Thursday, December 31, 2020

Let Them All Talk

Movie Name:
Let Them All Talk
Year of Release: 2020
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, Dianne Wiest, Lucas Hedges, Gemma Chan, Dan Algrant, David Siegel, John Douglas Thompson
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
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Synopsis and Review:
The prolific and always fantastic Steven Soderbergh is back, following the two films he released in 2019, "The Laundromat" and "High Flying Bird". His most recent endeavor follows the story of Alice, a famous Pulitzer Prize winning author who has just recently received a literary award in England. Her new agent suggests she takes a cross Atlantic cruise, since it will be safer, and it will give her also an opportunity to finalize the new manuscript she has at hands. The agent, Karen, secretly hopes this new book is a sequel to a best seller Alice had. Alice decides to invite her nephew Tyler to join her on the trip, alongside her two best friends from college, Roberta and Susan, with whom she has lost touch. Roberta in particular harbors some resentment towards Alice, since she feels she appropriated stories and personal information from her life in order to bring to life the best seller which boosted Alice's career. During the cruise, Karen strikes a friendship with Tyler, sparking an amorous interest from him, in order to get information on the progress of Alice's new book. While that is happening, Susan and Roberta are meeting different people, with Roberta in particular trying to get out of the situation her life has become. As they arrive in England, Roberta and Alice have a particularly heated exchange, something which forces Alice to rethink her next endeavor.
"Let Them All Talk" showcases one of the interesting sides of Steven Soderbergh's career, which is all about allowing characters to flourish and simply exist in the moment. Whereas he has touched upon satires (such as "The Laundromat" and "The Informant"), dramas ("King of the Hill", "Erin Brockovich" and even "Traffic"), action (with "Haywire" and even "Logan Lucky"), science fiction (with the underrated "Solaris"), there's always an interesting aspect to his smaller films, the ones where there's an improvisational stance to it, much like "Full Frontal" or "The Girlfriend Experience". These smaller films allow for the actors to focus the attention of what's taking place, which in this case, is all about Alice's journey, both as a person with her foibles, but also about Alice the author, the person receiving an award. On one hand, we witness Alice coming to terms with her past, the friends she left behind and the family who has stood by her, while on the other, we witness the author struggling with relevance, expectations, and moving forward. Woody Allen touched upon a similar topic with "Deconstructing Harry", which is actually one of his most interesting films from the 90s, but Soderbergh removes all artifice and instead, provides a clear look at the life of a well known intellectual, who is ultimately trying to stay relevant, and survive in a world she fears has left her behind. It's a film which allows for great performances from all the cast, with Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, Dianne Wiest, Lucas Hedges, Gemma Chan, Dan Algrant, all creating vivid characterizations. If anything, the film falters in providing more dimension to the story of some characters, but it's nonetheless an engaging and entertaining film from a truly unique voice in American cinema. Worth watching.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Arctic

Movie Name:
Arctic
Year of Release: 2018
Director: Joe Penna
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Maria Thelma Smaradottir, Tintrinai Thikhasuk
Genre: Drama, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
"Arctic" is director Joe Penna's feature directorial debut, following a series of short features and some work on TV series. The film follows the story of Overgard, a man who finds himself stranded in the Arctic Circle by himself, following the crash of his plane. He lives in the shell of the crashed vehicle, and adopts a routine of checking for fish and running a distress beacon, in the hopes someone hears it and sends a rescue party. That daily routine proves itself successful when a helicopter comes to his rescue, only to crash, killing the pilot, but leaving its other occupant badly hurt. The woman doesn't speak English, and as her condition worsens, Overgard decides to take on the elements and try to reach a seasonal refuge that according to his calculations, shouldn't be more than a few days of trekking away. As he takes on the challenge, bringing with him his fragile partner, they both face unexpected challenges, which will force Overgard to use all his resourcefulness in order to make sure they both survive.
"Arctic" has a rather straightforward premise: a man alone, surrounded by some of the harshest weather conditions, whose daily surviving routine is thrown into disarray, when his apparent savior, turns out needing to be saved. It's a film that is somewhat enigmatic about Overgard's life, focusing primarily in registering his daily processes to stay alive, and his resourcefulness when faced with life threatening situations. This journal type of observation is one of the strongest aspects of the film, even if it doesn't provide much context into the character itself. The film doesn't try to add substance to the central character, and in a way, it feels like a B-movie exercise, in the sense that it focuses itself on situations, and not so much in the character which inhabits it. That being said, the film is effective in drawing this scenario, and benefits from a great performance from the always reliable Mads Mikkelsen. The cinematography from Tomas Orn Tomasson is equally strong, making this film an entertaining endeavor worth watching.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Music with an Impact - 2020


2020 has been a traumatic year. It has also been a rewarding year in terms of the amount of fantastic music which has been released. My listing below is from the albums released in 2020. After these first 10, I listed a smaller batch of albums from different years, which I also loved and have listened for the first time in this past year, and are equally remarkable.
Below are my favorites of 2020.

Julianna Barwick - Healing is a Miracle
Rival Consoles - Articulation
Baths - Pop Music/False B Sides II
Four Tet - Parallel
Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher
Roisin Murphy - Roisin Machine
Pantha Du Prince - Conference of Trees
Perfume Genius - Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Jessie Ware - What's Your Pleasure
Caribou - Suddenly
Photay - Onism
Pantha Du Prince - Diamond Daze

More favorites from different years.

Jonsi & Alex Somers - Lost & Found
The Field - Looping State of Mind
Pvris - Use Me
Blanck Mass - Dumb Flesh
Four Tet - Beautiful Rewind
Chloe - Endless Revisions
Bibio - Phantom Brickworks
Grimes - Miss Anthropocene
Nine Inch Nails - Ghosts V: Together
Inventions - Inventions

The Midnight Sky

Movie Name:
The Midnight Sky
Year of Release: 2020
Director: George Clooney
Starring: George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Kyle Chandler, Demian Bechir, Caoilinn Springall, Tiffany Boone, Ethan Peck, Sophie Rundle, Miriam Shor
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
View Trailer

Synopsis and Review:
Actor, writer, producer and director, George Clooney is back, following his latest directorial endeavors with "Suburbicon" and the mini-series "Catch-22". "The Midnight Sky" is an adaptation of the book by Lily-Brooks Dalton, "Good Morning, Midnight", and follows the story of Augustine Lofthouse, a scientist whom we first encounter in an Arctic research facility that is about to be evacuated, due to a dramatic occurrence which is taking place throughout the entire planet. We soon realize Augustine is a terminal patient, and has decided to stay behind, since he has no one to go back to. In his youth he briefly had a relationship with a woman, who had a child, but that relationship never flourished, including his relationship with that child. As he keeps vigilance over the unfolding of the events destroying the planet, he witnesses a child that has been left behind, who is constantly mute, but nonetheless continues to keep him company. In parallel, a crew of astronauts who went into space to check on the conditions of another planet to be inhabitable, are returning to Earth. Augustine is adamant in contacting them, in order to inform them of the toxicity of the planet, which sends him on a quest to discover another communications hub. He, much like the team in space, meet a series of hurdles, but eventually manage to communicate and exchange information, forcing everyone to make decisions of where they eventually want to go and what life lies ahead.
"The Midnight Sky" is an interesting film with lofty goals, some of which are achieved and are indeed cleverly illustrated, but ultimately feels under-developed, since it essentially tries to be many things at the same time. The film brings to mind and captures inspiration from Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity", Danny Boyle's "Sunshine", mixed with Joe Penna's more recent "Arctic", to name but a few, in the sense that it captures two narrative threads, one with Clooney's character on a personal journey of redemption, and another with a team of astronauts trying to come home. These parallel paths however interesting they may be, are never given enough momentum to become arresting, with the most interesting one, Augustine's journey, feeling like it could be it's own film, particularly as the relationship with the young girl, we eventually realize may not be all that it seems. These two threads and stories could eventually merge, but the film would need to provide both more time, or be far more deft in its exposition, to at least provide enough time for these characters to have some dimension, and for their journeys to resonate a bit further. The supporting cast features great actors such as David Oyelowo, Felicity Jones and Demian Bechir, all of whom strangely enough, exude very little chemistry between each other. The cinematography from Martin Ruhe is beautiful as is the score of the wonderful Alexandre Desplat. It's a slightly contrived, yet finely executed film from a gifted actor/director, who has yet to find more material in tune with his sensibilities, as is the case of the excellent "Good Night, and Good Luck". 

Wonder Woman 1984

Movie Name:
Wonder Woman 1984
Year of Release: 2020
Director: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Lilly Aspel, Amr Waked, Lucian Perez, Gabriella Wilde, Oliver Cotton, Natasha Rothwell, Kristopher Polaha, Ravi Patel, Kelvin Yu
Genre: Action, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
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Synopsis and Review:
Following the immense success of the first "Wonder Woman", director Patty Jenkins and her team started working on its follow up. The character of course made another appearance in the lackluster "Justice League", also released in 2017. This sequel has a slightly different creative team behind the script, and the overall tone and final product of the film is noticeably different. The film follows the events which helped shaped Wonder Woman/Diana Prince's assimilation into the contemporary world, but nearly 70 years have gone by since the events from the first feature. This new chapter takes place in 1984, and finds Diana residing in Washington DC where she works as a senior Anthropologist for the Smithsonian Institute. While there she meets the slightly awkward but quite accomplished Barbara Minerva, with whom she forms a quick friendship. They both bond over the uncovering of a slew of stolen artifacts, particular one, which they find out to be a "Dreamstone", which according to its inscription, makes any wishes a person has, a reality. Both Diana and Barbara unknowingly use the stone, with Diana getting a chance to once again see and interact with Steve Trevor (who takes over another man's body), while Barbara gains the same powers and abilities as Diana. Another key player comes into play in the shape of Max Lord, a businessman whose venture is going down the drain, who comes to the Smithsonian under the guise of being a benefactor, but in actuality wants to use that same stone to accomplish his sinister purposes. As Max gets his wish, reality starts cracking, the same going for Barbara who becomes quite different, whereas Diana struggles to remain herself, as the wishes have a darker side none of them could have envisioned.
Whereas the previous "Wonder Woman" fell under the mantle of a certain aesthetic and tone which was being influenced at the time by the heavy hand of Zack Snyder, it's definitely a relief to see that's not the case anymore in this film. While the previous film provided a somewhat brief character development and context building section (at least for its lead characters), until it eventually became a cacophony of digital effects for its action set pieces, this film goes in a slightly different direction. While we get to learn a bit more about the characters which populate this universe, in particular some of Diana's ethical pathos, the action set pieces are almost set aside, or for that matter, have very little relevance for the progression of the storyline. The film equally lacks a more established definition of its villainous characters, particularly Barbara, whose path goes from adorable awkward academic professional, to master unscrupulous villainess in seemingly no time at all (and for no reason, aside from the fact that she likes the powers she has). This lack of dimension to its villains is an issue which seems to haunt most of the DC film adaptations of late, with most of them being digital constructs without much dimension, motivation or even consequence (and that includes Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor in the mediocre "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice"). As it is, this film tries to be a lot of things, and fails to find its footing, not being a romantic comedy, not quite being an action film, and not quite being a relationship driven film. It has some really great supporting actors, in particular the trifecta of Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal and Chris Pine, however most of the times they feel a bit underused. It's not a terrible film, but sadly it's not a great one either. 

Saturday, December 26, 2020

The Prom

Movie Name:
The Prom
Year of Release: 2020
Director: Ryan Murphy
Starring: Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Kerry Washington, Keegan-Michael Key, Andrew Rannells, Ariana DeBose, Jo Ellen Pellman, Tracey Ullman, Kevin Chamberlin, Mary Kay Place, Sofia Deler, Logan Riley, Nico Greetham, Nathaniel J. Potvin
Genre: Musical, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 1
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Synopsis and Review:
The ever prolific writer/producer/director Ryan Murphy is back, with his most recent feature since "The Normal Heart", which premiered in 2014. This time around, the film is an adaptation of a Broadway musical, and follows the story of a group of Theater actors, who after an abysmal critical reception of their latest endeavor, have a fantastical idea to sponsor/endorse an event or cause in need.  They can of course bask in the publicity this event will have,  which will further humanize and bring them the attention they urgently need to restore their flailing reputations. They decide to tackle a controversial Prom which will be taking place in Indiana, where a female student wants to have another female student as her date. The PTA and its local leader are fiercely against this, not actually realizing her daughter is the person whom Emma wants to bring as her date to the prom. As the Broadway royalty descends on Edgewater, they collectively and individually come to terms with a series of unresolved issues in their own lives, and realize that while pursuing only their best interests, their salvation lies in being a bit more selfless and invested in the well being of others.
"The Prom" manages to gather a very talented cast, with luminaries such as Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Kerry Washington, Tracey Ullman and Mary Kay Place, all of whom bring to life characters that are very thinly developed. The film for all its good intentions, and for all the talent involved, can't escape this feeling of a made for TV special, one filled with contrived plot points, epiphanies that are doled out left and right, ultimately lacking a more distinct point of view. What has always been interesting about films such as Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge" or Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz", to name but a few and independently of their overall quality, is the fact that those particular directors have a point of view, which truly make the musical numbers feel otherworldly, using the songs and musical numbers not only to express a character's point of view, but also to showcase an entirely different universe, which is a demonstration of their stylistic and thematic perspectives. "The Prom" sadly never truly leaves the dour reality, doesn't nurture the whimsical, and even the music itself, sounds artificial and generic. Making every character wear rhinestones doesn't make the events transformative or magical: in this particular case it makes everything look cheap and ultimately forgettable. Meryl Streep mines as much as she can for the fading star of Broadway she portrays, but she relished that character far more in Robert Zemeckis's "Death Becomes Her". For all the amorality of all the characters in that film, they still managed to have fun and be indelible. That sadly can't be found here. A missed opportunity. 

Mank

Movie Name:
Mank
Year of Release: 2020
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Tuppence Middleton, Arliss Howard, Tom Pelphrey, Monika Gossmann, Joseph Cross, Sam Troughton, Toby Leonard Moore, Tom Burke, Charles Dance, Ferdinand Kingsley, Jamie McShane
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
View Trailer

Synopsis and Review:
A new film by David Fincher is always a momentous occasion, and this is his most recent feature since "Gone Girl", which came out in 2014. The film follows the true story of Herman J. Mankiewicz, a screenwriter in Hollywood, who crafted a long standing reputation as an impeccable writer, but also as someone with an acerbic wit, and an alcoholic. We witness his life in the late 30s, as he embarks on a new project, writing a screenplay for what will hopefully be a project directed by Orson Welles (which of course turns out to be "Citizen Kane"). The script he writes, is based on what he witnessed for years while fraternizing with William Randolph Hearst, his lover actress Marion Davies, and the general game of influences that permeated across Hollywood. The narrative also allows us to see the ideals which propelled Mankiewicz, as well as bit of his personal life, and his relationship with his wife Sara. 
Whenever one watches a film directed by David Fincher, one comes to expect a layer of professionalism and technical wizardry that is unparalleled, and "Mank" is no exception. The production design, cinematography, score, costume design, are flawless and immediately set this film apart. However, where this film ends up failing to register as much as his previous endeavors, lies on the fact that in producing and narrating a story about a writer who self sabotages his endeavors, and who wallows in alcoholism, feels a bit like stories that have been tackled in the past. For all the alienation and examination of the rotten underbelly of Hollywood, the character itself wallows and lives from it. In a way, this film reminded me of Billy Wilder's phenomenal "Sunset Boulevard", without having characters half as engaging and interesting. Considering a substantial part of the film is focused on Mank's process of writing the script, for what eventually became "Citizen Kane", it's never clearly understandable why he chose to write about the topic or characters themselves, or for that matter, what the relationship with Welles eventually turned out to be. It's a script that also never really gives much of an understanding for Mank's relationships with family members (brother, wife, children), or even colleagues. In a way, Mank comes across mostly as an observational passenger of the narrative taking place, and not an active participant in it. Still the director manages to capture the energy of film making and that entire Hollywood ecosystem of the 30s, and the supporting cast, in particular Amanda Seyfried, is truly fantastic as Marion Davies, the same going for the smaller parts given to Ferdinand Kingsley, Charles Dance and Lily Collins. Gary Oldman clearly relishes the central part, but the role and the performance comes across as a single note interpretation of the "spiraling out of control alcoholic writer", with just a few scenes in between where he provides hints of something more, a humane side which for the most part is lacking. It's an interesting film, but it also may be Fincher's least insightful one so far. 

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Sweet Dreams

Movie Name:
Sweet Dreams
Year of Release: 1985
Director: Karel Reisz
Starring: Jessica Lange, Ed Harris, Ann Wedgeworth, David Clennon, James Staley, Gary Basaraba, John Goodman, P.J. Soles, Terri Gardner
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3 
View Trailer

Synopsis and Review:
Director Karel started his career in the 50s tackling documentaries, and as he ventured into the following decade, he was responsible for some iconic films of that period, including "Morgan!" and "Isadora". In the 80s he was not quite as prolific, starting the decade with the well received "The French Lieutenant's Woman", which he followed with this biopic of the life of country singer Patsy Cline. The film focuses on the period of life between 1956 and 1963. We witness Patsy performing and attempting to make her career go to the next level. Her husband isn't that enthusiastic about her or her career, but in one of her concerts, she meets the charismatic Charlie Dick. He openly flirts with her, though he's with someone else, and while she initially rebuffs his advances, after separating and eventually divorcing her first husband, she starts dating him, eventually marrying him. As her career gains more momentum, the antics from Charlie also escalate, including extra marital affairs, and some abuse, something that seems to quiet down when Patsy has their children. However that tranquility is brief, as alcohol and insecurities send Charlie on another binge of violence and extra marital adventures, all of which jeopardize Patsy's well being, her career and their marriage altogether. As Patsy continues her ascent to even higher levels of popularity, that trajectory is dramatically cut short, since while returning home from an event/performance, the small plane in which she was traveling crashes, killing everyone in it.
"Sweet Dreams" is a glimpse into the life of Patsy Cline, emphasizing some of the dramatic events that occurred throughout the last few years she lived, particularly the ones centered around the convoluted life she shared with her second husband. It's a film that doesn't provide much insight into Patsy's ambitions, aside from having a career and providing comfort for her children, never truly probing deep into what propelled her or fueled her singing aspirations. Considering it's a biopic, it's surprisingly shallow, detailing some of the drama she experienced in her brief life, namely the life threatening car accident, and her volatile relationship with the insecure Charlie, which included abuse, alcohol and his inability to grow up and take control of his life. It's a film that doesn't provide much insight into any of the characters, opting to portray the events in very broad strokes (basically dramatic events with musical recording scenes in between). The musical numbers also lack engagement and authenticity, they're merely staged for representation, lacking in style and ultimately, failing to capture what truly made Patsy Cline so unique and wonderful (while not every film is going to be like Bradley Cooper's "A Star is Born", one can witness the vivacity with which the musical numbers were staged in Rupert Goold's "Judy" for instance or even Michael Apted's "Coal Miner's Daughter"). The cast does what they can with the story, with Jessica Lange trying to mimic Patsy Cline as much as possible, and Ed Harris failing to add much nuance to Charlie Dick. While featuring a strong cast, it's a film that fails to elicit much enthusiasm. 

Wildlife

Movie Name:
Wildlife
Year of Release: 2018
Director: Paul Dano
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould, Jake Gyllenhaal, Bill Camp, Zoe Margaret Colletti, Darryl Cox, Travis W Bruyer
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Paul Dano, the great actor who has carved an eclectic career for himself with participations in films of different scales (including Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood", Denis Villeneuve's "Prisoners" and James Mangold's "Knight and Day" to name but a few), has managed to create an arresting and accomplished feature with his directorial debut. Adapting a book from author Richard Ford (with his writing partner, actress/writer Zoe Kazan), the feature takes place in 1960, and follows the story of Joe, a young boy of 14 who is currently living with his parents in Montana. He has moved around a lot, due to his father's pursuits of different job opportunities across the country. His father Jerry works as a golf pro in a local country club, until he is suddenly fired, something that causes some tensions in the household. His mom Jean, in order to make ends meet, decides to take a part-time job as a swimming instructor at the YMCA, whereas Jerry becomes increasingly depressed. Wanting to escape the sense of failure, Jerry decides to take a job as a firefighter, even if it pays poorly, and very much something that both Joe and Jean voice their discontent about. As Jerry leaves, Jean's longing for a better life and other options for herself grow louder, something that is further put to a test when she meets Warren Miller, a recently separated man. Warren's attention and stability, force Jean to examine her own life and where she wants to be moving forward, something that has an impact on the family dynamics.
There's a quiet assuredness to "Wildlife" that is the more surprising considering that this is Paul Dano's debut feature. The film manages to capture its central characters progressively, drawing the family interactions firstly in very broad strokes, and as the film progresses, revealing the different layers which define the life of that household. In particular, the film manages to expose the longing and quiet despair Jean experiences, in living a life that is not fully realized according to her expectations. As Jerry leaves, Jean's needs become all the more apparent, and as she seeks paths for her personal fulfillment, she eventually realizes that the change needs to be more radical and may cost more than she anticipated. It's a film that allow for the characters to slowly understand the evolution of their own selves, and the paths that they will eventually trail. In particular, it allows for Carey Mulligan to have a richly layered performance, one that marries a sense of hope, with disappointment, longing and fear, not only for herself, but also for her child. It's a truly beautiful performance, though the remainder of the cast is equally fantastic, with Jake Gyllenhaal, Bill Camp and Ed Oxenbould all creating indelible characters. The cinematography from Diego Garcia is beautiful as is the score from David Lang. A wonderful debut in storytelling from a very talented performer. 

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Hillbilly Elegy

Movie Name:
Hillbilly Elegy
Year of Release: 2020
Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Owen Asztalos, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, Bo Hopkins, Jesse C. Boyd, Stephen Kunken, Keong Sim
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
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Synopsis and Review:
Director Ron Howard is back, following his underrated Star Wars endeavor, "Solo: A Star Wars Story". This time around he's tackling the adaptation of a memoir by J.D. Vance, with a script by Vanessa Taylor (who also co-wrote Guillermo Del Toro's "The Shape of Water"). The film follows the story of J.D. currently a young law student at Yale, aiming to start an internship at a reputable Law Firm. The film flashbacks to his growing up experiences with a turbulent family life which took place in Ohio. A lot of that distress came from his mom, always having issues with substance abuse, which had its impact on her personal relationships, and eventually on her ability to maintain a steady career and income. Her issues with drugs also had consequences in J.D.'s behavior in high school, prompting him to eventually move in with his grandmother, while his older sister got married early on, so she could move out and continue her life elsewhere. As J.D. is about to interview and take the next step in his academic and professional career, his sister calls, informing him that his mother suffered yet another overdose, and he needs to come back and provide some assistance. J.D. informs his caring girlfriend Usha of his challenges, and decides to go back and try to solve whatever he can, without compromising his future.
"Hillbilly Elegy" strangely enough made me think of Debra Granik's work, in particular her feature "Winter's Bone". "Winter's Bone" manages to depict the way a remote population with its idiosyncrasies lives, without relying on artifice, cliches or overacting for that matter. The biggest issue with "Hillbilly Elegy" isn't the fact that the film is poorly conceived or executed, since Ron Howard is in fact a polished craftsman and a director who has managed to create some riveting features. The issue here stems from the fact that everything has been dialed up excessively, without nuance, nor subtlety, nor moments of humor. Every moment captured plays out like a micro dramatic instance of some big importance, and the narrative woven together feels like a series of cliches or clips from a series of Lifetime films sewn together. This excess can at times work, when the tone the director instills is aiming for that, and everything is being played out loud, however in "Hillbilly Elegy" while everything is dialed up excessively, the film is selling itself as a dramatic rendition of a life worth witnessing. While trying to be inspirational, the film fails to humanize its central characters, in particular Amy Adams's Beverly and Glenn Close's Bonnie. Two wonderfully gifted performers, who transform themselves, but can't salvage a film that fails to give them some dimension. For all its impeccable production values and team, it's a film that can't find its tone and is ultimately a waste of talent. 

I'm Your Woman

Movie Name:
I'm Your Woman
Year of Release: 2020
Director: Julia Hart
Starring: Rachel Brosnahan, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Arinze Kene, Frankie Faison, Bill Heck, Marceline Hugot, James McMenamin, Jarrod DiGiorgi
Genre: Drama, Crime
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Julia Hart made a splash with her debut feature, the well received "Miss Stevens", which premiered in 2016 and featured a great performance from Lily Rabe. Since then she's kept herself busy, and this is in fact the second of her features to debut in 2020. The film takes place in the 70s and follows the story of Jean, whom at the beginning of the narrative, we find living in a nice house (in some non identified suburbs), and whose husband Eddie seems to be absent quite frequently. One day he shows up with a baby, claiming that's their new child, and for Jean to take care of him. As she resumes her life, now taking care of a child, the situation once again changes, when one of Eddie's associates shows up at their door, claiming Jean has to leave immediately with the baby, taking with her a bag of money and that's it. She's helped by another one of Eddie's associates, Cal, who takes her to another house. Jean uncovers bits and pieces of information, and discovers Eddie was a killer, and has gotten in trouble. As the people trying to find Eddie also come after Jean, she and the baby, with the assistance of Cal have to flee once more. 
"I'm Your Woman" is an interesting feature, one that manages to hold the attention of the viewer, due to the fact that it provides information and context to what is taking place very progressively, much like the central character learns and uncovers what is taking place. This progressive disclosure turns out to the most interesting component of the film, since the narrative is built like an onion, with multiple layers, or at least with a couple of layers. However once the layers are uncovered, the film doesn't have much in terms of an arc, since most of the characters that have been depicted are mostly sketches or have been rapidly drawn and abandoned (such as Eddie or his associates). Jean, the central character who's suppose to ground the narrative, all that we eventually know of her, ties with her anguish and challenges in becoming a mother, and though that humanizes her and gives her some dimension, it's simply not enough to give depth or nuance to someone who is suddenly thrown into a perilous situation. She's such a blank canvas at times, that even though the film is supposedly taking place in this crime ridden milieu, it fails to register as menacing or for that matter urgent. The cast manages to bring these characters to life, with Arinze Kene registering the best in a supporting role that avoids cliches. While not being a bad film, it's ultimately forgettable. 

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Dawn of the Dead

Movie Name:
Dawn of the Dead
Year of Release: 2004
Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Michael Kelly, Ty Burrell, Mekhi Phifer, Kevin Zegers, Michael Barry, Lindy Booth, Jayne Eastwood, Boyd Banks, Matt Frewer, Kim Poirier, R.D. Reid, Inna Korobkina
Genre: Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
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Synopsis and Review:
Director Zack Snyder made a name for himself in the 90s as a commercials and music video director. His feature film debut, "Dawn of the Dead", which made its debut in March of 2004, is in fact a remake of the film with the same title from writer/director George A. Romero, which originally came out in 1978 (in the US it premiered in 1979). This adaptation hailing from writer/director James Gunn (who more recently wrote and directed "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2"), follows the story of a group of characters who find themselves sequestered in a mall, when there's a worldwide zombie outbreak. The group is initially comprised of Ana, a nurse who narrowly escaped her husband who tried to attack her, after being bitten by a zombie neighbor, Kenneth, a police officer who is hoping to reconnect with his brother in a fort that he thinks is invulnerable to the hordes of zombies. They are joined by Michael, a sensible salesman, Andre and his pregnant fiancee Luda. Upon hiding in the mall, the group has to contend with the security mall professionals, all of whom are not very happy to see the addition to their safe haven. As the group figures out a way to co-exist, they are soon joined by a few more individuals, who are also looking for an escape from the hordes. As the group expands, so do the zombies surrounding the mall, intent on attacking. The group decides to strategize, and escape in a few buses in the direction of the marina, specifically for a boat owned by one of the group members. But until they get there, they have to overcome a city overrun with zombies.
The original "Dawn of the Dead" was met with good reviews, since it managed to marry the gruesome aspect of a zombie apocalypse with social commentary on material society, specifically by placing the characters inside a mall. While this adaptation loses some of that perspective, or for that matter loses nuance on social and racial dynamics, it still manages to give just enough dimension to the characters, for the narrative to still retain its interest and make the film more than just a gratuitous and bloody venture into the zombie genre. The director does infuse the film with some stylistic approaches that are quite interesting, balancing the visual style with enough character development within the elements of the group, rendering them as more than typical (and underdeveloped) clich├ęs. The cast is led by the always fantastic Sarah Polley, with great support from Ving Rhames, Jake Weber and Michael Kelly. The camera work and cinematography from Matthew F. Leonetti and his team is excellent. While not as incisive as George Romero's original, it's still an entertaining film worth watching. 

Dressed to Kill

Movie Name:
Dressed to Kill
Year of Release: 1980
Director: Brian De Palma
Starring: Michael Caine, Nancy Allen, Keith Gordon, Angie Dickinson, Dennis Franz, David Margulies, Susanna Clemm, Ken Baker, Norman Evans
Genre: Thriller, Mystery, Crime
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
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Synopsis and Review:
After a prolific directorial output in the 70s (9 films released between 1970 and 79), director Brian De Palma started the 80s with "Dressed to Kill", one of his own scripts, which turned out to be well received at the box office and with the critics. The narrative introduces us to the character of Kate Miller, a beautiful housewife now in her second marriage, following the death of her first husband in the war. We accompany Kate as she goes about her day, firstly with a trip to her therapist, where she discusses how her husband fails to satisfy her sexually, and where she flirts with her therapist, Dr. Robert Elliott. Following that interaction, she goes to the museum, where she once again flirts with a man she casually meets there, and whom she goes home with, following a brief game of foreplay. As Kate is about to leave her lover's building, she's brutally attacked by a tall blonde woman in the elevator and eventually killed. The final stages of this gruesome event are witnessed by Liz Blake, who escapes and recounts what she observed to the police. Turns out Liz is actually a high priced escort, and was in the building with a client, who refuses to provide an alibi for her. Liz, with the help of Kate's son, Peter, both decide to do their own investigation into who is the woman who killed Kate, and is she somehow connected to Dr. Robert Elliott's patients. 
"Dressed to Kill" is one of Brian De Palma's most iconic films, and rightfully so. It perfectly captures his thematic universe, in the sense that topics such as burgeoning sexuality, mistaken identities, dreamlike scenarios that are mixed for reality, are all there, not to mention his virtuosic and stylistic approach to shooting the narrative, with long takes and playing with camera perspective. This film is particularly efficient in its storytelling, defining the main characters fairly succinctly, while also making the predator a presence that is seemingly everywhere and unstoppable. It's also a film that makes good use of NY as a city filled with opportunities for one to vanish, and yet, where everyone is still traceable. The film feels like a polished and slick version from a B-movie of the 1950s, but one where the director is able to bring topics of female sexuality, and where even the menace of AIDS also lingers. The cast is uniformly great, with Michael Caine and Nancy Allen in particular creating memorable characters. The camera work from Ralf Bode is wonderful, as is the score from Pino Donaggio. A solid film from a director always worth revisiting.