Sunday, September 29, 2019

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

Movie Name: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Year of Release: 1991
Director: Kevin Reynolds
Starring: Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Alan Rickman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Christian Slater, Geraldine McEwan, Michael McShane, Brian Blessed, Michael Wincott, Walter Sparrow, Nick Brimble, Sean Connery
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Longtime Kevin Costner collaborator, director Kevin Reynolds followed his well received "The Beast of War", with this film which turned out to be one of the biggest hits of 1991. The film follows the traditional and iconic storyline, which had already been adapted on film in the iconic "Robin Hood" from Michael Curtiz and William Keighley (which made its debut in 1938). Robin Hood is fighting the crusades, but this time around upon his escape, he flees with a sidekick, in the shape of Azeem. Upon his return to England, Robin quickly discovers that the absence of King Richard, has allowed for Prince John to ascend to the throne, and for the Sheriff of Nottingham to rule the land with forceful cruelty (the sheriff has his cousin Guy of Gisbourne as his helpful assistant, as well as the witch Mortianna and the corrupt Bishop of Hereford). He also discovers his father has been attacked by the sheriff's men, who try to imprison him. After escaping, Robin and Azeem take shelter in the woods, where they become acquainted with a series of men who are rebelling against the sheriff's regime. They both end up leading the group, and start pillaging the sheriff's convoys, and distributing the proceeds to the populations. Robin also manages to meet Marian, the sister of one of his crusades comrades, and falls in love with her, not realizing that she's also the target of the Sheriff's attention. 
"Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" is a film that got made on the heels of Kevin Costner's massive success with "Dances with Wolves". The film in itself takes a series of liberties with the tale, introducing new sidekicks, half brothers, on top of witches, all with the sole intent of creating a story that is entertaining and ultimately escapist. The film half succeeds in those goals: it does feature robust action scenes/sequences, but the characters have little to no depth, and ultimately the chemistry between the main performers is non existent (particularly between Robin and Marian). The late Alan Rickman is the only one who is clearly relishing his role and having some fun with it. His Sheriff is more like a deranged rock star of the 80s and he truly brings some bite to the film, even if there's never a real sense of menace or danger throughout the whole endeavor. It's a breezy and lighthearted film, that is quickly forgettable. 


TV Show Name: Unbelievable
Year of Release: 2019
Directors: Lisa Cholodenko, Michael Dinner, Susannah Grant
Stars: Kaitlyn Dever, Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, Blake Ellis, Dale Dickey, Liza Lapira, Kai Lennox, Omar Maskati, Eric Lange, Danielle McDonald, Connor Tillman, Elizabeth Marvel, Annaleigh Ashford, Bridget Everett, Bill Fagerbakke, Brent Sexton, Treisa Gary, John Hartmann, Tate Ellington, Tim Martin Gleason
Genre: Crime, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
View Trailer

Synopsis and Review:
Netflix continues its cadence of regularly releasing new shows. While the cadence of their releases is consistent, the same can't be said for the shows themselves. However, and following the second season of "Mindhunter", "Unbelievable" is a great new addition to the best ones they have produced and distributed thus far. Hailing from the creative minds of Susannah Grant (who wrote Steven Soderbergh's "Erin Brockovich" and Curtis Hanson's "In Her Shoes" to name but a few), Michael Chabon (responsible for the novel "Wonder Boys", but also for the scripts for Sam Raimi's "Spider Man 2" and Andrew Stanton's "John Carter") and Ayelet Waldman, the show is based on a 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning story (and its follow up) by authors T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong. The show focuses on the story of Marie Adler, a young adult woman who is raped, and the aftermath of events that occur upon her reporting the occurrence. Marie who lives in Washing State and has had a very difficult upbringing with a run through a series of foster homes, is eventually forced to take back her testimony, when the police can't find enough evidence to sustain her story (and when upon further scrutiny, there are inconsistencies in Marie's report). Marie is also fined and charged with false reporting, on top of the crumbling of her living arrangements and abandonment of friendships. A few years later, a case similar to Marie's is unveiled in Colorado. Detective Karen Duvall responds to it, but this time around, the victim has witnessed some physical aspects of the suspect. Duvall is informed that another Detective, by the name of Grace Rasmussen is also investigating a similar case to hers, and they both join forces in order to identify this criminal. They realize this is a series of cases that have gone by unresolved. Their task is tremendously challenging, as the suspect leaves no DNA behind, there is no forced entry and aside from the birthmark, he has no physically differentiating marks. It takes all of their resources, frustrations and persistence to start unveiling the case.
"Unbelievable" is a show that captures the attention of its audience, primarily because of its intelligence which comes across in the way it populates itself with characters who have depth and are multi layered. It's also a yarn, in the sense that it's an enigma, one that is apparently virtually impossible to solve for the characters (and for the audience). The show smartly weaves a story that engages both the research and forensics side of it while simultaneously illustrating the disintegration of Marie's life, who witnesses first hand that downward spiral, when no one believes her statements, and suddenly all that she considers habitual/routine is taken from her. It's a show that depicts these characters beyond their typical cliches, probing deeper into who these people actually are, with their ambitions, principles and fears. Even if the ending of the season veers off into a somewhat Hollywood style ending, it's nonetheless an affecting and very well rendered show, featuring great performances from Toni Collette, Kaitlyn Dever and Merritt Wever. Worth Watching.

Ad Astra

Movie Name: Ad Astra
Year of Release: 2019
Director: James Gray
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, John Ortiz, Liv Tyler, Kimberly Elise, Loren Dean, Donnie Keshawarz, Sean Blakemore, Bobby Nish, LisaGay Hamilton, John Finn
Genre: Drama, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
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Synopsis and Review:
Director James Gray is back, after his latest feature "The Lost City of Z" flew under the radar. "Ad Astra" which premiered at the Venice Film Festival to solid reviews, may be his best film yet. The story focuses on Roy McBride, an accomplished and renown astronaut who survives a dramatic accident from a space station where he's working from. Upon his recovery, Roy is informed that what actually caused his accident was originated by a device from a remote space ship, located on the orbit of  Neptune. That remote ship, commanded and headed by his father, Clifford McBride, was long suspected lost and disabled, but is now potentially dooming the entire human race. Roy is tasked with going to Mars, and attempt to communicate with his potentially still alive father, and get him to disable the ship. As Roy goes through these different steps to get to Mars, he analyzes his life, his relationship with his father, all the while overcoming obstacles that appear and threaten to derail the whole mission. He eventually learns of crucial information, which propels him to go find his father, and try a rescue mission.
"Ad Astra" is an interesting film, one that mixes some of the topics that have been present in most of the director's films, while also having interesting influences from some classics of the sci-fi universe. The film is in essence a dissertation on how unresolved familial relationships can haunt an individual for his whole life, preventing him from connecting and establishing resonant and meaningful relationships of his own. Roy is unperturbed for most of the film, since he chooses not to relate to anyone. He is emptied out for most of the film, and as he becomes more wrapped up in the notion of saving his father, the more that façade begins to crack and his emotions, namely longing, fear, sadness, loneliness, break through. It's an intelligently constructed film, filled with nuance, one where the director is far more interested in understanding why this man has to cross half the universe to get in touch with a father who was never present. There are influences from Stanley Kubrick's "2001", Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" and even Andrei Tarkovsky's "Solaris", but the film is aesthetically stunning on its own. The cast is uniformly superb, with great performances from Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga. The cinematography from Hoyte Van Hoytema is impeccable, as is the score from Max Richter. A very good film worth watching.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

It Chapter II

Movie Name: It Chapter II
Year of Release: 2019
Director: Andy Muschietti
Starring: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, James Ransone, Jay Ryan, Bill Skarsgaard, Jaeden Martell, Wyatt Oleff, Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Jess Weixler, Xavier Dolan, Taylor Frey, Peter Bogdanovich, Stephen King, Teach Grant, Nicholas Hamilton, Joan Gregson, Martha Girvin
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
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Synopsis and Review:
Following the astounding success of the first feature, and since the first chapter only focused on the lives of the characters when they were children, the closing chapter to the Stephen King adaptation was more than expected. "It Chapter II", takes place 27 years after the occurrences of the first feature. Pennywise starts appearing once again, killing individuals from Derry, but also luring the Losers club to come back to the city. Mike who is the only one of the club to have stayed in the city, calls each and every one of the friends, warning them of what is occurring, while also asking them all to come back. They all (but one) make their way back to their hometown, to understand the severity of what is actually occurring, and collectively discuss a strategy on how to defeat Pennywise once and for all. Mike is aware of a ritual on how to make this creature disappear, and goes about explaining the whole group what to do. Pennywise however has ideas of his own, and plays with their fears in order to best create division and swiftly get rid of them.
The second part of the adaptation of Stephen King's lengthy novel, turns the focus of the story from the young children to their adult counterparts. Whereas the book goes back and forth between the two timelines, the film adaptations clearly divides them. Also where the first film and adaptation had a merger of different sensibilities to the screenplay, the sequel comes from the penmanship of Gary Dauberman, who has also written the films of the "Annabelle" series and also "The Nun". Whereas the first film took its time introducing us to the young heroes of the story, letting us slowly understand what made them all so unique, this continuation places their adult selves in the middle of an ongoing menace/threat, not giving much time to understand where they are in terms of their lives and how they actually matured. Their introduction feels somewhat rushed and therefore the connection with these characters is less impactful than the first chapter. Something that is also less effective, is the creation of an overall menacing environment. Whereas the first chapter, every corner of the small town was an opportunity for something to lurk or something to occur, 27 years later, the adults walk around the somewhat deserted city without any qualms, revisiting memories and locales. When the suspenseful and disturbing moments do occur, and they are effectively rendered, they look less integrated into the fabric of the narrative. Andy Muschietti has managed to get an effective cast, with Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader and James McAvoy creating strong performances, alongside the younger cast who steal the spotlight. The cinematography of Checco Varese is impeccable as is the score from Benjamin Wallfisch. A less accomplished version of the adaptation of the Stephen King novel, but still worth watching.

Late Night

Movie Name: Late Night
Year of Release: 2019
Director: Nisha Ganatra
Starring: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Denis O'Hare, Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, Max Casella, Paul Walter Hauser, Amy Ryan, John Early, Ike Barinholtz, Marc Kudisch, Jia Patel, Luke Slattery
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
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Synopsis and Review:
Director Nisha Ganatra who made a name for herself with "Chutney Popcorn" 20 years ago, and who in the meantime, has directed a series of television shows (including "Transparent", "Better Things" and "The Last Man on Earth", to name but a few), has partnered with actress/writer Mindy Kaling to bring to life her first feature length screenplay to life. The film made its splashy debut on the Sundance Film Festival, where it was one of the priciest acquisitions of the Festival. The story focuses on Katherine Newbury, a late night comedian/TV show host, who after decades of headlining her own show, is at the verge of losing her place due to declining ratings, loss of relevance and her own icy facade. Her writing team, who barely know her, are tasked with turning the boat around, and that starts with hiring women to diversify the composition of the team itself, while also writing jokes that actually align with who the host is. Onto this scenario arrives Molly Patel, a former factory worker, who manages to get an interview and eventually a job, thanks to her candor and incisive insight. Molly's initial handlings of the team and the job land her on some awkward positions, but soon the team collectively starts gelling and creating material, segments for the show, that bring Katherine's perception up. That all hits a roadblock when a scandal threatens to overturn and topple all their hard work.
It's easy to understand what made "Late Night" such a hot purchase for Amazon Studios at the Sundance Film Festival. The film features a fantastic cast, and features a screenplay that is witty, recognizable, even if at points falters to the tropes and clichés of every romantic comedy ever done. Still, it's a film that reflects the actual state of society in general, and relationships in the workplace in particular. It tackles issues such as ageism, sexism, minority discrimination, all with humor, levity, never making it feel excessively didactic or an educational pamphlet. The film does lack a bit of a bite, and stops shy of actually showing the nastier side of all those topics, but it gives Emma Thompson one of the best roles she has had in quite some time, while also allowing John Lithgow, Denis O'Hare to shine as they usually do. It's a funny, though quickly forgettable film.  

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Dolor y Gloria/Pain & Glory

Movie Name: Dolor y Gloria/Pain & Glory
Year of Release: 2019
Director: Pedro Almodovar
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Penelope Cruz, Julieta Serrano, Nora Navas, Cesar Vicente, Cecilia Roth, Asier Flores, Susi Sanchez, Raul Arevalo, Pedro Casablanc, Julian Lopez, Eva Martin
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
View Trailer

Synopsis and Review:
In a year of returns for great film makers, Pedro Almodovar is back with another feature, following "Julieta" which was released in 2016. "Dolor y Gloria" follows the story of Salvador Mallo, a film director of a certain age, who is riddled with health issues and chronic pain. When the local Cinematheque decides to run a remastered copy of one of his earlier films, Salvador gets in touch with the lead actor of that film, whom with he had a fall out after the release of the film, so they can both introduce it to the audience (and do a Q&A afterwards). As both men revisit the experience and try to patch their relationship, Alberto, who has always had substance abuse problems, passes some drugs to Salvador in order to help him deal with the pain. Salvador starts using it frequently, while intermittently remembering his past and growing up under the tutelage of his mother. When Alberto uncovers a short story from Salvador and wants to perform it on stage, that also triggers more memories, while coincidentally brings back some past loves to Salvador's life, forcing him to evaluate where he is, and where he wants to go with his life.
Pedro Almodovar has a career filled with stunning films, with a lot of them being based on his own life, growing up in Spain, his relationship with his mother, and his irreverent approach to film making and art (and his love of cinema). "Dolor y Gloria" follows in the footsteps of other autobiographical/inspired by films from his career such as "La Mala Educacion". Salvador Mallo, much like Almodovar, has had a series of health setbacks, which have prevented him from moving on with his career, and is haunted by the ghosts of his mother, his childhood, and the loves that he had to move past, in order to survive and live. The character is an older version of Enrique Goded, Fele Martinez's creation from "La Mala Educacion", but one burdened by physical pain, and emotional scars from failed relationships and loss of loved ones. It's a film that captures both the loneliness of the central character's life, but also the joyous upbringing that character had in Spain in the 50s, with the ever central presence of women, who shaped him to become the man he is. It's a film where the stylistic touches that Almodovar always had, have been toned down, focusing more on the universe of the characters he's showcasing. The cast is uniformly excellent, with a fantastic Antonio Banderas creating one of his best characters yet. The cinematography from Jose Luis Alcaine is impeccable, as is the score from Alberto Iglesias. A very good film from a true master.