Sunday, July 26, 2020


Movie Name: Constantine
Year of Release: 2005
Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Tilda Swinton, Djimon Hounsou, Peter Stormare, Shia LaBeouf, Max Baker, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Gavin Rossdale, Jesse Ramirez, Francis Guinan, Jose Zuniga, April Grace, Michelle Monaghan, Suzanne Whang
Genre: Action, Fantasy, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

Synopsis and Review:
"Constantine" premiered in February of 2005, right at the heels of Keanu Reeves going through the consecutive "Matrix" sequels, and the well received Nancy Meyers comedy "Something's Gotta Give". The film marks the feature film debut from Francis Lawrence, at the time mostly well known for his work as a music video director. The feature is an adaptation of a comic book from DC, "Hellblazer", and it follows the story of John Constantine, a demonologist of sorts. Constantine has had the power to see beyond dimensions since he was a child, something that always haunted him, eventually forcing him to attempt to kill himself, which in fact resulted in heightening his perceptions of the world around what humans perceive to be reality. He comes in touch with Detective Angela Dodson, following a supposed suicide of her twin sister, something she's investigating. Angela and Isabel, always had an ability to also channel the supernatural, but while Isabel let it consume her, eventually ending up in a mental institution, Angela managed to block it out, and become a successful police officer. Trying to understand what happened to her sister, Angela tracks Constantine, and while dismissive at first of her intents, he suddenly realizes that there's a much bigger and sinister plan at bay, behind Angela and Isabel's involvement. The both of them have to partner in order to overcome demonic creatures, and even angelic ones in the shape of Gabriel, all of whom have their own agendas.
"Constantine" is an interesting feature, one that is unlike many of the comic book films that were premiering at the time, or have premiered since then. Mostly because its hero, or central character, is a very disillusioned, cynical, even embittered person, as a result of what he went through growing up and what he has experienced throughout his adult life, with the constant war raging between Heaven and Hell, and him smacked right between both. The character is very much portrayed as a cynical private eye from classic noir films, but with an edge, that being his ability to see the supernatural and navigate between dimensions. The plot smartly brings a series of supporting players to this web of conspiracy that starts unveiling itself, as Constantine and Angela try to understand why her sister was targeted. It's a noir set up, with typical archetypes, but with a touch of supernatural, which makes it more distinctive and arresting. The film falters in aspects of character development, particularly when it comes to the central characters, but it's stylistic enough, and with such intelligently and compellingly set up shots, that holds the attention of the viewer. Francis Lawrence also manages to cast the film very well, surrounding Keanu Reeves with an array of phenomenal actors, including Rachel Weisz, Tilda Swinton, Peter Stormare and Djimon Hounsou. The cinematography from Philippe Rousselot is beautiful, as is the production design from Naomi Shohan. An entertaining film worth watching, from an interesting director. 

I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore

Movie Name: I Don't Feel at Home In This World Anymore
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Macon Blair
Starring: Melanie Lynskey, Elijah Wood, Christine Woods, Jane Levy, Robert Longstreet, Devon Graye, David Yow, Myron Natwick, Gary Anthony Williams, Lee Eddy, Maxwell Hamilton, Audrey Walker, Macon Blair, Derek Mears, Jana Lee Hamblin
Genre: Comedy, Crime
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7 

Synopsis and Review:
"I Don't Feel at Home in this World Anymore" made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2017, and was bought by Netflix for its distribution. It's actor/writer/director Macon Blair's directorial debut, and he's been a consistent creative partner for Jeremy Saulnier's throughout his output, including "Blue Ruin" and "Green Room". "I Don't Feel..." follows the story of Ruth, a nurse's assistant, who lives by herself, and who upon arriving at home following her shift, is being robbed. The assailant takes her laptop, her grandmother's silver, and the Police when called out to help her out, don't offer much hopes of retrieving anything. Ruth is exhausted from it all, from people being rude, selfish, inconsiderate, and decides to change her perspective and start holding people accountable for their behavior. Her first call to arms, starts with her neighbor Tony, whose dog poops in her lawn, and he never does anything about it. Tony turns out to be very apologetic and quite sweet, idiosyncratic as he may be. When her laptop location pops up on her phone, Ruth asks for Tony's assistance, and off they go to retrieve it. This further encourages them to research what might have happened to her stolen possessions, leading them on a path that gets progressively darker and more dangerous.
"I Don't Feel..." is an interesting film, one that starts as a character study of an ordinary person trying to live her life, the best way she can, only for circumstances to push her out of her comfort zone, and lead her on a path that is almost seemingly out of a David Lynch film (much like "Blue Velvet"). It's a film that allows for the characters to have just enough dimension to hold the audience's attention, though that's also one its slight faults. The film gives hints of the lead characters, without diving a bit deeper and allowing us to understand why they find themselves where they are in that particular moment in time. Macon Blair ingeniously manages to navigate the curt character development, and instead sends the characters on this dark journey, where violence and humor spurts out, quite unexpectedly, but nonetheless allowing for the placid hero, Ruth, to find the inner strength she needs to reclaim her life. In the end it's a very interesting mix of a film, one where Ruth finds her own voice and path, but not through the typical tropes of the indie film trope. Instead, this mix of dark humor, violence and almost John Boorman "Deliverance" style approach, makes this for a very interesting and rewarding watch. The cast assembled is terrific, with Melanie Lynskey, the underrated Elijah Wood, Christine Woods, Jane Levy, David Yow, all creating memorable characters. Worth watching.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Last Action Hero

Movie Name: Last Action Hero
Year of Release: 1993
Director: John McTiernan
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charles Dance, Austin O'Brien, Mercedes Ruehl, Anthony Quinn, F. Murray Abraham, Art Carney, Frank McRae, Tom Noonan, Robert Prosky, Bridgette Wilson, Joan Plowright, Ian McKellen, Noah Emmerich, Tina Turner, Michael Chieffo
Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7 

Synopsis and Review:
John McTiernan had a great run of films during the 80s all the way up to the early 90s. He started the 90s with "The Hunt for the Red October" which was very well received, followed by the smaller in scale "Medicine Man". "Last Action Hero" which was supposed to be Arnold Schwarzenegger's big follow up to James Cameron's "Terminator 2: Judgement Day", was plagued by production issues and a tight release schedule. The film follows the story of young Danny, a movie buff, who goes to high school and lives with his single mom in a tiny apartment in NY. Danny is a huge fan of the character Jack Slater, who has a franchise of action films on the big screen. He is invited to a special screening, thanks to a projectionist friend of his, of Slater's new and upcoming adventure. Nick, the projectionist, gives him a magic ticket, which turns out to be more than just wishful magic. The power behind the ticket itself, propels Danny into the screen where be becomes part of the film itself, involved in the adventures with Jack Slater, as he battles screen villains, and lives in a version of Los Angeles, peppered with characters from other feature films. However, as much as Danny is enjoying his experience on film, some darker forces are very curious about his magical ticket, and how it can allow for travels between different realities.
"Last Action Hero" upon its release was met with harsh reviews, and the film was John McTiernan and Arnold Schwarzenegger's first big flop (the pair had worked together on "Predator"). Unjustifiably so, the film is actually a big romp, mixing just enough action, comedy and self awareness, to demonstrate the originality of the script, some of the trademarks from Shane Black himself (particularly the comedy bits mixed with the big action set pieces), who is one of the credited writers. It's a film that defies conventions, and yet revels in them, being the more smart for it. The characters deconstruct the action film tropes, while being in the middle of them, inviting the audience to laugh with them at the silliness of it all. It's also a film that basks in the pleasure of being part of the tinseltown mythology, bringing characters from other films, and treating it all as a big village where everyone lives in this fictional world, where Sharon Stone's Catherine Trammel (from Paul Verhoeven's "Basic Instinct"), co-exists with Robert Patrick's T-1000 (from the aforementioned "Terminator 2"). The cast is uniformly committed and game, including Schwarzenegger, Charles Dance, Mercedes Ruehl, with great cameos from Ian McKellen and Joan Plowright. The cinematography from the great Dean Semler is fantastic, as is the score from the late Michael Kamen. An entertaining film worth watching.


Movie Name: Vivarium
Year of Release: 2020
Director: Lorcan Finnegan
Starring: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Jonathan Aris, Senan Jennings, Eanna Hardwicke
Genre: Mystery
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5 

Synopsis and Review:
"Vivarium" had its official debut at the Cannes Film Festival of 2019. The film follows the story of a young couple, comprised of Gemma and Tom, who are on the market for a new home. They visit the offices for a new subdivision, and the odd looking sales representative drives them to the house that is finished and ready to be lived in. The sub-division is odd looking, with the houses stretching for miles, and all exact replicas of one another. After walking through the house, Gemma and Tom realize Martin, the salesman, is gone. As they try to get out of the subdivision, they keep going back to the same house they just walked through. They try for the whole day, until the car runs out of gas. They end up sleeping in the house, and the following day they try to walk away from the subdivision, and yet they always find themselves in the exact same spot. They start receiving boxes with food, until one day they receive a box with a baby. The box states - raise the child and you'll be freed. The child grows very rapidly, but sounds odd, has strange behaviors that are driving Gemma and Tom to the brink of exhaustion. While smoking in the yard, Tom realizes that their terrain is artificial, and he starts digging, in the hopes that it leads to a possible exit.
"Vivarium" is director Lorcan Finnegan's follow up to his feature film debut, "Without Name". It's a film that utilizes the cuckoo metaphor that it showcases early on in the film, to build this surreal story of a couple lost in this reality, where they're prisoners and stuck with raising this entity who is devoid of any type of human emotion. It's a film that has some potential, yet never really dives into the creepiness of the creature itself (only showing glimpses of that towards the end), nor the disintegration of the relationship of the young couple. Both the surreal aspect of this story could've have been explored further, as could the humane aspect of it, namely focusing on how two young people react to the upheaval of their realities. It's a film that could have veered in the direction of a really interesting take on "Twilight Zone" or something more akin to Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", but in the end, it just hasn't the ambition to go in either direction. In the end it's just an interesting exercise, supported by Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg, both great actors, who bring the young couple to life, but then have very little to do with it. It had some potential, but it's not a memorable endeavor.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Palm Springs

Movie Name: Palm Springs
Year of Release: 2020
Director: Max Barbakow
Starring: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendes, Tyler Hoechlin, Chris Pang, Dale Dickey, Jacqueline Obradors
Genre: Action, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8 

Synopsis and Review:
"Palm Springs" which made its debut in January at the Sundance Film Festival, has been greeted with glowing reviews, and has had its debut on the streaming platform Hulu. The film follows the story of Nyles and Sarah. We're introduced to Nyles at a wedding, where his somewhat vapid girlfriend is one of the bridesmaids. Sarah is the sister of the bride, and also one of the bridesmaids. Nyles manages to save Sarah from a somewhat awkward speech situation, and they both find themselves attracted to each other, and making out in the middle of the Palm Springs desert.
While in middle of the situation, there's an earthquake, which is quickly followed by someone shooting arrows at Nyles, who while trying to escape ends up going to a recently uncovered cave with a luminous glow. Trying to help Nyles, Sarah also comes into the cave, though he tells her to stay outside. Next thing they know, they're waking up on the same day and repeating it on a loop.
"Palm Springs" is the feature length directorial debut for Max Barbakow, following a series of shorts, the same going for its writer, Andy Siara. The film has the Harold Ramis/Danny Rubin's "Groundhog Day" concept in its DNA, but veers in a direction of its own. When we first are introduced to Nyles, he has already been trapped in the loop for quite some time, whereas for Sarah, as she goes down the rabbit hole, we realize the challenges that come with repeating the same exact day, and the consequences of mistakes that become dramatically more apparent. As Sarah becomes more familiar with the situation, with Nyles, his actions and adventures, they eventually grow close. But while Nyles somewhat nihilistic and defeatist stance on the topic wants them to stay put, Sarah struggles with this reality and wants to move past it. These two very different characters learn the meaning of love, of being selfless and less self-absorbed, as they truly look at each other for who they are, and not for the expectations they want each other to be. It's a very smartly written film, filled with humor, heart and a great cast that hits all the right notes. Andy Samberg is great as the central slacker who eventually grows up, whereas Cristin Milioti gives Sarah a range, an arc and ultimately a depth to her character, that is unlike your typical romantic comedy cliché, for its central heroine that is. J.K. Simmons and Peter Gallagher are as usual equally wonderful. The cinematography from Quyen Tran is beautiful. A wonderful surprise well worth watching.

The Old Guard

Movie Name: The Old Guard
Year of Release: 2020
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Starring: Charlize Theron, Kiki Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling, Van Veronica Ngo, Anamaria Marinca, Natacha Karam, Mette Towley, Joey Ansah
Genre: Action, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6 

Synopsis and Review:
Another month, another feature making its debut on Netflix. This one comes from director Gina Prince-Bythewood, who previously directed the well received drama, "Beyond the Lights", before more recently tackling some TV shows. The film is based on a graphic novel, and follows the story of a group of immortal beings, led by the charismatic Andy. This group tackles situations of high danger, trying in the process to make a difference in the world. Andy is the eldest of the group, who has 3 additional members, who in turn have become immortal in different time frames. As they follow a client's lead for a new assignment, they realize there was a sinister behind it, but as they start to uncover what has happened, they collectively realize a new member has joined their ranks, a young marine who has gained the power of immortality. As Andy goes to recruit her, the group suddenly sees themselves as a target of big Pharmaceutical organization, who has dark motives of their own towards them all.
"The Old Guard" is another graphic novel adaptation, however unlike Edgar Wright's "Scott Pilgrim vs the World", it lacks a stronger point of view in order to make it more distinguishable and ultimately, memorable. The film provides enough background and dimension to the lead characters, while not so much to the main antagonist, but lacks a stylistic approach to make it more distinguishable from so many other generic action films. David Leitch's "Atomic Blonde", also shepherded by Charlize Theron, managed to overcome the anonymity of action films, by infusing the narrative with a style that captured not only the scenario of Berlin in the late 80s, therefore successfully building a far more engaging context and backdrop for these characters to live in. "The Old Guard" aside from the well choreographed action scenes, is devoid of much of context building, lacking grittiness or anything that gives it an extra dimension to make it truly memorable. The cast ends up being the most interesting thing about the feature, with the always fantastic Charlize Theron creating a weary and resourceful leader, with ample support from the equally great Matthias Schoenaerts, the  fantastic Chiwetel Ejiofor, all rounded out by Kiki Layne, Marwan Kenzari and Lica Marinelli. It's an entertaining endeavor, but really needed a more distinctive and stylistic point of view at its helm. 

Sunday, July 5, 2020

King of the Hill

Movie Name: King of the Hill
Year of Release: 1993
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Jesse Bradford, Jeroen Krabbe, Lisa Eichhorn, Karen Allen, Spalding Gray, Elizabeth McGovern, Adrien Brody, Cameron Boyd, Joe Chrest, Amber Benson, Kristin Griffith, Chris Samples, Peggy Freisen, John Durbin, Lauryn Hill, Katherine Heigl, Ron Vawter
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9 

Synopsis and Review:
Following the stupendous "sex, lies and videotape" and the underrated "Kafka", director Steven Soderbergh tackled the memoir of writer A. E. Hotchner. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival of 1993, where it was met with great reviews, even if it did not win any awards. The film takes place in St. Louis, during the 1930s, at the peak of the Depressing, and  follows the story of young Aaron, who lives with his younger brother Sullivan, and his parents in a hotel. His mom is forced to go into a sanatorium due to Tuberculosis, while his younger brother is sent off to live with an uncle of theirs, since the family are in dire financial problems. His father, a traveling salesman, is off for long periods of time, leaving young Aaron by himself, having to rely on the friendship of a few, and trying to avoid eviction from the hotel as much as possible.
"King of the Hill" is one of Steven Soderbergh's most under the radar films, having come out in 1993, when he was still riding the high expectations of "sex, lies and videotape", which made him a central figure for the emerging Independent film movement of the 90s (and the Sundance Film Festival in particular). The film is a coming of age story, focused on the charismatic Aaron, and his trials and tribulations, attempting to live and survive, as life throws constant challenges at him. At 12, and by himself, Aaron is responsible for going to school, finding his own food, and making sure he still has a place to live, even if the family is in a precarious situation. Soderbergh could have easily made this into a grim and stark film, but instead the narrative is filled with joy, warmth and wonder. He doesn't shy away of showcasing the difficulties this child experiences, but also depicts Aaron's adventures, and his realizations of what life, relationships and ultimately adulthood imply. It's a testament to Soderbergh's capacity, married with his stylish perspective, that the film feels fresh, pertinent and consistently engrossing. The cast is uniformly fantastic, with Jesse Bradford, Jeroen Krabbe, Karen Allen, Adrien Brody all making lasting impressions. The cinematography from Elliot Davis is stunning, as is the score of the wonderfully talented Cliff Martinez (who has worked with Soderbergh since 1989's "sex, lies and videotape"). One of the best films of this director, always worth revisiting.

A Star is Born

Movie Name: A Star is Born
Year of Release: 1954
Director: George Cukor
Starring: Judy Garland, James Mason, Jack Carson, Charles Bickford, Tommy Noonan, Lucy Marlow, Amanda Blake, Irving Bacon
Genre: Drama, Musical
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
By the time "A Star is Born" premiered on October of 1954, director George Cukor had already had another film premiere earlier in the year, "It Should Happen to You", with Judy Holliday, whom he had directed to an Oscar win with "Born Yesterday". The director was a veteran, having started his career in the 30s, and "A Star is Born" though not the huge commercial success everyone expected it to be, turned out to be one of his most iconic films. The film is the second version of this story, credited to a variety of individuals, including Dorothy Parker and William Wellman. The film follows the story of Esther Blodgett, a singer who has made a steady career and who is now consistently working with a band. In one of her performances, she catches the attention of drunken movie star Norman Maine, who is captivated by her presence, charm and singing prowess. He tracks her down, and makes it a point of having the studio realize the enormity of her talent. Esther manages to become a contract player for the studio, who in the meantime changes her name to Vicki Lester, allowing for her star to start shining in lead roles. As Esther sees herself suddenly in the spotlight, Norman's career and in particular his behavior off-camera catches up with him. Nonetheless, they both fall in love and get married, with Esther's career going from win to win, whereas Norman's fades quickly, haunted by ghosts of alcoholism.
"A Star is Born" is a story that has thus far been adapted to the big screen 4 times, with the first showing up in 1937 (directed by William Wellman), followed by Cukor's version, Frank Pierson's version of 1976 and more recently, the award winning version from Bradley Cooper. George Cukor's is one of the most celebrated versions of this story, and justifiably so. It's a film that, even with the cuts imposed by the studio, tells a story of a tragic relationship, where the love and rapport between these two people, who are also artists, though dramatically terminated, serves as a testament to the sacrifices people do for their loved ones. It's also an iconic film featuring wonderful music acts, with interesting film within a film artifices, relying on the magnetism and versatility of Judy Garland, who is wonderful in this role (it would become one of her most celebrated roles, alongside Victor Fleming's "The Wizard of Oz" and Vincent Minnelli's "Meet Me in St. Louis"). The cuts imposed by the film have a way of removing some of its impact, the same thing going for the musical numbers that at times feel a bit interwoven within each other, but there's such beauty throughout this film, that it is easily understood its charisma. The supporting cast is equally strong, even if they don't have quite as much to work with. James Mason is wonderful as Norman, even if the character is never entirely flushed out, the same going for Jack Carson, Charles Bickford and Tommy Noonan. The cinematography from Sam Leavitt is beautiful as are the costumes from Jean Louis and Mary Ann Nyberg. A classic always worth revisiting.