Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Haunting of Hill House

TV Show Name: The Haunting of Hill House
Year of Release: 2018
Created by: Mike Flanagan
Director: Mike Flanagan
Stars: Michiel Huisman, Carla Gugino, Henry Thomas, Timothy Hutton, Elizabeth Reaser, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Kate Siegel, Victoria Pedretti, Lulu Wilson, McKenna Grace, Paxton Singleton, Julian Hiliard, Violet McGraw, Anthony Ruivivar, Annabeth Gish, Robert Longstreet, Samantha Sloyan
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
View Trailer

As Netflix continues their continuous output of self generated material, a good show comes in the way of Mike Flanagan's "The Haunting of Hill House". Flanagan, who directed last year's "Gerald's Game" also for Netflix, is at the helm of this show, both as the creator, and also director of all episodes of the show. "The Haunting of Hill House" is an adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel of the same name, first published in 1959, and previously adapted to the big screen by Robert Wise in 1963 and Jan de Bont in 1999. Unlike the previous versions, this adaptation takes the story in a somewhat different direction. The show focuses on a specific family, comprised of father Hugh, mother Liv and their 5 children, named Steven, Shirley, Theo, Luke and Nell. The story oscillates between the early 90s, when the children are still growing up, and the present time, when they're all adults. In the past, the family buys an old mansion, in the hopes of renovating it, selling it, and then moving on to another project. However, once the family moves in, supernatural events and occurrences start manifesting themselves, first subtly, then more visibly. In the present, there's tension between the siblings, particularly when it comes to Steven, a published author, who wrote a book based on the experiences of the family with the paranormal events that they encountered in the house. Between disbelief, animosity, and guilt, the siblings and their estranged father, are forced to come to terms with each other when Nell, the youngest daughter, commits suicide, something that ties and pulls everyone back to the house. 
Mike Flanagan is a very intelligent writer/director, having built a career, thus far, in making films that may be labeled as "horror" and "fantastic", but that in reality, are finely layered, and go beyond the tropes usually associated with the genre. "The Haunting of Hill House" is a fine example of his narrative skills: the series allows the characters within the nuclear family to be flushed out, first as children, then as grown ups, showcasing the scars that characters carry with them from trouble youths to adulthood. The director explores the different relationships between the characters, before unleashing the supernatural, which usually unsettles the proceedings, most of the times functioning as a catalyst to either bind the relationships between the characters, or clear up conflicts that have been haunting them (which for instance, he used in one of his previous films, "Oculus"). "The Haunting of Hill House" is in some ways, like a mix between Alan Ball's "Six Feet Under" and something written and devised by Stephen King - it's sufficiently macabre to hold one's attention, but it also has a pulsating heart and family dynamics/conflict, to render the characters more relatable and realistic. It's a show that is impeccably shot, courtesy of cinematographer Michael Fimognari, with an equally consistent cast, with the always solid Carla Gugino and the reliable Timothy Hutton leading the group. Worth watching.


Movie Name: Monster
Year of Release: 2003
Director: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Lee Tergesen, Annie Corley, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Marco St. John, Marc Macaulay, Scott Wilson, Tim Ware, Brett Rice
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
After directing a few shorts, director Patty Jenkins made her auspicious directorial debut with "Monster". The film is inspired and follows the story of Aileen Wuornos, a convicted serial criminal, accused and considered guilty for the death of seven men, who was later imprisoned and executed in 2002. The film introduces us to Aileen as a young girl, already being abused, quickly transitioning to her life as a young woman, and her desperate attempts at being loved, which also capture her path into prostitution (in very broad strokes). Aileen's life suffers a spark of change when she accidentally meets the young Selby. The two initially form an unlikely friendship, that rapidly becomes a romantic entanglement. While Aileen has a client, to make ends meet, she suddenly has to deal with a potential fatal situation, which prompts her to take action into her own hands, leading her on a dangerous and dramatic path. Looking to escape the place of crime, she and Selby decide to move to Southern Florida, where the troubles once again loom and appear.
Patty Jenkins started her career very strongly with this portrayal of one of the very few female serial killers in the US. The film captures primarily the relationship that is established between Aileen and Selby, both women trying to connect and bond, whose lives had been met with ostracism, loneliness and in the case of Aileen, abuse. The film is particularly impactful due to the herculean presence of Charlize Theron, who is truly unrecognizable in the film, and who imbues the character with a sadness, longing, despair and vitality unlike anything that she had done thus far. Her grittiness and verisimilitude in playing Aileen, marries perfectly with Patty Jenkins' approach to shooting the film realistically, almost documentary style, capturing the barely there existence of marginalized individuals. It's such a towering performance that at times it almost swallows the entire existence of the film and the thread that is trying to weave, but the character is always humane, heartfelt, even if her actions are monstrous and violent. The supporting cast is peripheral, but uniformly good, from Christina Ricci to the always underrated Bruce Dern. It's a strong film from a director who has had little chance to expand her palette, but who can hopefully tackle more challenging material soon (beyond comic book characters, which she has explored with "Wonder Woman"). 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Matrix Revolutions

Movie Name: The Matrix Revolutions
Year of Release: 2003
Director: Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving, Harold Perrineau, David Roberts, Lambert Wilson, Monica Belluci, Mary Alice, Jade Pinkett Smith, Collin Chou, Harry Lennix, Anthony Zerbe, Bruce Spence, Gina Torres, Nona Gaye, Essie Davis, Ian Bliss, Clayton Watson, Bernard White
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Both "The Matrix Reloaded" and "The Matrix Revolutions" were shot simultaneously, even if they were released months apart. If the first was met with superlative expectations, following the film's release, there was a collective disappointment, as if the directing team had taken the story into directions that were almost incomprehensible for the audience. The conclusion to Neo's saga, finds the hero and his partner, Trinity, going to the location of the genesis of the war, situated at the core of the Machine world. The rest of the group, including Morpheus, Niobe and Link, go back to Zion, in order to protect what is left of the human enclave from the machine attack. While the group fights valiantly, it's finally up to Neo to go back into the Matrix and defeat Agent Smith, who, much like a rapidly disseminating virus, has taken over all of the Matrix ecosystem, endangering the sustainability of all human and machine life. 
In the vein of what I wrote previously concerning "The Matrix Reloaded", also applies to this sequel. The writer/director team, aimed to expand the universe they had created so successfully with the first film, but in these sequels, they peppered the experience with more of everything, without creating balance between story exposition, visual effects and interminable action sequences. What made the original "The Matrix" so inventive, was the capacity to draw this new world in an economical way, mixing notions of philosophy and religion with the trappings of a sophisticated action film. The sequels in comparison, diminished the storytelling, and made the universe more opaque and dense, while increasing the duration of the action sequences for no particular reason. "The Matrix Revolutions" again repeats the issues of the previous film: Zion's attack for instance goes on and on, with a multitude of digital effects pulverizing the human resistance, yet there's never a real feeling of dread nor menace. It's a film that over indulges in visual effects to squelch the sweet tooth of the audience, never realizing that they're making everyone diabetic. The film is unbalanced, and leaves very little for Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne and Carrie-Anne Moss to do, when in the original they gave the film the humor, gravitas and sexiness that it had. It's a film that closes a saga that could have been better explored, but that nonetheless contains traces of a more interesting film, something that the directors would tackle going forward, with their ambitious "Cloud Atlas". 


Movie Name: Halloween
Year of Release: 2018
Director: David Gordon Green
Stars: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle, Toby Huss, Haluk Bilginer, Will Patton, Rhian Rees, Miles Robbins
Genre: Thriller, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
View Trailer

Synopsis & Review:
Eclectic director David Gordon Green is back, this time around tackling one of the most iconic horror movie franchises of the last forty years. The film drinks heavily in style, ambiance and characters from John Carpenter's iconic 1978 staple of the same name. This time around, the film introduces us to an older Laurie Strode, who has become a hardened survivor following the events of the original film (this film discards all the interminable sequels that were done during the 80s, 90s and the more recent - and terrible - Rob Zombie ventures into the franchise). Laurie is estranged from her daughter and grand-daughter, due to the fact that she simply can't get the past behind her. Michael is still imprisoned, and to all matters and purposes, has absolutely no emotion, speech capacity or reaction. However, when he's about to be transferred to a new treatment facility, he manages to escape, and goes back to Haddonfield, in order to finish what he started 40 years ago. It's up to Laurie, and her resourcefulness, to escape the menace from an unstoppable killer.
David Gordon Green is a very smart and resourceful director. Initially having made a name for himself with a handful of stunning independent features, the director started testing out other genres and styles, some with more success than others (for every "George Washington", "All the Real Girls" and "Snow Angels" for instance, there's always less successful fare such as "Your Highness" and "The Sitter"). "Halloween", which followed last year's "Stronger", captures a lot of what made John Carpenter's original feature such an iconic film: the killer is unstoppable, undeterred and there is no reasoning or bargaining with him. He is very much like a terminator, only operating in a typical suburb, and apparently unstoppable. It's a film that relies primarily on the relationships that it builds around the central characters, with Jamie Lee Curtis creating a version of Laurie, that is eroded by years of living with the fear or being attacked again, and who has become a resilient survivor. This fixation of hers, has also alienated the rest of her family, but as the menace looms, there's a family bonding that is restored. The film has a more humanistic perspective than the original, which isolated Laurie and made her somewhat more reactive. Even if the film doesn't bring as much of a departure to the content and style of this franchise, it's still an interesting take on a series that has lasted and has influenced so much of the horror films produced since the 80s. Worth watching.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Miami Blues

Movie Name: Miami Blues
Year of Release: 1990
Director: George Armitage
Starring: Alec Baldwin, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nora Dunn, Charles Napier, Obba Babatunde, Edward Saxon, Paul Gleason, Shirley Stoler
Genre: Crime, Drama, Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
"Miami Blues" was a film originally envisioned to be directed by celebrated film maker Jonathan Demme, who decided to entrust this film to his collaborator George Armitage, a director who had made his mark in the 70s, and hadn't tackled any projects since then. The crew of this film is still largely comprised of Jonathan Demme's accomplices, from cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, to the producers, editor (Craig McKay) and much of the supporting cast (including Charles Napier and Obba Babatunde for instance). The film follows the story of dangerous criminal Fred Frenger Jr., who gets out of prison, and heads off to Miami. While there he immediately gets into trouble, first while leaving the airport, when he attacks a member of the Hare Krishna, followed by a series of misdemeanors. He gets acquainted with the pretty and vulnerable student/prostitute Susie Waggoner, and they're soon making plans to live together. His erratic and dangerous behavior is soon being tracked by veteran police officer Hoke Moseley. His tracking skills uncover some of the things Junior has been doing, who in turn shows up at the detective's home, attacking him and in the process, taking his badge, gun and dentures. He suddenly starts busting criminals, mostly so he can get the loot in the process, causing distress to Moseley, while the seriousness of crimes gets progressively more intense.
"Miami Blues" is a film that while retaining the grittiness of George Armitage's films from the 70s, it also blends the style with what Jonathan Demme had been doing in the 80s. The film is almost a companion piece to "Something Wild", but with reversed roles. Alec Baldwin, then riding the start of his career, right after having great roles in Jonathan Demme's "Married to the Mob", Mike Nichols' "Working Girl", Oliver Stone's "Talk Radio" and Tim Burton's "Beetlejuice", creates a memorable character, equally vulnerable, menacing and seductive. Jennifer Jason Leigh is equally fantastic, creating a character that is naive, but also resilient and sweet. It's a film that walks an interesting line between being comedic, violent, sexy and dramatic. The director manages to tie all these elements somewhat coherently, even if it's not as engaging as Jonathan Demme's "Something Wild". Some of the characters are thinly characterized, and quickly abandoned, but it's nonetheless an interesting film from a director and creative team always worth revisiting. 

Private Life

Movie Name: Private Life
Year of Release: 2018
Director: Tamara Jenkins
Stars: Paul Giamatti, Kathryn Hahn, Molly Shannon, John Carroll Lynch, Denis O'Hare, Kayli Carter, Emily Robinson, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Desmin Borges
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
View Trailer

Synopsis & Review:
In the three decades that she's been working, director Tamara Jenkins has delivered three features. "Private Life", which Netflix just released (October of 2018) is the third, following the fantastic "The Savages" (released in 2007) and the equally great "Slums of Beverly Hills", which was her feature directorial debut (from 1998). "Private Life" tracks the life of couple Richard and Rachel, who are in the throws of trying to conceive. They've tried the adoption path, which proved unsuccessful and time consuming, and we find them in the middle of trying to go through with IVF. The process is painful, expensive, and causes stress on both of them. They've been together for a while, but waited to have children, in order to accomplish certain milestones in their professional careers. Additional challenges occur when Richard has some health issues, but they finally get a shot of some optimism, when their step niece agrees to donate one of her eggs to be fertilized. That unfortunately throws a wrench into their family dynamics, particularly with Richard's sister in law.
Tamara Jenkins' films have a way to draw complex family dynamics in ways that are arresting, dynamic and never quite the expected. "Private Life" is no exception - the central couple, clearly living comfortably in NY, are dealing with tremendous challenges as they're trying relentlessly to have a child, which in turn leaves them with almost no time to actually look at each other, and be supportive of each other. This challenge consumes and has consumed their entire existence, which is something that their extended family clearly notices. The director draws this microcosms of relationships really well, showcasing how Molly Shannon's character, Cynthia, is a voice of dissent, while Sadie, becomes a beacon of hope, but also another element of further contention. It's a film that is so focused in showcasing the characters single driven pursuit, that it forgets at times to showcase a bit more of these interesting characters (and pepper it with some humor), with Sadie actually becoming the more interesting one - she's the one who has diverse interests, who wants to pursue things, who wants to have a full life. The film veers at times into Woody Allen territories, particularly with the intellectual and arts centric couple of a certain age at the core of the action, but it retains its own heart and identity, as can be witnessed as the film comes to its closure. Paul Giamatti, Kathryn Hahn, Molly Shannon and John Carroll Lynch are all fantastic. A very good film from a very interesting director.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Cell

Movie Name: The Cell
Year of Release: 2000
Director: Tarsem Singh
Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D'Onofrio, Jake Weber, Dylan Baker, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Gerry Becker, Tara Subkoff, Dean Norris, Patrick Bauchau, Musetta Vander, James Gammon, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Jake Thomas, Peter Sarsgaard
Genre: Thriller, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Following a successful career directing commercials and music videos, director Tarsem Singh made his feature film debut with "The Cell", which coincidentally was also writer Mark Protosevich's first produced screenplay (he went on to write Francis Lawrence's "I Am Legend" and Kenneth Branagh's "Thor"). The film follows the story of Catherine Deane, a unique social worker, who is using state of the art technology, to work with children who have severe hindrances due to past traumas. She's put in a difficult situation, when she's approached by the FBI, who have managed to capture a dangerous serial killer, who has suffered a severe attack, and is unable to respond or maintain any contact. The difficult situation is created by the fact that he kidnapped another victim, and the FBI has 40 hours to uncover where she is. They hope that using the technology and Catherine's talents, they can get to his psyche, and possibly uncover where she has been hidden.
Tarsem Singh is a director with a noticeable stylistic approach, one that mixes graphic art with baroque and even ornate stylings. The style is at times overpowering, but it makes for a definitely arresting component of all the films that he has directed thus far. "The Cell" captures a lot of the themes and even aesthetic flourishes that David Fincher had showcased so impeccably in "Seven". The film once again tries to illustrate the proceedings of capturing a serial killer, but in this particular case, it focuses more specifically on what makes one become a killer. What takes place inside his mind, is what it's supposedly terrifying, but mostly comes across as a mix of a Marilyn Manson video from 1996 and also showcases some influences from David Fincher's film and also a dash of Jonathan Demme's "Silence of the Lambs". All this to say - the film is hardly convoluted, and hardly offers any different perspective or heart for that matter. Jennifer Lopez doesn't really have much to do, other than look beautiful in stunning costumes, whereas Vincent D'Onofrio, who is typically terrific, has very little to do, but does manage to salvage himself. The film has a fantastic selling point: the beautifully created and designed costumes of Eiko Ishioka (who won an Academy Award for Francis Coppola's "Dracula"). It's a high point, but otherwise this is a mediocre endeavor. 

A Star is Born

Movie Name: A Star is Born
Year of Release: 2018
Director: Bradley Cooper
Stars: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Elliott, Rafi Gavron, Dave Chappelle, Anthony Ramos, Ron Rifkin, Barry Shabaka Henley, Michael D. Roberts, Michael Harney, Greg Grunberg, Willam Belli, Eddie Griffin, Josh Wells, Dennis Tong
Genre: Drama, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
View Trailer

Synopsis & Review:
Bradley Cooper is an interesting actor, who has chosen to make his directorial debut, with a remake of "A Star is Born", itself a property that has been taken to the screen on 3 previous occasions. The film follows the story of Jackson Maine, a successful singer/songwriter, who is on a downward spiral, with too much alcohol and drugs consuming his life and performances. Following one of his concerts, he stops on his way to the airport, on a small nightclub/bar, where he witnesses Ally performing. Ally has the hopes of becoming herself a successful artist, but has faltered in doing so, due to lack of confidence, and also because of the superficiality and ruthlessness of the music business. Jackson and her start a relationship, with Ally coming to her own terms and performing with Jackson, until she gets noticed by an agent in a visible spot. She's also aware of the ghosts haunting Jackson, and how much of his alcoholism rule his life and choices, and she makes her concerns abundantly clear. As her star wattage and public perception increase, Jackson fades, until a dramatic event forces him to reconsider everything.
"A Star is Born" is an auspicious start for Bradley Cooper's career as a director - there's something truly riveting and natural in the way he captures the energy of the live performances, that end up being the main draw of the film. It's an interesting film where both central characters have an interesting arc to go through before finding their path. Unlike previous versions of the film, this one truly is a duet, in the sense that the focus is indeed on both their paths, with Jackson actually coming across as a much more interesting character (and again, this character and performance seems almost like a copycat of the character Jeff Bridges created for Scott Cooper's "Crazy Heart"). Lady Gaga's Ally, as much as the film tries to convey the challenges and hardship she's endured, it mostly seems she's been leading a life which involves a job and helping her father, and who all of a sudden finally gets discovered. Her performance lacks nuance, but she and Cooper have chemistry, and her live performances are impeccably staged and captured. The film is overly long, there are sections that could have been left out, but when it succeeds, it manages to feel alive and not artificial. Bradley Cooper is truly great in this film (even if a bit slightly self indulgent), and the film is beautifully shot by Matthew Libatique. An auspicious start for an interesting and talented actor/director.