Monday, May 3, 2021

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Movie Name:
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Year of Release: 1981
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Denholm Elliott, John Rhys-Davies, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, Alfred Molina, Wolf Kahler, Anthony Higgins, Vic Tablian, Don Fellows, William Hootkins
Genre: Adventure, Action
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
The wonderful Steven Spielberg followed his expensive misfire "1941" with the first adventure of the much celebrated and iconic Indiana Jones. The character and narrative was ingeniously devised by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, with a screenplay by the fantastic Lawrence Kasdan. The film which takes place in 1936, focuses on the adventures of Indiana Jones, an archeology teacher. We first encounter him in South America, going through a series of hurdles and obstacles in order to get a precious and invaluable artifact, only to lose it in the end to a less scrupulous rival in the Archeology field by the name of Belloq. Upon his return to America, Jones is informed by Army Intelligence, that the Nazis are excavating in Egypt, and that his former mentor is mentioned in their communications. He quickly deducts that they're looking for the Ark of the Covenant, which the Nazis believe will make their armies indestructible. He goes to Nepal, to uncover what has happened to Ravenwood, only to come face to face with his daughter, Marion, with whom he had a past relationship which ended badly. They eventually go to Cairo, where Jones has some additional help, however the Nazis are infiltrated everywhere, and they soon find unexpected obstacles.
"Raiders of the Lost Ark" is a film where the director clearly understands the spirit of the serials of the 1930s and 1940s, adding layers of humor, irreverence and sexiness to the action that occurs in the film. Steven Spielberg deftly showcases and establishes the lead characters, much like a very well made B-film, smartly combining the rebellious aspects of Indiana Jones, with his more academically inclined life, not to mention his convoluted relationship with Marion Ravenwood. The script also smartly weaves the events of the upcoming second World War into the action taking place, while also taking the leads into exotic locales, where danger lurks on every corner. The cast is also uniformly top notch, starting with the impeccable Harrison Ford, who has solid support from Karen Allen, Denholm Elliott, Paul Freeman, John Rhys-Davies and Alfred Molina. The whole production crew is fantastic, with highlights going to cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, score from the iconic John Williams and production design from Norman Reynolds. A classic always worth revisiting.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Mortal Kombat

Movie Name:
Mortal Kombat
Year of Release: 2021
Director: Simon McQuoid
Starring: Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Joe Taslim, Mehcad Brooks, Matilda Kimber, Laura Brent, Tadanobu Asano, Hiroyuki Sanada, Chin Han, Ludi Lin, Max Huang, Sisi Stringer, Mel Jarnson, Nathan Jones
Genre: Action, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
View Trailer

Synopsis and Review:
"Mortal Kombat" is the newest film adaptation of the video game which was originally created in 1992 by Ed Boon and John Tobias. The game has spun a franchise of titles, and has also been adapted to the big screen previously. Its first incarnation occurred in 1995 through the hands of Paul W. S. Anderson who would later go on to tackle and create the successful "Resident Evil" series, another video game adaptation. This current adaptation follows the story of Cole Young, an MMA fighter, who is accustomed to losing his matches typically for a hefty monetary compensation. Though he's unaware of it, he's actually a descendant of a powerful ninja by the name of Hanzo Hasashi. He soon finds himself trying to escape a powerful entity by the name of Sub-zero, who is intent on killing him, and a series of other fighters who have been chosen be part of a Mortal Kombat. This match is suppose to pitch Earth's greatest champions versus a bath of warriors from the Outworld. Cole soon finds himself in the company of a few other selected individuals, all of whom possess special skills, and all of them have to go through an arduous training cycle to discover what their special powers are. As they're trained by Lord Raiden, their enemies are closing in, threatening not only their lives, but Earth itself.
This newest incarnation of "Mortal Kombat" is directed by first time feature director Simon McQuoid, who has previously directed a short and various commercials. The film is produced, among others, by the wonderful and prolific James Wan, who is not only shepherding the "Conjuring" and "Insidious" franchises, but also tackling his bigger budget projects with the "Aquaman" series. The film in itself, much like many video game adaptations in the past, fails to establish and add much dimension to its leading characters. They're essentially characterized by the situations they find themselves in, never really allowing for relationships to be fully developed between them, aside from some banter and snarky remarks they exchange. The film also lacks some humor, taking itself at times too seriously. The cast for the most part fairly illustrates the action taking place, with the exception of Hiroyuki Sanada, who always brings edge, intensity and dimension to the characters he plays. It would have been interesting to see what this property in the hands of the ingenious Leigh Whannell could have turned out to be (much like he did with "Updated" and "The Invisible Man"). The visual effects are impeccable, as is the cinematography from Germain McMicking and the score from Benjamin Wallfisch. Unmemorable. 

The Fly

Movie Name:
The Fly
Year of Release: 1986
Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz, Joy Boushel, Leslie Carlson
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Director David Cronenberg followed his 1983 double releases of "Videodrome" and "The Dead Zone", with his biggest budget at the time, produced by a big Hollywood studio, 20th Century Fox. "The Fly" focuses on the story of Seth Brundle, a genius inventor, who we first encounter in a Science Fair, trying to persuade a smart journalist by the name of Veronica, to come to his lab, so he can do a live demonstration of what he's currently working on. He's working on a device which manages to get elements to be transported from one pod to the next using simple energy. While Veronica wants to share the news with the scientific community immediately, Seth entices her with the project of writing a more thorough book which documents the evolution of the invention, since he still needs to perfect the device, in order to allow it to successfully move organic beings. As the documentation continues to occur, Seth and Veronica also become romantically involved. Brundle eventually is successful at transporting living beings, but one night feeling rebuffed by Veronica, he decides to try the device himself, not noticing the device has a fly in its interior. When he comes out, everything seems fine, until changes start to occur.
The short story "The Fly" from author George Langelaan, had already been adapted to a feature film by Kurt Newmann in 1958. This new version however, took the concept quite further, particularly with director David Cronenberg being particularly interested in what this merger of an alien element with a human eventually produced. One of the most captivating and arresting elements of the first phase of David Cronenberg's films, was his focus on how human beings and their bodies can mutate and become something else, either by sheer will of their own, or by force of circumstances. "The Fly" is a perfect example of that: Seth Brundle, a somewhat shy and awkward scientist, once he's gone through the device ("purified" as he states at some point), becomes a self assured man, with this newfound voice and power, which he isn't shy about using or basking on. He revels in this newfound energy, that is until he starts realizing what has happened and what the future lies. As he begins to deteriorate, and his quest for more life, to reverse what happened intensifies, so does the monstrous actions he begins to do. It's a fascinating observation of the human quest & lust to be seen, admired and loved, mixed with the fear of being monstrous, and ultimately nixed by humanity. The central trio of actors is fantastic, with Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis and John Getz, all perfectly cast, truly bringing to life these lead characters. The cinematography from Mark Irwin is wonderful, as is the score from Howard Shore and production design of Carol Spier. A fantastic film from a uniquely gifted director. 

The Sound of Metal

Movie Name:
The Sound of Metal
Year of Release: 2019
Director: Darius Marder
Starring: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Mathieu Almaric, Lauren Ridloff, Chelsea Lee, Bill Thorpe, Tom Kemp, Michael Tow, Chris Perfetti
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
"The Sound of Metal" premiered at the Toronto Film Festival of 2019, and made the rounds of several film festivals during 2020, garnering several accolades during its path. The film follows the story of Ruben, who's a drummer for an alternative band, fronted by his girlfriend, Lou. While on tour he starts realizing his hearing is being severely impacted, until it's all gone. He and Lou quickly go to a specialist, who while diagnosing his condition, can't really tell what prompted the hearing loss. He is informed there is a procedure that can overcome that, or at least aid him recover some hearing, but it's a costly procedure which is not covered by insurance. While he and Lou figure out what to do, one of their friends tips them on a small deaf community, which is run by Joe, a Vietnam War veteran. The community teaches people to deal with their deafness, by treating it as part of their lives and not as a disability or impairment. As Lou leaves to continue their music path, Ruben tries to adjust to his new reality, learning a new language, and trying to come to terms with a past that still feels so close by, and a new reality that is forcing him on a different path. 
"The Sound of Metal" is the debut feature of Darius Marder, who also wrote the story in collaboration with film maker Derek Cianfrance (who directed "Blue Valentine" and "The Place Beyond the Pines"). Marder has skillfully created a film that illustrates the journey of someone whose life is completely upended by a new physical condition, and how that trickles into everything that defines this person, including how he perceives himself and others. The film is at its best when it captures the relationships between Ruben and Joe, and the various interactions he has with the members of the community. Though the supporting characters are thinly characterized, there's a vulnerability that comes across in these interactions that really give the film an emotional impact. Ruben's interactions with Lou, his partner, are not so well resolved, mostly because that particular character is not as fully dimensional as Ruben is. This film is indeed Ruben's narrative and journey, but Lou is the character who has supposedly saved him, and who is a guiding light in his life, but she mostly comes across as someone who doesn't who she is, and towards the end, she becomes a poster girl for the artsy fleeting persona, with a slightly damaged past and rich intellectual parents. Even if these characterizations are not as effective, there's much to admire in this film, and Riz Ahmed manages to create a compelling character which grounds and provides emotional depth to the narrative (the same going for Paul Raci). A good film worth watching.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

My Super Ex-Girlfriend

Movie Name:
My Super Ex-Girlfriend
Year of Release: 2006
Director: Ivan Reitman
Starring: Uma Thurman, Luke Wilson, Anna Faris, Eddie Izzard, Rainn Wilson, Wanda Sykes, Stelio Savante, Mark Consuelos, Mike Iorio, Tara Thompson, Kevin Towley
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Renown comedy director Ivan Reitman followed his sci-fi comedy "Evolution", with a satire which poked fun at the super hero/comic book genre from writer Don Payne (the late screenwriter was well known for his work on "The Simpsons" and would later on be responsible for the script for Kenneth Branagh's "Thor"). The film follows the story of Matt Saunders, a project manager at an Architecture firm, who following an attempt to thwart a purse robbery, starts dating the victim of the assault. Turns out the victim is in reality the super powered G-Girl, the protector of the city. As their relationship evolves, Jenny/G-Girl, becomes more and more possessive of Matt's attention, particularly of his relationship with the sweet Hannah, who also works at the firm. When Matt decides to break off the relationship, Jenny/G-Girl quickly sours, and starts turning his life into a living hell. Out of the shadows emerges Jenny/G-Girl's nemesis, Professor Bedlam, who contacts Matt with a solution to both their problems, essentially getting rid of Jenny/G-Girl's powers. 
The concept for "My Super Ex-Girlfriend" turns out to be quite interesting. A creature of herculean powers but with the insecurities of an every day person, particularly one going through a breakup. It's an interesting premise and ploy, but one that sadly never actually gels, since the story lacks a hook in the fact that not one of the characters is actually ever despicable or for that matter, ever really that funny. Jenny/G-Girl, with all her insecurities and lash out, mostly comes across as someone who has been tormented, whereas Matt is just an every day guy, who doesn't really know what he wants. Even the pseudo nemesis, doesn't really have much of a bite, neither in terms of dialogue or in terms of threat to the heroine. It's a film that tries to be a satire mixed with romantic comedy, but the tone is a bit off. The cast tries their best with the material, with Luke Wilson, Rainn Wilson, Eddie Izzard and Wanda Sykes basically doing their usually type of characters, with the heavier lifting resting on Uma Thurman and Anna Faris. While Uma Thurman is typically great, this material just isn't the best for her, while Anna Faris shines as usual in a supporting role where she plays a love interest, but where some of her comedic timing does manage to pop up. The production values are great, with the impeccable cinematography from Don Burgess and solid  production design from Jane Musky. While not a terrible film, it just isn't a particularly memorable one.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Magic in the Moonlight

Movie Name:
Magic in the Moonlight

Year of Release: 2014
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Simon McBurney, Eileen Atkins, Hamish Linklater, Jacki Weaver, Marcia Gay Harden, Catherine McCormack, Erica Leerhsen, Jeremy Shamos
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5 

Synopsis and Review:
Following the critical and commercial success of "Blue Jasmine", director Woody Allen quickly followed with his yearly output for 2014. "Magic in the Moonlight" takes place in the late 1920s, and follows the story of a famed illusionist by the name of Wei Ling Soo, who turns out to be an actual British man by the name of Stanley. Stanley is visited by a long time friend and fellow illusionist by the name of Howard, who poses a challenge for him. He wants Stanley to debunk a clairvoyant and mystic by the name of Sophie, who has been charming her way to the good graces of a rich American family in the Côte d'Azur. As Stanley meets Sophie he is soon impressed by her skills, but still with reservations, he takes her to meet his aunt, who lives nearby. After Sophie unveils some details of Aunt Vanessa's past, unknown to Stanley, he is finally convinced of her authenticity. As he opens up to newfound beliefs, Sophie expects that it also translates into some more heartfelt feelings towards her, which he quickly shoots down, much to her dismay. As an accident occurs with Aunt Vanessa, Stanley eventually uncovers what is the truth behind Sophie's powers.
If "Blue Jasmine" was indeed a revisiting of Tennessee Williams, with a dramatic, tragic and darkly funny narrative, featuring a masterful performance from Cate Blanchett, as well as the whole supporting cast, "Magic in the Moonlight" is a return to lighter fare for the director. It has some similarities with the tone of "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy", in the sense that the central character is someone driven by logic and science, who is mystified by someone who defies all of those, and eventually someone who wins over his heart and emotions. It's a theme that has been approached by Woody Allen before, and in this particular case, it's a film that is exquisitely assembled with beautiful cinematography from Darius Khondji, and superlative production design from Anne Seibel, however for all its well oiled production, it's a film that fails to capture either irreverence, or for that matter, a sentiment of true magic and the nascent love between such different characters. It's a placidly built narrative, one that is pleasurable to look at, but also one that is easily forgettable. The cast features solid performances from Colin Firth, Simon McBurney and Eileen Atkins, though Emma Stone feels miscast as the possible con artist with a heart of gold. It's a minor feature in a lengthy career filled with great films. 

Thunder Force

Movie Name:
Thunder Force
Year of Release: 2021
Director: Ben Falcone
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Octavia Spencer, Jason Bateman, Bobby Cannavale, Melissa Leo, Pom Klementieff, Taylor Mosby, Marcella Lowery, Ben Falcone, Kevin Dunn, Jevon White
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
View Trailer

Synopsis and Review:
Actor/writer/producer/director Ben Falcone continues his prolific streak, with another comedy he developed in collaboration with his partner, Melissa McCarthy, who once again is the lead of the film. The narrative focuses on two best friends, the energetic, earthy and somewhat no nonsense Lydia Berman, and the brainy, ambitious and driven Emily Stanton. The two bond in high school after a bizarre incident kills Emily's parents, while also generating a series of mutations in people. Their different views on life eventually drives them apart, and while Lydia matures and becomes a blue collar worker, Emily on her hand, becomes a celebrated scientist, with a company of her own. As Emily returns to Chicago to establish her growing initiatives, Lydia shows up to take her to their high school reunion. While their get together is somewhat awkward, things quickly take a different turn, when Lydia accidentally receives a super serum, which aims to make ordinary people into super beings, able to combat some of the mutant villains who have since emerged. Lydia and Emily eventually decide to unite their efforts, and protect the city from a super powered villain named Laser, and a much sinister force lurking in the shadows.
The premise of "Thunder Force" has some similarities with Paul Feig's "Spy", namely, a fish out of water situation, where someone has to learn to adjust to new situations and circumstances, and basically rise up to the occasion. However, whereas "Spy" toyed with the concepts of gender, body expectations, within a genre that is driven by male stereotypes, "Thunder Force" never really manages to find its tone and rhythm. The writer/director is seemingly trying to find the tone for the film as it goes along, and while sometimes it's very successful, particularly in the interactions between Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy, for the most part the film fails to achieve the humor one comes to expect from a Melissa McCarthy vehicle. The issues with the feature rests essentially on the lacking of a tightly woven narrative, one where the humor arises from the differences between characters, of these new heroes trying to learn how to behave, and from the over the top foes, who sadly don't get much bandwidth. The cast for the most part is terrific, though Octavia Spencer feels a bit miscast. Even in her more lighthearted roles, she always manages to imbue a depth of feeling, interior life and resonance to her characters, which in this case, contrasts heavily with everyone's comic book/caricature approach to their characters. It's again one of those situations to a film that doesn't feel entirely well resolved. It had some potential, but it's a sadly wasted opportunity.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Defending Your Life

Movie Name:
Defending Your Life

Year of Release: 1991
Director: Albert Brooks
Starring: Albert Brooks, Meryl Streep, Rip Torn, Lee Grant, Buck Henry, James Eckhouse, Mary Pat Gleason, Raffi Di Blasio, Lillian Lehman, George Wallace
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5 

Synopsis and Review:
Actor/writer/director Albert Brooks followed his well received "Lost in America" feature, not to mention his lauded and nominated performance in James L. Brooks's "Broadcast News" with "Defending Your Life", which premiered in 1991. The film follows the story of Daniel Miller, a well regarded professional working in advertising, who is celebrating his birthday. He bought himself a new convertible BMW, but suffers a fatal car crash and finds himself in Judgment City. This city and locale is a place where the recently deceased are judged for what they did while alive, upon which a decision is made to either send them back to Earth, live again while learning from their past mistakes, or evolve into a new phase of existence. Daniel has a shrewd prosecutor, Lena Foster, who is intent on proving he is driven by fear, and essentially has learnt nothing from all his past lives, and a defense professional in the shape of Bob Diamond, who as he states, uses 51% of his brain, and is on a different level than Daniel and all the souls awaiting judgement.
While in the city Daniel meets Julia, another soul awaiting her verdict, and they immediately bond and are attracted to each other. As they both go through their trials, they become closer and closer, not knowing what lies ahead.
"Defending Your Life" falls into the category of the romantic comedy which takes place in the afterlife, or has ties with the afterlife. This is a category where such films as Warren Beatty and Buck Henry's "Heaven Can Wait", Alexander Hall's "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" and even Alan Rudolph's "Made in Heaven", to name but a few, have made an impact. Albert Brooks has always cultivated a persona across the films he's in which can typically be described as a cynical, literate, somewhat romantic, not to mention funny persona, someone who always has his challenges with women, but who eventually always finds a way to charm the lovely focus of his affection (a slightly different version of the neurotic persona Woody Allen has created). In "Defending Your Life", which Brooks also wrote and directed, his persona is very much in alignment with his previous films, but this time around, he uses the afterlife to make some observational humor about relationships, families and embracing life itself. Daniel's journey in this film, is one of discovery, but also one where he has a chance to reflect and look on his past, sometimes with some humor, sometimes with sorrow. It's a film that has good intentions and some humorous details (the different hotels, the fact the souls who can eat all they want, to name but a few), but it ultimately fails to register, since most of the supporting characters have little to do, or ultimately provide a faint backdrop to his character. Meryl Streep who has never looked better, has very little to do, with a character who has very little substance, and is essentially in the narrative to fall in love with the central hero. Rip Torn and Lee Grant while creating colorful performances, also have little to no dimension to their characters. It's a film that is watchable, with some humorous moments, with beautiful cinematography from the wonderful Allen Daviau, but one that is ultimately forgettable. 

Monsoon

Movie Name:
Monsoon
Year of Release: 2019
Director: Hong Khaou
Starring: Henry Golding, Parker Sawyers, David Tran, Molly Harris, Lam Anh Dao, Ho Nhi, Olivia Hearn
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
View Trailer

Synopsis and Review:
Following the well received "Lilting" with Ben Whishaw, director Hong Khaou is back with another film that has been well received throughout the film festivals that it has gone to (including the London Film Festival and Outfest). The film follows the story of Kit, a man in his mid 30s who returns to Vietnam, his country of birth, after the passing of his mother. He and his family fled the country 30 years back, and he grew up in England, where he still resides. His return to Vietnam is a way for him to bring closure to the passing of his mother, but also a way for him to come to terms with memories that have been long forgotten. While in Saigon he meets Lewis, an American expatriate, who is living in Vietnam for the time being, for business purposes. What is apparently a fling, becomes something more profound, as both men and their journeys have similarities and a connection to the country they're in.
"Monsoon" is an interesting film, where these geographical journeys, mirror the inner journeys these characters embark on, in order to achieve a sense of peace and understanding of where they are and want to be. The writer/director smartly takes the central character on a discovery of the city and country that was once his home, which allows us to also learn more about the journey and the character itself. We witness Kit's quest, but also his vulnerabilities and how he relates to his past and current relationships. It's an intimate story about finding your own roots, and ultimately uncovering where your peace lies, where your heart belongs, how being vulnerable and open can lead to rewarding choices. The central cast is uniformly good, with Henry Golding and Parker Sawyers bringing their characters to life with authenticity. The cinematography from Benjamin Kracun is impeccable as is the score from John Cummings. Worth watching.

Penguin Bloom

Movie Name:
Penguin Bloom
Year of Release: 2020
Director: Glendyn Ivin
Starring: Naomi Watts, Andrew Lincoln, Jackie Weaver, Rachel House, Lisa Hensley, Gia Carides, Leeanna Walsman, Griffin Murray-Johnston, Felix Cameron, Abe Clifford-Barr
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
View Trailer

Synopsis and Review:
Director Glendyn Ivin has made a career for himself directing a variety of TV shows and made for TV films, with "Penguin Bloom" actually being his second feature film following his debut with "Last Ride". The film follows the story of the Bloom family, particularly of its matriarch, Sam Bloom. The family is presented as a tightly woven group, filled with camaraderie and love. While on vacation in Thailand, Sam falls off a high balcony, resulting in partial paralysis of her body. As she tries to cope with the new realities of her life, the same goes with her family, all of whom try to help her as much as possible. Since the family lives fairly near the beach, one day while out and about, her eldest son uncovers an injured magpie, which he brings home to care and tend for. Sam is initially infuriated by the constant noise of the bird, but as time progresses she cares for it, and eventually forms a bond with it, as does the whole family. As Sam's husband Cameron tries to re-introduce her to life, the same goes for Penguin, the magpie, who progressively opens his wings and learns to fly. 
"Penguin Bloom" is a film that focuses its attention simultaneously on a dramatic event which radically changes a woman's life, while also trying to grasp the impact that such an event has on family dynamics, all of this wrapped in this life affirming metaphor of a bird who heals and learns to fly once more. Tackling a dramatic narrative such as this, can take many directions, including superlative examples such as Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", where the enormous challenges of the title character and his family are fantastically captured, with a very distinct point of view. "Penguin Bloom" while having an interesting storyline, never really transcends the illustrative tone that the director creates. For all the pain and hardship Naomi Watts encapsulates in her restrained performance, the direction itself fails to really capture the bond between her and the titular Penguin, the same way it also fails to bring some poetry to the aspect of healing and learning to fly once again. The issue with this film, isn't necessarily that it's poorly rendered or for that matter, poorly acted: the characters are sufficiently developed, the relationships are compelling enough to warrant attention, but ultimately the film lacks a point of view that makes this journey, of a woman and her family into a new life, more viscerally impactful and compelling. Naomi Watts is always a fantastic presence, and she has good support from Andrew Lincoln and Jackie Weaver. It's watchable but ultimately forgettable.