Sunday, September 27, 2020

Prince of Darkness

Movie Name: Prince of Darkness
Year of Release: 1987
Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Donald Pleasance, Victor Wong, Lisa Blount, Jameson Parker, Dennis Dun, Susan Blanchard, Anne Marie Howard, Ken Wright, Dirk Blocker, Peter Jason, Thom Bray, Ann Yen, Jessie Lawrence Ferguson
Genre: Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
After the wonderful "Big Trouble in Little China" was met with little support from the studio, and the troubled production he had to endure, John Carpenter retreated to the Indie film arena, where he tackled firstly "Prince of Darkness", which he quickly followed with the corrosive "They Live". "Prince of Darkness", which John Carpenter also wrote under the guise of Martin Quatermass, follows the story of a Priest, who invites a Physicist Professor and some of his students, to join him in the basement of a monastery in order to investigate a mysterious cylinder that has been found, with a swirling green liquid. The liquid seems to be sentient, and embodies evil itself. It also latches to some of the members of the group who become possessed. All the while, a growing group of schizophrenic homeless people surround the building. As the group further theorizes about what is happening, they realize a more sinister entity is planning on making its way to this dimension, and it's up to them to prevent this from happening.
Though "Prince of Darkness" is considered a minor effort in director John Carpenter's career, it's still a film that is ripe with his trademarks, and one worth watching. The director once again, manages to assemble an interesting array of characters under a claustrophobic environment, coupled with this ominous presence and threat, which keeps escalating. Much like "The Thing" or even "Halloween", the closed of spaces, are not so much a salvation, but a breeding ground for danger. Though the film is unable to create an iconic or sufficiently impactful figure of darkness, it succeeds in creating an atmosphere of end of times, of general paranoia and fear. The director smartly never shows much of that menacing figure that is lurking, but also fails to truly define its intents. The cast is lead by the late Donald Pleasance, who embraces the character wholeheartedly, while Victor Wong and Dennis Dun return from "Big Trouble in Little China", and supply able support. Though not as esteemed as some of his other films, it's entertaining and worth watching, from a uniquely gifted director. 

The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!

Movie Name: The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!
Year of Release: 1988
Director: David Zucker
Starring: Leslie Nielsen, Priscilla Presley, Ricardo Montalban, George Kennedy, O.J. Simpson, Nancy Marchand, Raye Birk, Joe Grifasi, Ed Williams, Tony Brafa
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
The ZAZ creative team (David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker), continued their winning 80s streak, by dusting off the remnants of their hilarious and precociously cancelled 1982 show, "Police Squad", updating it to feature format, while maintaining its concept and even some of its cast (the lead Leslie Nielsen of course, and Ted, played by Ed Williams). The film follows the story of Detective Frank Drebin, a well meaning but clueless cop, who gets tangled in a sinister plot to kill the Queen of England, who will be visiting LA on her American tour. His investigations lead him to the offices of the charismatic and suave Vincent Ludwig, who has at his employment, the capable and beautiful Jane Spencer. As sparks fly between Frank and Jane, so does the stakes of the plot that is unfolding, something that Frank isn't entirely capable of stopping. It will take all of his efforts and the help of his cohort, Captain Ed Hocken, to stop the gears of the assassination about to take place. 
Something that the ZAZ creative group, alongside Pat Proft, have always been able to do, is mine the seriousness of diverse film genres, and expose some of the ridicule, the clich├ęs that always fuel these films. And that's what has always been so hilarious with "The Naked Gun" series: the creators simply amp up the volume of the silliness that walks hand in hand with the tropes of the noir/detective genre, allowing for double entendres, and some not so subdued jokes to come loudly across. Frank Drebin, the central hero to this series, who is already on his way to retirement, but still looks incredibly buff, his love for Jane, which is always filled with the ups and downs of a romantic comedy, and the constant presence of his sidekick, Ed Hocken, who even though can clearly see Frank's attempts and stumbles, can't help him succeed any further. This is the type of film that has been mimicked so many times, but never with the quality or vision that these creators have always put in to these films (or "Airplane!" for that matter). Their goal has never been to replicate the films that they satire, but more understand the tropes of the genres, and satirically expose them. Leslie Nielsen is always the perfect accomplice for this group, but he is nicely supported by George Kennedy, Ricardo Montalban, Priscilla Presley and Nancy Marchand. A good comedy always worth revisiting.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Serial Mom

Movie Name: Serial Mom
Year of Release: 1994
Director: John Waters
Starring: Kathleen Turner, Sam Waterston, Ricki Lake, Matthew Lillard, Mink Stole, Justin Whalin, Scott Morgan, Walt McPherson, Patricia Dunnock, Lonnie Horsey, Mary Jo Catlett, John Badila, Kathy Fannon, Doug Roberts, Traci Lords, Patricia Hearst, Bridig Berlin, Suzanne Sommers
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Following his well received "Hairspray" and "Cry-Baby", director John Waters continued to work with bigger budgets he had previously managed to gather, recruiting bigger names to his habitual troupe of actors. "Serial Mom" follows the story of Beverly Sutphin, a married suburban mom, living in Baltimore, who has an idyllic existence with a loving husband in tow, and two sweet grown up kids. Unbeknownst to her family however, Beverly is also a raging serial murderer who goes on killing sprees when things don't go her way. Beverly's murdering rampage however starts drawing a lot of attention, and the police starts investigating. Following a particularly and public gruesome murder, Beverly is sent to prison, and eventually has to answer for her actions in what turns out to be a packed trial.
John Waters has always been a unique voice in cinema, and sadly one that isn't as prolific anymore. "Serial Mom" is one of his best features, and a particularly great character and showcase for the comedic talents of Kathleen Turner. As usual on Waters's films, his film references, his campy aesthetic, his visual references to the 50s and 60s, underground cinema, all of those make their presence visible. He always manages to create an interesting hybrid of capturing reality with plenty of dosage of surreal, largely thanks to the always unique characters he populates his films with. Even if the characters are at times broad sketches or very thinly drawn out, they always leave a mark, as is in this particular case, Mink Stole's Dottie Hinkle. If his usual troupe of actors is always welcomed and hilarious, in this particular case Kathleen Turner really hits the mark across the board. Her character is a mix of Brady Bunch nicety, with a dash of Hannibal Lecter thrown in for good measure. All this infused with a lot of humor and gusto. She carries the film and truly makes it even funnier, particularly her scenes in the court. The supporting cast, led by the always wonderful Sam Waterston, is equally solid and very funny. A good comedy from a truly unique voice in cinema.  

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Movie Name: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Year of Release: 2003
Director: Stephen Norrington
Starring: Sean Connery, Shane West, Peta Wilson, Stuart Townsend, Tony Curran, Jason Flemyng, Richard Roxburgh, Naseeruddin Shah, Max Ryan, David Hemmings, Tom Goodman-Hill, Terry O'Neill
Genre: Action, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Director Stephen Norrington made a name for himself in the late 90s with the successful "Blade", which went on to spawn a franchise always shepherded by Wesley Snipes. His career didn't get much momentum and following the lackluster commercial and critical performance of "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen", he has not directed any additional features since. The film is an adaptation of the celebrated graphic novel with the same name, from author Alan Moore and illustrator Kevin O'Neill. The film, which takes place in an alternate reality in 1899, introduces us to the legendary Allan Quatermain, who is recruited to be a part of an ensemble of people with unique capabilities, to tackle a foe that seems unstoppable. Among his peers in the group are Mina Harker, a vampire, Dorian Gray, an immortal, Tom Sawyer, an able adventurer and shooter, Rodney Skinner, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and finally Captain Nemo. Allan is informed of his mission by M, and as the team goes about solving the imminent doom that is coming from their mysterious opponent. They go off to Venice where they manage to avoid a large catastrophe, largely thanks to some clever inventions, but that only exposes a larger conspiracy at hand. And within the group, not all are who they seem to be. 
With such an array of characters and corresponding mythology behind them to actually work with, it's disappointing that this film ultimately feels so overly generic and devoid of any actual identity. It's a film where the art direction and production design take center stage, and where very little character dimension is established, which is the more disappointing when taking into consideration the material this was adapted from, and the actual iconic characters this film is populated with. John Logan's "Penny Dreadful" for instance, managed to use some of the same characters to better effect (particularly his arc with Dorian Gray). Stephen Norrington doesn't capture much engagement between the characters, whereas the villainous choice for the narrative, lacks both trepidation and the ability to create a sense of pending doom. It's a film where there's a lot of noise, beautifully rendered, but with little charisma from the performers, including Sean Connery, in what turned out to be his last film before his retirement. The cinematography from Dan Laustsen is wonderful, as is the production design from the talented Carol Spier. A wasted opportunity. 

Saturday, September 12, 2020

All of Me

Movie Name: All of Me
Year of Release: 1984
Director: Carl Reiner
Starring: Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin, Victoria Tennant, Richard Libertini, Dana Elcar, Madolyn Smith Osborne, Jason Bernard, Selma Diamond, Gailard Sartain, Neva Patterson, Michael Ensign, Nan Martin
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6 

Synopsis and Review:
The career path and association of Carl Reiner and Steve Martin continued in the 80s, following "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" and "The Man with Two Brains". "All of Me", based on the novel by Edwin Davis and with a screenplay by Phil Alden Robinson (who went on to direct "Field of Dreams", "Sneakers" and "The Sum of All Fears"), focuses its story on Roger Cobb, a successful and ambitions attorney, who wants to make partner in the firm he works at, but secretly has always wanted to have a career in music. One of the cases he has to tackle involves a rich, self centered heiress, who has little time to live, and for some reason has arranged to have her soul transferred to the body of the daughter of her stableman. Things however don't go exactly according to plan, and as she passes on, her soul finds herself in Roger's body, both of whom constantly arguing and bickering at each other. As it turns out, the daughter of the stableman had some sinister plans of her own, and it will take all of Roger and Edwina's ingenuity to foil them.
"All of Me" is a film that lives from the superlative talents of its stars. Both Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin are great in the film, and Martin in particular, gets to showcase some very inspired moments of physical humor that are simply fantastic. As far as the story is concerned and the supporting cast themselves, they provide enough context and backdrop for these talented comedians to showcase their virtuosity. The banter between Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin is fantastic, something one can just listen to all day, and for that alone this film is worth watching. The film has the typical 80s look and feel (very much akin to some John Hughes's films, such as "Sixteen Candles" and even "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"), but aside from that somewhat generic touch, it's ingeniously entertaining (even if it lacks a bite, or even a Blake Edwards inspired subversion on genre reversal). Worth watching. 

A Mighty Wind

Movie Name: A Mighty Wind
Year of Release: 2003
Director: Christopher Guest
Starring: Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Fred Willard, John Michael Higgins, Harry Shearer, Michael Hitchcock, Bob Balaban, Scott Williamson, Don Lake, Larry Miller, Ed Begley Jr., Christopher Moynihan, Jim Piddock, Mina Kolb, Michael Mantell, Diane Baker, Paul Benedict, Paul Dooley, Rachael Harris, Mary Gross
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8 

Synopsis and Review:
Christopher Guest followed his successful "Best in Show" with another one of his mockumentary films, one of his best thus far. "A Mighty Wind" follows the events that unfurl, after the passing of folk music icon Irving Steinbloom. In his heyday, he was responsible for discovering and grooming a series of very successful folk acts. His son, decides to celebrate his life, by gathering some of these acts together for a celebratory performance. These acts include Mitch and Mikey, a duo once in love who went their separate ways, with Mitch now in a mental institution and Mikey married and with a suburban domestic life. Also included in the menagerie are The Folksmen, who from their challenging start, became a successful act, and who still very much get along, and finally The New Main Street Singers, whose outfits are as colorful as are their eclectic backgrounds in life, with an interesting story of how they got together themselves. All these groups and personalities agree to come back and be a part of the show, with all the challenges that come with handling such a diverse group of personalities.
Christopher Guest's insightful look this time around focuses on music, and specifically on folk music. The film perfectly captures the popularity of these acts in the late 60s, early 70s, a time well known for Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and an additional series of charismatic performers and artists. What's so remarkable about the film, is how it successfully and comically shows the seriousness and silliness that walk hand in hand even in the most candid and genuine music act. Mitch and Mikey, played to perfection by Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara, were former paramours and now their lives are so diametrically opposed, with Mitch completely out of sync with reality and Mikey living her domestic blissful life. Their interactions are hilarious, mostly because Mitch seems completely out of sync with everything and everyone. The other motley groups that Christopher Guest depicts (and plays in one of them of course), are just as equally fantastic, with Jane Lynch, Parker Posey and John Michael Higgins equally composing characters that are riotous, in both their candor and lack of self awareness. It's a film where everything just gels perfectly, from the depiction of the music of the 70s, to the current state of the performers lives (when they're on their downward slope, but still hanging on to the glimmer of stardom they once had), to the phenomenal cast once again reunited (and this time around singing an array of original songs). It's a hilarious and very entertaining feature from a consistently insightful/observational director.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

I'm Thinking of Ending Things

Movie Name: I'm Thinking of Ending Things
Year of Release: 2020
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette, David Thewlis, Guy Boyd, Abby Quinn, Hadley Robinson, Gus Birney, Colby Minifie, Jason Ralph, Anthony Robert Grasso, Teddy Coluca
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

Synopsis and Review:
Following the wonderful "Anomalisa", writer/director Charlie Kaufman returns, with his adaptation of the book by Iain Reid "I'm Thinking of Ending Things", which has been produced and distributed by Netflix. The film focuses on the story of a young woman who is about to embark on a road trip with her boyfriend Jake, in order to meet his parents. This roadtrip takes place during a severe snow storm, and while getting to their destination, she is contemplating the dissolution of the relationship. Upon arriving at Jake's parents farm, she starts noticing the odd behaviors of the parents. What ultimately ensues and develops is a journey through perceptions, relationships and the ambitions a character set for himself, that never came to fruition.
One of the most interesting and unique traits of Charlie Kaufman as a writer/auteur, has been his ability to capture the uniqueness of relationships, but doing so through distinguishable metaphors that are universally understandable. His narrative mechanisms, have always been uniquely attuned to capture how people's minds and hearts function, how his characters expectations are illustrated, and how reality at times comes crashing down all around them, and the impact that it has on their capabilities to cope with that reality and ultimately their ability to exist and move past whatever is thrown at them. "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" is another interesting journey through someone's perception of his own life, of relationships that were wished upon and never happened, and the pain that someone carries with them from ages ago. It's a film that is filled with wonderful moments, brimming with intelligence and a cinematic touch that is just beautiful (woven through the blizzard, those moments at the farm, the restaurant, the high school are just fantastic), at times bringing back some of the influence or touches from Michel Gondry (who directed "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" of course). However there are times in the narrative, where the script feels almost too self centered on itself, and on its author's interests, alienating the viewer - the cerebral aspect of it, makes it almost impossible to connect with, which is ultimately where this film is less successful than "Anomalisa" for instance. For all its intelligence, ability to depict the reflection and to look back on the character's past, it fails to generate warmth in that cold tundra, it fails to ably create the sense of humanity that has always existed in all of his features. Yes, all of his heroes have always ultimately pursued a connection, a longing for love and acceptance, but in this case, his hero feels undeveloped, and strangely stunted. It's a film that is filled with interesting ideas, but one that is easier to admire than to love. Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette and David Thewlis are all committed and wonderful, however their characters are reflections or projections, and never fully realized. It's an interesting journey from a unique voice in film, one worth embarking on. 

Saturday, September 5, 2020

For Your Consideration

Movie Name: For Your Consideration
Year of Release: 2006
Director: Christopher Guest
Starring: Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Fred Willard, John Michael Higgins, Michael Hitchcock, Bob Balaban, Scott Williamson, Don Lake, Larry Miller, Ed Begley Jr., Jim Piddock, Linda Kash, Carrie Aizley, Ricky Gervais, Christopher Moynihan, Craig Bierko, Mark Harelik, Casey Wilson, Deborah Theaker, Mary McCormack, Scott Adsit, Rachael Harris, Sandra Oh, Richard Kind
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7 

Synopsis and Review:
Following the well received "A Mighty Wind", Christopher Guest gathered his troupe once again, to tackle a mockumentary this time around focused on film making. The film specifically focuses on a group of unknown actors, who are currently making a low budget period drama under the title of "Home for Purim". The film tracks Marilyn Hack, who is an actress playing the matriarch on the film, as well as Victor Allen Miller, another fellow thespian, who plays the patriarch but also does a lot of commercial work, Callie Webb, playing the daughter, Brian Chubb, who plays the son, Jay Berman, the director of the feature, and a vast array of other characters, including agents, producers, TV hosts, all of whom are either directly involved in the feature or in its periphery. The enthusiasm revolving around the film gathers momentum once an anonymous post on the Internet suggests that one performance is Oscar-worthy (initially, Marilyn's). Following that initial buzz, two additional cast members are also highlighted, which in turn prompts attention from "Variety" and appearances on TV. With all this sudden attention, the studio executives insist on changes in the script in anticipation of a blockbuster. As the film makes its debut, and the reviews start pouring in, everyone is anticipating for the Academy Award nominations, which upon release, leave everyone in its trail in a mix of disappointment and surprise.
Following the well received and reviewed "A Mighty Wind", "For Your Consideration" is another finely pointed satire from Christopher Guest focused this time on the Film industry, particularly on the flurry of events that occur when buzz surrounding someone or a particular film starts building up, towards the Academy Awards, and what that implies for everyone in that sphere. It's a satire that pokes fun not only at the actors, but the entire array of professionals in the field, including directors, producers, publicists, agents, shows that live from the release of films (and gossip of course), allowing for all these characters to expose a bit of the silliness that underlies it all. Much like the best of Christopher Guest's films, this mockumentary exposes the silliness of the industry, but does so with a heart and with love for the characters. It also demonstrates the superficiality and transient aspect of this attention, which comes and goes as the spotlight constantly changes. In this particular case, "For Your Consideration" is a fantastic showcase for the versatility and talent of the fantastic Catherine O'Hara, who starts the film as a struggling actress, and come the end, finds herself in a challenging situation once again, but quite transformed. The overall cast is phenomenal as usual, with Parker Posey and Fred Willard, providing strong (and hilarious) support. Another entertaining feature worth watching from a great satirist. 

Waiting for Guffman

Movie Name: Waiting for Guffman
Year of Release: 1996
Director: Christopher Guest
Starring: Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, Lewis Arquette, Jennifer Coolidge, Fred Willard, David Cross, Michael Hitchcock, Bob Balaban, Don Lake, Larry Miller, Deborah Theaker, Linda Kash, Paul Dooley, Matt Keeslar, Brian Doyle-Murray, Paul Benedict, Scott Williamson
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7 

Synopsis and Review:
Following his feature directorial debut with the remake of "Attack of the 50ft Woman", which in the US premiered as a TV movie but outside of it, actually premiered in the theaters, actor/writer/director Christopher Guest tackled the first of what would become a trademark for his, the comedy mockumentary "Waiting for Guffman". Working in tandem with his troupe of actors and co-writer Eugene Levy, "Waiting for Guffman" focuses on the story of Corkt St. Clair, a theater director currently living in the town of Blaine, Missouri, after a stint living in New York where he essentially was a fledgeling actor. His prior Theater experience, has allowed him to flourish as a Writer/Actor/Director in his local theater productions. As the city is preparing to celebrate its 150th Anniversary, he decides to embark in his most ambitious production yet, a musical chronicling the town's history titled "Red, White and Blaine", for which he casts a diverse cast of local amateur thespians. He also communicates to the cast, that having submitted the premise/book of the show to a series of NY contacts/Institutions, one Broadway producer by the name of Mort Guffman, will attend the premiere, and pending on the quality of the show itself, decide to take it to Broadway or not. This further energizes everyone to participate, though the show meets its fair share of challenges.
"Waiting for Guffman" is the film authored by Christopher Guest which established not only his style, but also the group of actors who have since then, been constant companions on his directorial endeavors. The film devotes attention to all the central amateur actors who are part of the production, but focuses on Corky's constant attempts at building this show as something that will make him a standout for a possible Broadway run (his chance to be "discovered"). It's a satyrical, and endearing look at the dreams of a group of people from a small town, who long to extend their wings and get some recognition, even if it is in a local theater production. The film is peppered with humorous situations, from Eugene Levy's dentist, to Fred Willard & Catherine O'Hara's married couple who are travel agents, though they have not traveled outside of Blaine. The cast is uniformly excellent, with Christopher Guest's Corky stealing the show, thanks to his mannerisms, ambition and haircut. Though his next films would allow him to finesse the style and range of the universe he so finely constructs, "Waiting for Guffman" is a hilarious and entertaining film worth watching.