film introduces us to John as he's going through a meltdown, and joins rehab (to deal with his issues of alcohol, drugs and sex addiction). As Elton John admits to his problems, he takes us on a tour through his colorful life, starting with his childhood in England, where he had a supportive grandmother nurturing his precocious talent, and indifferent parents, who cared very little about him or his musical talent. As he starts becoming more serious about music, he meets Bernie Taupin, whom he forms a partnership with, with Taupin writing the lyrics and John composing the music. John also comes to terms with the fact that he is gay. As his popularity starts to soar, so do the drinking issues, drug problems and all sorts of other insecurities, which escalate to the point where he tries to commit suicide. As he's riding a wave of adulation, Elton John, escapes to rehab in order to understand his own issues, and decide on how to keep moving on.
"Rocketman", much like "Bohemian Rhapsody", fails to have much of a distinct point of view. Dexter Fletcher instills some moments of magic surrealism, but he fails to let it really soar and become a tale of excess, love and fear of abandonment, that is at its core. It's a film that for all its celebration of music, still feels and reads very much like a Broadway musical on the big screen (which means, it doesn't really use film as the powerful medium that it can be). It lacks a distinct visual language, one that represents properly the times that it depicts, but also the struggles that come with the act of creation (again, the representation of the 70s is diminished to people using drugs and wearing big shoes). Sadly, Fletcher simply illustrate a series of vignettes with some choreography, painting a rough sketch of someone's life, punctuated by lovely tunes, but in the end it all feels artificial, contrived and at points, almost in poor taste (the breakthrough scenes in therapy come to mind). What this film has in spades however, is the talented cast that gives it a considerable edge over "Bohemian Rhapsody". Taron Egerton is simply fantastic, both in his despair, but also eagerness, sweetness and sheer ambition (not to mention his singing prowess). It's a well rounded performance, with Jamie Bell and Richard Madden offering strong support. Sadly the talented Bryce Dallas Howard and Gemma Jones don't have much to do, but they're always welcomed presences. The cinematography from George Richmond is impeccable, as is the production design from Marcus Rowland and his team. 

Saturday, June 1, 2019

The Hard Way

Movie Name: The Hard Way
Year of Release: 1991
Director: John Badham
Starring: Michael J. Fox, James Woods, Annabella Sciorra, Stephen Lang, John Capodice, Luis Guzman, LL Cool J, Penny Marshall, Delroy Lindo, Christina Ricci, George Cheung
Genre: Comedy, Action
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Underrated director John Badham started the 90s with a somewhat lackluster film, "Bird on a Wire", but quickly bounced back with the hilarious "The Hard Way". The film follows the story of Nick Lang, a Hollywood movie star who is desperately trying to change his public persona, and be taken more seriously as an actor. When an edgy role as a police officer/detective comes up, he arranges to be partnered with an actual police officer, the high strung John Moss. Moss is in the midst of trying to solve a case focused on a serial killer by the name of "Party Crasher". Much to his disgust, his boss orders him to show Nick police procedures, something he tries to sabotage at every chance he gets. In the meantime the killer looms closer, and Nick's presence ends up affecting Moss' life more than he anticipated.
Veteran director John Badham has worked steadily since the early 70's, but made a bigger splash towards the end of that decade with the well known "Saturday Night Fever". The 80s were quite busy for him, with such titles as "War Games" and "Stakeout" both of which did quite well commercially and critically. "The Hard Way", written by Lem Dobbs (who usually works with Steven Soderbergh) and Daniel Pyne, manages to mix comedy and action in a way that is both intelligent and exciting. In a way the film is a tamer version of what John McTiernan's "The Last Action Hero" turned out to be, but in this case, we have a very funny Michael J. Fox playing a version of a movie star, trying to be artistic, and essentially gain credibility for his research and "method". James Woods on the other hand, plays the character with his usual trademarks, namely his intensity and machine-gun style of verbal delivery. It makes for a very funny pairing, particularly due to Fox's innocence and enthusiasm. It's a film that though following the formula of many of the action films from the early 90s (such as Tony Scott's "The Last Boy Scout", Renny Harlin's "Die Hard 2" to name but a few), still manages to captivate and entertain much due to the dynamic of the actors, the impeccable timing of the script, and the quality of production (Donald McAlpine's cinematography is always impeccable). The supporting cast doesn't have much to do, but Annabella Sciorra , Penny Marshall and Stephen Lang are always fantastic. An entertaining film worth watching.