Saturday, July 31, 2021

Sisters

Movie Name:
Sisters
Year of Release: 1972
Director: Brian De Palma
Starring: Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning, William Finley, Lisle Wilson, Barnard Hughes, Mary Davenport, Dolph Sweet, Olympia Dukakis, Bobby Collins, Justine Johnston
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Director Brian De Palma started the 70s with a series of smaller films, which paved way for the second half of the decade, where a lot of his iconic films came out (including "Carrie", "Obsession" and "The Fury"). "Sisters" focuses on the story of Danielle Breton, a young French Canadian model. Danielle as we initially witness, is working on a TV show, where she meets the handsome Philip whom she eventually has dinner with. While they're on their date, they get accosted by Danielle's ex-husband, though he eventually leaves. After spending the night together, Danielle confesses she has a twin sister by the name of Dominique, who is coming to town to celebrate their birthday. Philip gets murdered in the apartment by one of the sisters, something that is witnessed by the neighbor across the street, the young journalist by the name of Grace Collier. Grace calls the police warning them and reporting the incidents, but when they all go through the apartment, they find no physical evidence of the body or the murder. Grace believing something is very wrong with the situation, sets out to investigate the whole situation, with the assistance of Larch, an actual detective. 
"Sisters" definitely indicates the path of suspense/thriller Brian De Palma would finesse in his career moving forward, particularly centered around characters possessed of a personality duality that is unknown even to themselves (something he'd explore in "Dressed to Kill", "Raising Cain" and even "Femme Fatale"). In the case of "Sisters" there's also an Hitchcock influence at play, particularly when it comes to the murder but also the process of solving it and how the characters are more than what they seem at first glance. While not as genuinely thrilling or as suspenseful as his later films, there's still a lot to admire and celebrate here, particularly how De Palma builds the context for these characters to exist. There's also a very interesting sense of paranoia that comes from the investigation conducted by Jennifer Salt's character, Grace, and she becomes tangled in a very dark web. While the characters don't have as much substance and dimension, as he would later on impart in his films, there's enough being suggested here to imply that not all is as simple as it may seem to be. Margot Kidder is great in the central role of Danielle/Dominique, and she gets good support from Jennifer Salt and Charlies Durning. A somewhat forgotten yet entertaining film worth revisiting, from a gifted director.

Hellboy

Movie Name:
Hellboy
Year of Release: 2004
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, John Hurt, Doug Jones, Rupert Evans, Karel Oden, Jeffrey Tambor, Brian Steele, Ladislav Beran, Biddy Hodson, Corey Johnson, Kevin Trainor, Brian Caspe
Genre: Action, Fantasy, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Director Guillermo Del Toro tackled back to back comic book adaptations in the early 2000s, firstly with "Blade 2", still the best film of the series, which was quickly followed by this introductory chapter to "Hellboy", which introduced Mike Mignola's character to the cinematic world. The film follows the story of Hellboy, a human-demonic creature, who has been on Earth, working with the Bureau of Paranormal Research, under the guidance of his parental figure and lead researcher, Professor Broom, since the end of World War II. The Bureau tackles problems and cases that are at times difficult to categorize, but typically centered around supernatural events. The Bureau has in its ranks Abe Sapien and Liz Sherman, both possessed of special powers, and in the case of Liz, the object of Hellboy's affection. The team is joined by a recent agent by the name of John Myers, who is suppose to partner up with Hellboy. Their most recent mission comes in the shape of former WWII Nazis, who through supernatural forces, are trying to bring monsters into the planet in order to govern it. It's up to Hellboy and his team to prevent that from happening.
Guillermo Del Toro's universe, which in itself is filled with magical and very dark creatures, is a perfect combination with Mike Mignola's, since Hellboy himself is both human but also a demon, and lives in this existence where the supernatural pushes on through to reality. This first film, which was followed by an equally good sequel, makes for an excellent introduction of the character, since it does so with plenty of humor, successfully balancing all of the action set pieces with enough character quirks, to make these heroes more humane, and not simply flat and unidimensional characters. The film also defines its villains quite effectively, keeping a tone of secrecy to how they operate, until their strategy is openly revealed. Guillermo Del Toro knows how to ground its characters and what they're doing, and once more, the humor in this film really elevates it and keeps the narrative always engaging and enticing. It's an intelligently built film, where the central hero is also and possibly the cause for the end of humanity, but who is brought back from the brink due to his humanity and love (there's a core of both paternal and romantic love at the core of this film which gives it heart and makes it the more compelling). The cast is uniformly superb, with Ron Perlman, John Hurt and Jeffrey Tambor creating great characters. The cinematography from Guillermo Navarro is fantastic as is the score from Marco Beltrami, with high marks going for the production design from Stephen Scott. An entertaining film from a gifted director always worth revisiting.

Jolt

Movie Name:
Jolt
Year of Release: 2021
Director: Tanya Wexler
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Bobby Cannavale, Jai Courtney, Laverne Cox, Stanley Tucci, Ori Pfeffer, David Bradley, Lewis Ian Bray, Nathan Cooper, Sophie Anderson, Tom Xander, Savvy Clement
Genre: Action, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Director Tanya Wexler, who made a name for herself with the underrated "Hysteria", follows up the well received "Buffaloed" with this action/adventure romp with the always terrific and charismatic Kate Beckinsale. The film follows the story of Lindy, a woman who suffers from a condition by the name of intermittent explosive disorder, something that makes her react with extreme rage at the slightest transgression. Growing up Lindy was placed through a series of treatments and places in order to teach her to cope with her violent tendencies, all to no avail. Her therapist however found her way to keep it in check, by her using a vest which releases an electric shock discharge, whenever she presses a device (and whenever she feels a surge in rage coming up). Lindy is trying to be more outgoing, and decides to go on a date with a man, who turns out to be an accountant. After two nice dates, Lindy is ready for their third, when she's informed he's been murdered. As the police tries to find the culprit, Lindy sets out an investigation of her own, which places her in the trajectory of a well known and untouchable criminal by the name of Gareth Fizel. While Fizel believes he's untouchable, he is unaware, of just how resourceful and powerful Lindy is. 
David Leitch's and Charlize Theron's "Atomic Blonde" set a pretty high standard for how action films with a central female character can actually be. "Atomic Blonde" managed to be a perfectly crafted B-movie, with enough talent, muscular action scenes, and deft storytelling to surpass anything that Michael Bay has ever done for instance, with budgets that are much grander in scale. Tanya Wexler's best calling card for "Jolt" is the fantastic Kate Beckinsale, who oozes charisma and can effectively play anything, always with a sense of mischief and delight. While the film never truly manages to keep up with her energy, it's still filled with enough entertaining set pieces to keep it watchable. Most of the supporting characters are established in very broad strokes, but there's a sense of irony that permeates the action and exchanges between all the characters, that independently of the clich├ęs that are put on display, keeps the narrative watchable and engaging. It's an unpretentious film that plays efficiently with the characters that it has, and while it's not as memorable as the aforementioned "Atomic Blonde", it is nonetheless watchable. 

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Romeo is Bleeding

Movie Name:
Romeo is Bleeding
Year of Release: 1993
Director: Peter Medak
Starring: Gary Oldman, Lena Olin, Annabella Sciorra, Juliette Lewis, Michael Wincott, Roy Scheider, Will Patton, David Proval, Ron Perlman, Tony Sirico, Dennis Farina, Larry Joshua, James Cromwell
Genre: Drama, Crime
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Film Noir experienced a revival in the 90s, with a variety of titles coming out, which got even further enhanced with Quentin Tarantino's films which re-shuffled the conventions of the genre itself (for instance with Tony Scott's "True Romance").  "Romeo is Bleeding" ended up flying somewhat under the radar, even if it had a fantastic cast, but 1993 alone saw a variety of noir inspired films coming out, including John Dahl's "Red Rock West", Dominic Sena's "Kalifornia", Harold Becker's "Malice", Nicholas Kazan's "Dream Lover", to name but a few. The film follows the story of Jack Grimaldi, who is a police sergeant. He's been playing both fields, int the sense that while doing police work, he also provides a local crime boss by the name of Don Falcone, with the location of important witnesses, which threaten the crime syndicate itself. Jack is married to the lovely Natalie, lives in the suburbs, and tries to live a relaxed a life. He also has a girlfriend on the side by the name of Sheri, a young waitress who is in love with him. His arrangement is shattered to pieces when a new criminal pops in the scene, a Russian criminal by the name of Mona Demarkov. Mona is arrested, and Grimaldi is tasked with killing her. When he fails to do so, Falcone has one of his toes cut, and as the situation escalates, he frantically sends Natalie and Sheri away. As he plays a game of cat and mouse with Demarkov, he realizes she is both ruthless and will stop at nothing to get what she wants, including killing whomever is in her way.
Peter Medak, who has had a long career in both TV and cinema, including highlights such as "The Ruling Class" and also directing episodes of "Space 1999", was coming off the well received "The Krays" and "Let Him Have It" by the time he tackled Hilary Henkin's script for "Romeo is Bleeding". The film is successful in capturing the fall from grace suffered by the central character, but fails to deliver much in terms of who the female characters actually are and want. While Jack is rapidly defined as a corrupt cop with a good heart, the women he crosses paths with, end up being more of a manifestation of his wants/needs/fears, and not so much characters with their own existence. It's a film that definitely has the noir style perfectly captured, both stylistically and even narratively, with just enough eroticism and violence to fall under the guise of neo noir. While Gary Oldman is fantastic as usual, this time around he has to contend with a voracious performance from Lena Olin, who incinerates every single scene she's in, with a mix of sensuality, intelligence and danger. She truly brings her character to life, even if with somewhat limitedly information to share about who she is. She brings a sense of fun to all that she does, mixed with confidence, ruthlessness and intelligence. She is truly able to manipulate situations to best suit her needs, and therefore is the perfect embodiment of the noir vixen. There's a few over the top scenes (escaping in lingerie from a rather dramatic car crash), but she alone, with good support from Annabella Sciorra and Juliette Lewis, really bring the film to life, even if these two later thespians have very limited screen time. The cinematography from Darius Wolski is impeccable as is the score from the underrated Mark Isham. Entertaining and worth watching.

Old

Movie Name:
Old
Year of Release: 2021
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKensie, Abbey Lee, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ken Leung, Eliza Scanlen, Aaron Pierre, Embeth Davidtz, Emun Elliott, Alexa Swinton, Francesca Eastwood, Gustaf Hammarsten, Kathleen Chalfant, Nolan River, Luca Faustino Rodriguez, M. Night Shyamalan
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
View Trailer

Synopsis and Review:
After concluding the trilogy he started with "Unbreakable", with the films "Split" and "Glass", writer/producer/director M. Night Shyamalan is back, this time around adapting a graphic novel by the name of "Sandcastle", authored by Pierre-Oscar Levy and Frederick Peeters. The film focuses on the story of a family, comprised of father by the name of Guy, mother by the name of Prisca, and young kids by the name of Maddox, who is 11 and Trent, who is 6. The family is going on resort vacation, since there's quite some stress going on, with some health issues troubling Prisca, but also the looming separation and even possible divorce. Trent quickly makes friends with another young boy, and they both go around the resort introducing themselves, but also getting to know who the guests are. The whole family gets invited by the resort director to visit a very private beach, and they do so alongside another family, who also seems to be going through some stress. This second family is comprised of the matriarch, an elderly lady, who is traveling with her son, a seasoned medical professional, and his much younger and stunning wife, and their young daughter. When they arrive at the beach, they notice a man already there, but decide to leave him alone. As the kids play around, Trent discovers the dead body of a woman. The woman was in fact with the young man who was at the beach. As much as anyone tries to leave the place, they don't seem to be able to do so. As another couple descends on the beach, the events start getting progressively weirder, with the kids suddenly aging rapidly, while the matriarch of the second family suddenly dies. They all decide to unite efforts to figure out what is going on.
M. Night Shyamalan's best films have always primed by the fact that he is able to build a context in which characters are able to exist and feel multi-dimensional, as opposed to brief sketches without much in terms of motivation. "Old" manages to successfully build that context once more, if ever so briefly, by succinctly showcasing the resort, the dynamics of the groups in it, including the main families, before slowly introducing the element of dissonance. And this time around, the director creates a narrative where we witness in real time the events unfurling, as the characters are placed in a foreign environment, and suddenly understand what the beach does to their bodies, and the inevitability of what is taking place. It's a film that for the most part manages to be quite smart, particularly as it toys around with the sense of mortality, and more profoundly with the frailty of people's relationships, and what people hang on to when nothing is left. The characters themselves, is where the film falters quite a bit, since they feel for the most part quite flat, particularly as they lack a true sense of disappointment for where they are, and as the narrative progresses, lack the sense of urgency one associates with a situation as bizarre as the one they're in. It's a film that is nonetheless well crafted, with a strong cast, with the always reliable Rufus Sewell and Gael Garcia Bernal, leading the whole group. The cinematography from Mike Gioulakis is solid, as is the score from Trevor Gureckis. While not as enticing as some of his earlier work, it's still worth watching.

Gunpowder Milkshake

Movie Name:
Gunpowder Milkshake
Year of Release: 2021
Director: Navot Papushado
Starring: Karen Gillan, Lena Headey, Carla Gugino, Michelle Yeoh, Angela Bassett, Paul Giamatti, Chloe Coleman, Ralph Ineson, Ivan Kaye, Jack Bandeira, Adam Nagaitis, Samuel Anderson, Michael Smiley, Anita Olatunji
Genre: Action, Adventure, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
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Synopsis and Review:
Another month, another release from Netflix, this time around featuring an impressive array of acting talent, including Carla Gugino, Angela Bassett and the always formidable, Paul Giamatti. The film follows the story of Sam, who as teenager realizes her mom is a hired assassin. When her mom has to flee, in order to save her, Sam grows up under the tutelage of "The Firm", becoming a highly skilled assassin herself. Her handler sends her on a new mission to retrieve some stolen money, and that's where things start derailing. Turns out the man had stolen the money to pay off some people who had kidnapped his daughter. As Sam handles the situation the best she can, a previous clean up she handled, had some important collateral damage, namely the son of the leader of a  rival organization to "The Firm". As this organization threatens "The Firm", they decide to surrender Sam's location, who eventually has to resort to her mother, and an underground association of "Librarians" to save herself and the young girl, whose path she crossed earlier on.
Navot Papushado made a name for himself with the film "Rabies", but his subsequent features never reached as much notoriety as his debut. The film, which is co-written by Papushado and Ehud Lavski, desperately tries to live within the same universe as Chad Stahelski's (and David Leitch at least in the first installment) "John Wick". Sadly it's a film that for all its noise, brutality, choreography and well chosen cast, never amounts to building much dimension to any of its main characters, nor for that matter ever, for truly crafting an enemy who suggests any actual danger/menace. For all the blood-splattering that it causes, both the heroines and the villains, never get much of an understanding of who they are, what they do (except kill and get killed), or why they do any of those same actions (essentially puppets). If "John Wick" used an economical and B-movie style to roughly draw characters and motivations, this film photocopies those premises, but very roughly and sadly without much engagement or humor. While the cast is superb, Karen Gillan and Lena Headey are more akin to sisters, and not really mother/daughter, though Lena Headey always manages to give just enough sass to her characters to keep the momentum going. The supporting cast sadly doesn't have much to do, with the wonderful Carla Gugino trying to bring as much empathy and quirkiness to her character, whereas Angela Basset and Michelle Yeoh, are simply there for star power and iconic presence (which they have in spades). The always fantastic Paul Giamatti is somewhat repeating one of his roles, with slight deviations from Michael Davis's "Shoot 'Em Up". The cinematography from veteran Michael Seresin is wonderful, as is the costume design from Louise Frogley. Another forgettable film, with a cast who deserved a lot more.  

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Fear Street: Part Three - 1666

Movie Name: 
Fear Street: Part Three - 1666
Year of Release: 2021
Director: Leigh Janiak
Starring: Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Julia Rehwald, Gillian Jacobs, Ashley Zukerman, Randy Havens, Fred Hechinger, Matthew Zuk, Michael Chandler, Sadie Sink, Emily Rudd, Lacy Camp, McCabe Slye, Jordana Spiro, Elizabeth Scopel, Jeremy Ford, Patrick Roper, Todd Allen Durkin, Kevin Waterman, Ryan Simpkins, Ted Sutherland, Lloyd Pitts, Emily Probst, Noah Garrett
Genre: Drama, Horror, Mystery
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
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Synopsis and Review:
The "Fear Street" trilogy comes to its closure with the chapter taking place in 1666. The focus of the narrative on this chapter is Sarah Fier, and how she found herself with the reputation of witchcraft. Deena who is trying desperately to save her girlfriend from the legacy of the curse, views all the events which occurred to Sarah Fier through her own perspective. She comes to realize that Sarah, who lives with her father and younger brother in the small community of Union, is a hardworking sweet girl, who is in love with the daughter of the pastor. As events take place, the suspicion of witchcraft occur in the small town, and Sarah and Hannah are appointed as the guilty parties, because they thwarted some romantic advances from one of the men in town. Sarah tries to use a forbidden book from a widow in town, long rumored to have a connection to the dark forces, only to realize she's been murdered, and the book has been taken. She eventually finds solace in the good Solomon's house, only to realize he's the instigator behind all the events, and he himself has carved a deadly arrangement with the dark forces. Back in 1994, Deanna realizes Solomon and his family, which includes the current sheriff, have been carrying out this type of arrangement for centuries, making Sunnyvale prosper, while Shadyside constantly struggles. She, Josh, Ziggy and a few other friends, set out a plan in order to break the curse, save Sam and restore some normalcy to both cities.
The closing chapter of this trilogy, takes the action to the 17th century, and tries to demonstrate how ignorance and religious self righteousness can wreak havoc and destruction in communities. The director tries to capture elements from M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village", but also Nicholas Hytner's "The Crucible", in order to portray the dynamics of the small community, but for the most part, this part of the film feels somewhat insipid, lacking both a grittier perspective, but also some of the humor which peppered the second chapter and made it work so well. Where this part of the narrative could have dealt, both with the gothic aspect of the story, and the paranoia surrounding false accusations brought against young women, it mostly bypasses all that, and attempts to clarify the fate of Sarah's life, by uncovering the villainous figure behind it all. It is somewhat of a simplification of Sarah's journey, but the trilogy wraps itself up, inexplicably setting the ground up for subsequent films. Most of the issues which can be pointed out with the previous films, namely the fact they lack a more defined point of view, more character development, and generally speaking look somewhat generic, remain. While not by any means terrible features, they're ultimately forgettable.  

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Fear Street: Part Two - 1978

Movie Name: 
Fear Street: Part Two - 1978
Year of Release: 2021
Director: Leigh Janiak
Starring: Sadie Sink, Emily Rudd, Ryan Simpkins, McCabe Slye, Gillian Jacobs, Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Chiara Aurelia, Brandon Spink, Marcelle LeBlanc, Eden Campbell, Ted Sutherland, Michael Provost, Drew Scheid, Jacqi Vene, Meghan Packer, Matthew Zuk, Sam Brooks, Jordana Spiro, Paul Teal, Michael Chandler, Ashley Zukerman, Julia Rehwald, Fred Hechinger, Emily Brobst, Kevin Waterman, Alex Huff
Genre: Drama, Horror, Mystery
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
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Synopsis and Review:
Picking right after the events of the first film, "Fear Street: Part Two - 1978" not only manages to create a more enticing narrative, doing so by further explaining the mythology behind the cursed city and it's witch, but also by successfully referencing Sean Cunningham's "Friday the 13th" series of films. The narrative continues to be centered around the adventures of Deanna and her close group of friends, or whomever is still alive. She, alongside her brother Josh, have managed to track C. Berman who survived the first widely publicized and well known round of killings in the 70s. She digs deep into the events which took place in 1978, when she and her sister were in a Summer camp, and witnessed when a series of murders started to occur. Sisters Ziggy and Cindy Berman, have very different approaches to fitting in during their time at the camp: while Ziggy maintains her rebellious nature, Cindy has a boyfriend by the name of Tommy, and tries to fit in. Cindy, alongside Alice, another camp counselor and former friend of hers, discover that the camp's nurse was the mother of a notorious killer the city had, and to their surprise the nurse tries to attack Tommy. As they investigate further, they uncover a diary which states that Sarah Fier, the well known witch, apparently made a deal with the devil by cutting her hand off. They also find a map in the diary which leads to Fier's house. As they uncover more and more about the story, Tommy starts yet another killing spree, and his name is one sketched in stone, therefore a target from the witch's curse. Cindy and Ziggy eventually figure out what they need to do, in order to stop the killing but are they too late for it. 
If the first film of the trilogy outlined the events taking place, the second one actually expands the mythology of the curse haunting the city, while also tapping into the possible solution for the predicaments the characters find themselves in. The director this time around, manages to be more successful in portraying a different era, playing with visual cues from different slasher films from the 80s, most notably Sean Cunningham's "Friday the 13th", while also making the rivalry between the two cities in which the narrative takes place, more noticeable and almost gang-like in its mutual animosity (a la "West Side Story", but without singing). The film also benefits from some good additions to the cast, particularly Sadie Sink, Emily Rudd and Ryan Simpkins, all of whom bring some additional energy, spunk and humor to the narrative itself. While the film itself doesn't reshuffle the tropes of the genre, it does manage to keep some momentum going, even if the characters themselves don't have once again much dimension to themselves. Visually the film feels very similar to the show "Stranger Things", courtesy perhaps from the cinematographer Caleb Heymann, but with the diversity and inclusion of the Camp segment, the overall generic aspect of the first film, is not so prevailing. While the film improves upon the original tome of the trilogy, it's still just watchable, and not necessarily memorable. 

Fear Street: Part One - 1994

Movie Name:
Fear Street: Part One - 1994
Year of Release: 2021
Director: Leigh Janiak
Starring: Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Julia Rehwald, Maya Hawke, Charlene Amoia, David W. Thompson, Noah Bain Garret, Ashley Zukerman, Fred Hechinger, Jeremy Ford, Elizabeth Scopel, Gillian Jacobs, Jordana Spiro, Kevin Waterman
Genre: Drama, Horror, Mystery
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
View Trailer

Synopsis and Review:
Netflix has decided to produce adaptations of author R.L. Stine's Fear Street series (there's 55 books in that series alone), focusing on a trilogy of films, all hailing from director Leigh Janiak, who also collaborated on the screenplay of all three features. The first feature, which takes place in 1994, focuses its story on Deena Johnson, a high school student who lives in the town of Shadyside. Just as the narrative is commencing, we witness a series of murders, which further cements Shadyside as the murder capital of the country. Deena recently broke up with her girlfriend Sam, who moved to the neighboring Sunnyvale, where apparently all is perfect, and where no crimes ever occur. After an eventful night where they have a heated exchange and fight, Deena, her brother Josh, and Sam, alongside a few other people are involved in a car accident. As Deena tries to save Sam, Sam actually becomes "touched" and sees a vision of a witch by the name of Sarah Fier, who many believe has cursed the town for centuries. As Sam is taken to the hospital, and Deena tries to patch their relationship, a series of past Shadyside killers emerges out of nowhere, and start killing people once more. The group of friends realizes that the accident in which they were involved, disturbed the grave of Sarah Fier and that Sam touched her bones. They also realize the killers are focused solely on Sam and that they are seemingly unstoppable. They will have to research and understand their origins, in order to save Sam and prevent more murder sprees.
Director Leigh Janiak who made a name for herself with "Honeymoon", has tried to carve out with this trilogy of films, a humorous, referential and fresh look at the slasher genre, without necessarily reinventing it a la Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven, and their "Scream" series. The first film of the trilogy, taking place in 1994, also turns out to be the least solid of all three. Typically when referencing other periods of time in which stories take place, directors focus on very evident artifacts such as costumes, production & art design, since those are elements that place the audience right in the time frame in question. Janiak opts instead to identify the 90s by mostly putting on display a series of songs from bands that emerged from that era, one after the other, making this crutch all too self evident and also somewhat distracting, without adding much to the story. It's a film that while well crafted, can't escape, both in tone and in aesthetic, to something akin to a modest tv show, one where the character establishment barely registers. The surplus of gore, doesn't necessarily add much interest to the narrative, but as the film races towards its epilogue, and the more supernatural/sinister aspects of the narrative become more prevailing, it does add some momentum and interest to the events being staged. While not a terrible film, it's mostly forgettable and somewhat generic.

Hard Eight

Movie Name:
Hard Eight
Year of Release: 1996
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Melora Walters, Robert Ridgely, 
Genre: Drama, Crime
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Genial director Paul Thomas Anderson started his career with this somewhat forgotten indie film from the 90s. The film which made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival (where it was workshopped during its gestation phase), later on went to the Cannes Film Festival, though director Paul Thomas Anderson has since the film's release, talked about the strain and problems he had in not having final cut of the project, and how that impacted what was eventually released. The film follows the story of John, a young man whom we encounter at the beginning of the film, in a somewhat destitute state. He is taken under the wing of an experienced and seasoned games expert, Sydney. Sydney grooms John and teaches him how to work the casinos, and make some actual money from the machine slots, and from the casino's own system. A few years later, they're still in Reno, but a few additional characters cross their path. Firstly Clementine, a young waitress, who also moonshines as a discrete prostitute, who catches the attention of both Sydney and John. Secondly, Jimmy, a friend of John's who works at a local casino, and is very aware of some of the machinations and exchanges going on behind the curtains. As Clementine comes deeper into their lives, John's infatuation also grows, and situations start getting out of hand. Sydney tries to sort things out as much as he can, until Jimmy, menacingly enough, lets him know that he is aware of the reason of Sydney's interest in John. 
While "Hard Eight" brings to mind a series of independent films that were done in the mid 90s, almost as a series of tacitly undeclared sequels to Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction", it already reveals traits of what would make Anderson such a phenomenally gifted director. The mechanics of the story itself are somewhat a bit rusty, particularly the jumpstart of the narrative (the lost young man who is taken under the wing of an aging gambling expert). However as the characters become more defined and their emotional wealth becomes more apparent, not only does the story find its own momentum, but it's also an opportunity to witness one of the fantastic aspects which can be found in all films from director Paul Thomas Anderson, precisely that emotional wealth, and his empathy towards his characters. This film definitely doesn't have as much of a scope and depth when compared with the subsequent ones the director has created, but it's nonetheless an entertaining film, with solid performances from Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly (who would continue to appear in "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia"). Philip Seymour Hoffman himself as a smallish performance, which is worth witnessing. While not a modern day classic, as some of his other features, it's definitely worth watching. 

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Black Widow

Movie Name:
Black Widow
Year of Release: 2021
Director: Cate Shortland
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour, Ray Winstone, William Hurt, Ever Anderson, Violet McGraw, O-T Fagbenle, Olga Kurylenko, Michelle Lee, Lewis Young
Genre: Action, Thriller, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
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Synopsis and Review:
Delayed by a year due to the pandemic, Marvel's crop of 2021 commences with a film solely devoted to one of the longest running characters of their phases, who thus far never had a film of her own. Directed by Australian film maker Cate Shortland, the film follows the story of Natasha Romanoff, right after the events that took place in "Captain America: Civil War". Currently being hunted by Secretary Ross, Romanoff hides in Norway, until a package sent by her long absent sister, makes her a target for a foe she may already know. She travels to Budapest in order to meet with her sister, whom she hasn't seen in years, upon which she knows what the content of package is and what it does. It's essentially an antidote which manages to deprogram all the young women who were forced into the Black Widow program, and who are under the direction and power of Dreykov, her former mentor, whom she believed she had killed in the past. In order to bring down that criminal structure, she and her sister have to seize whatever remains of the "manufactured" family they were, including the father figure Alexei now in prison, and their mother figure Melina, who they thought was dead, but is in actuality still conducting research on her own in a somewhat isolated area. The 4 of them unite efforts in order to bring down Dreykov's sinister empire.
Unlike Joe and Anthony Russo's "Captain America: Winter Soldier", which was essentially a 70s conspiracy thriller, under the guise of a super hero film, "Black Widow" for some reason, with very similar ingredients, never manages to reach those heights, both in terms of narrative development, nor in terms of  a gratuitous action spectacle. The film has an interesting preamble, reminiscent in tone to the TV show "The Americans", but once we catch up with the grown up Natasha Romanoff, the tone and rhythm shift, becoming a bit more dour, since Natasha is dealing with the pain of the disintegration of the Avengers family, which marries and brings back memories of the disintegration of her previous family which she experienced as a child. While Cate Shortland manages to capture the easy rapport between Johansson's Romanoff and Pugh's Elena, it's somewhat of a rushed engagement, considering these characters have not seen each other in decades. The plot is somewhat straightforward, with some rushed and rather uninspired action sequences in between (which fail to even be as compelling as any of the chase scenes from any of the "Bourne Identity" films). The second chapter of the feature, where the characters get to have some breathing room to exist, is surprisingly shallow, with both Rachel Weisz's Melina and David Harbour's Alexei, remaining cyphers, without much insight nor depth, the same going for the villain, the enigmatic Dreykov, who also remains a very cutout James Bond type of villain. By the time the third chapter comes along, the set piece is somewhat anti climatic, with some questionable special effects, and a general cacophony of visual debris which adds nothing to the film. The cast, filled with great actors, sadly has very little to do, with Scarlet Johansson, Florence Pugh, the underused and wonderful Rachel Weisz in particular, making a presence, but not a very memorable one (and the casting of Olga Kurylenko is also a bit puzzling, unless she's supposedly playing a character who is 20 years younger than the person she's supposed to be playing). Of all the Marvel films released thus far, it may be one of the most forgettable ones, where the personality and point of view of its director is almost non-existent. 

Identity Thief

Movie Name:
Identity Thief
Year of Release: 2013
Director: Seth Gordon
Starring: Jason Bateman, Melissa McCarthy, Amanda Peet, John Cho, Jon Favreau, T.I., Genesis Rodriguez, Morris Chestnut, Robert Patrick, Eric Stonestreet, Jonathan Banks, Ryan Gaul
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Director Seth Gordon followed his first two feature films, "Four Christmases" and "Horrible Bosses", with another feature of the same genre, continuing in the process his collaboration with the wonderful Jason Bateman. With a screenplay from Craig Mazin (who shares story credits with Jerry Eeten), who made a name for himself working with David Zucker on the "Scary Movie" franchise, and with Todd Phillips in "The Hangover" series, this film features a story of an every day man falling into the trap of dealing with an experienced con artist. The central hero of the narrative is Sandy Patterson, a regular white collar business executive, who lives in Denver with his wife and two daughters, with an additional one on the way. Without paying much attention, Sandy falls prey to the dealings of Diana, a credit card scammer, who gets Sandy's social security number, forges a series of documents, and starts living off his stolen identity. When Sandy seizes the opportunity of a new job, this whole thing explodes, since Diana maxed out credit cards, and actually has quite a few warrants against her in Florida. Sandy manages to convince his boss to give him a chance to correct all these wrongs: he will bring the con artist back to Denver, and in the process clear his reputation and cease all bad lines of credit that have been raised against him. Diana however, has other plans in mind.
"Identity Thief" has a solid premise at its core, alongside two very talented and charismatic performers. However from the get go, director Seth Gordon illustrates the situations without much inventiveness or  for that matter, without actually exploring the situations for all they can possibly go. It's a film that for the most part is always at the precipice of crossing a line, possibly being a bit darker, but avoids doing so, portraying everyone on this reality either as hapless criminals or criminals with a heart of gold. One of the main issues with the film is precisely this lack of definition on what it wants to be: it can figure out if it is a rather raunchy look at the extremes a regular guy has to go in order to reclaim his good name, or a good hearted comedy about a series of slapstick endeavors centered around a mild mannered person and the con artist with a heart of gold, who just wants to be appreciated. Both of these aspects are somewhat at odds in the film, and neither one nor the other completely take over, but never quite marry well enough together. In the end the film manages to live from the chemistry and enormous talent from both Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy, who of course bring their characters to life with gusto and vivacity, with solid support from Amanda Peet, Eric Stonestreet and Jon Favreau, all three of whom have very little to do. The cinematography from the always excellent Javier Aguirresarobe is solid but uninspired, the same going for the score from Christopher Lennertz and product design from Shepherd Frankel. A missed opportunity, considering all talent involved. 

Saturday, July 10, 2021

My Brilliant Career

Movie Name:
My Brilliant Career
Year of Release: 1979
Director: Gillian Armstrong
Starring: Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Wendy Hughes, Robert Grubb, Max Cullen, Peter Whitford, Aileen Britton, Patricia Kennedy, Julia Blake, Alan Hopgood
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on HBO Max

Synopsis and Review:
After directing a series of shorts, Gillian Armstrong made her feature directorial debut with the adaptation of Miles Franklin novel, "My Brilliant Career". The film, which takes place in Australia in the late 19th century, follows the story of the young and indomitable Sybylla. She lives on her family's country farm, but dreams of having a more artistic and fulfilling life. Unable to deal with her aspirations and behavior, her parents send her to live with her wealthy grandmother. She soon finds herself the target of two men's affection, Frank Hawdon, whom she quickly ignores, and Harry Beecham, a young landowner, whom she eventually falls in love with. As their relationship becomes the target of rivals and her family, Harry eventually proposes, only for Sybylla to turn him down. Turns out he is also in a somewhat precarious financial situation, and they both agree to take some time. Sybylla is suddenly sent to live and work as a governess for a family who neighbors her father's farm, and whom he is indebted to. While working in harsh conditions she does manage to teach the children and overcome considerable obstacles, until Harry reappears again. Sybylla has to decide what she wants to do with her life and relationship.
Gillian Armstrong's feature, came out around the same time as Peter Weir's initial films were starting to make waves (Weir's "Picnic at Hanging Rock" came out in 1975, and "The Last Wave" in 1977), the same going for George Miller (his debut, "Mad Max" premiered in 1979), in what became known as the Australian New Wave. Similarly to Jane Campion, whose short features in the 1980s were her launch pad for her tremendous debut with "Sweetie",  Gillian Armstrong also started her career with a series of shorts, going back to 1970. "My Brilliant Career", her debut, managed to capture the energy and complexity of its heroine, a young woman who was trying to find her voice in a society that didn't quite know what do with it. The film observes and details the interactions of several characters in that time period, with a particular focus on the lives of all these women who are part of Sybylla's family, all of whom have tried to have their personalities and expectations somewhat preserved, no matter the disappointments and challenges they have faced. There are echoes of Isabel Archer from Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady" here, though Sybylla's fate is more driven by her artistic ambitions. It's an interesting feature, which gives some dimension to Judy Davis's Sybylla, while leaving Sam Neill's Harry somewhat unexplored, the same going for the additional supporting characters. The cast does succeed in bringing this array of characters to life, with Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Wendy Hughes and Aileen Britton all crafting memorable performances. While not as engrossing as the work Jane Campion did in capturing the life of Janet Frame in "An Angel at My Table", it's nonetheless a solid view at the life and spirit of a woman trying to thrive in a period where that voice, that ambition, was almost always perpetually silenced. Worth watching.

Desert Hearts

Movie Name:
Desert Hearts
Year of Release: 1985
Director: Donna Deitch
Starring: Helen Shaver, Patricia Charbonneau, Audra Lindley, Andra Akers, Gwen Welles, Dean Butler, Alex McArthur, James Staley, Katie LaBourdette, Jeffrey Tambor
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Director Donna Deitch had a lengthy ordeal in order to secure funding and be able to bring this story to the big screen. After directing a few  documentaries in the 70s, it took her nearly 6 years to gather all the resources to make her narrative feature directorial debut. The film is an adaptation of the book by Jane Rule named "Desert of the Heart", and follows the story of Vivian Bell. The narrative takes place in 1959, and it follows Vivian's life, as she comes to establish residency in Nevada for a few weeks, while she's getting a swift divorce. Since she needs to stay in the area during the proceedings, she rents a room with Frances Parker, whose ranch has become a safe harbor for women going through the process of getting a divorce. Also living on the ranch is Cay, a young sculptor, who works at the local Casino, and was also brought up by Frances, who is in reality the former mistress of Cay's father. As Cay takes an interest in Vivian, the relationship between the two women grows increasingly closer, something that comes as a surprise for Vivian, who has always lived and experienced amorous relationships in a somewhat controlled manner. Cay's passion and spirit force Vivian to re-equate her choices and what she wants out of life.
"Desert Hearts" jumpstarted Donna Deitch's career, who has since then become quite prolific, tackling all sorts of independent films, intertwined with a variety of TV shows (including "Private Practice" and "NYPD Blue", to name but a few). The film itself has also become somewhat of a landmark in the depiction of an open lesbian relationship (unlike for instance, the more closeted "The Children's Hour" from director William Wyler, with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine). The director manages to capture Vivian's journey somewhat succinctly, though with some substantial gaps. She never truly expands on what is prompting Vivian's divorce, or for that matter, what exactly draws her to Cay (save for the fact that Cay is somewhat the antonym of herself, since she is free spirited, and unafraid of living her life on her own terms). Cay for the most part is also something of an enigma - she is in a relationship with the casino manager, but is also having several amorous adventures with various women in town. Not much is ever deciphered in terms of who she is as a character or her actual motivations. Frances, who is Cay's adoptive mother in a way, has a more colorful backdrop, and her despair and fear of being left alone, is genuinely conveyed and eventually clashes with the newfound relationship between these two women. It's a film that nonetheless, is well observed, allowing for the relationships between these characters to have some dimension, and as the awakening of Vivian occurs, so does the sense of vibrancy and urgency she has, in order to discover her life. The cast is uniformly great, with Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau bringing the central duo of characters effectively to life, with great support from Audra Lindley. The cinematography from the great Robert Elswit is beautiful, as is the production design from Jeannine Oppewall. While somewhat succinct in its approach, it's nonetheless a solid film, always worth revisiting. 

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Wait Until Dark

Movie Name:
Wait Until Dark
Year of Release: 1967
Director: Terence Young
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Jack Weston, Julie Herrod, Samantha Jones, Jean Del Val
Genre: Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
After his series of films with the James Bond franchise, which he actually started, director Terence Young ventured into a variety of other genres. "Wait Until Dark", based on the play by Frederic Knott, is one of his most successful features. The narrative focuses on the story of Susy Hendrix, a recently married and blinded woman who is caught in an extraordinary situation. This situation is a result of her husband bringing home a doll given to him by an unknown woman, who was in the same flight as his. Turns out the doll is stuffed with drugs, and the woman was the courier. There are three men with a keen interest in retrieving the doll, and as a result, they come to Susy's apartment, passing as a series of characters. These three men create a convoluted narrative in order to not only deceive Susy, but also leave her somewhat exposed, including luring her husband into an all night assignment (he's a photographer). As the men try their best at uncovering where the doll is, Susy starts suspecting there's something wrong with the situation, something she confides with the young girl who helps her and lives in the building, Gloria. As time is running out, Susy has to use her skills and ingenuity to overcome the obstacles as they present themselves.
By the time "Wait Until Dark" came out, director Terence Young had already established James Bond as a  successful franchise, having directed "Dr. No", "From Russia with Love" and "Thunderball". After venturing into other action/suspense films such as "The Poppy Is Also a Flower" and "Triple Cross", his adaptation of "Wait Until Dark" was a return to both critical and commercial success (the film even garnered Audrey Hepburn an Academy Award nomination). The film manages to be ingeniously crafted, as it situates most of its action, in the apartment belonging to the central character. Since the character is somewhat at a disadvantage when compared to her foes, due to her physical disability, the fact that the space is somewhat well known her, plays to her resourcefulness and ability to overcome her obstacles. It's also a film that slowly builds the tension, allowing for the trap to be laid, only for it to produce results that are unexpected for the captor. The director is not quite as successful at giving enough dimension for these characters to exist, including the villains, which are broadly defined, the same going for Susy's husband. In the end, it's an interesting exercise in suspense, featuring a solid performance from the always great, Audrey Hepburn. The cinematography from the iconic Charles Lang is impeccable, as is the score from Henry Mancini. Entertaining and always worth revisiting. 

The Tomorrow War

Movie Name:
The Tomorrow War
Year of Release: 2021
Director: Chris McKay
Starring: Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, J.K. Simmons, Betty Gilpin, Sam Richardson, Jasmine Mathews, Edwin Hodge, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Keith Powers, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Mike Mitchell, Jared Shaw
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
"The Tomorrow War" which was originally scheduled to premiere in theaters in December of 2020 (and didn't due to the pandemic), was in turn sold to Amazon who has premiered the film in the middle of blockbuster season. The film follows the story of Dan Forester, an army veteran, who is currently working as a high school teacher. While watching the soccer world cup, everyone is shocked and amazed when a series of what seems military personnel, materialize out of nowhere in the middle of the field. Turns out these people are coming from the future, and are here to warn everyone about a current war taking place in their timeline, 2051, in which the human race is in dire need of help. Even with the assistance of all worldwide military factions, the outcome of the ongoing future battles is not improving, forcing a mandatory drafting for everyone, including Dan. As Dan is sent to the future, he and his team are tasked with securing precious research which can destroy the enemy, while he also realizes that his daughter, now a grown up leading researcher, is the person who can change the fate of the world. As Dan and Muri sacrifice everything to salvage that toxin, and as Dan comes back into the past, he has to figure out a way to prevent that war of ever taking place.
Chris McKay, who previously directed "The Lego Batman Movie", alongside a variety of other animated shows and shorts, makes his live action feature directorial debut with this big budget endeavor. The film has some influences from Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" and even Paul Verhoeven's "Starship Troopers", without being quite as successful at carving out an identity of its own (even if Verhoeven's film was met with some derision upon its premiere, it's a film that has gained a steady cult following throughout the years). McKay manages to establish in the first half of the film an interesting premise, which includes drawing out the challenges of Dan's family life, and how his existence, and everyone's is turned upside down with the visitors from the future. However, and as the action escalates, the more interesting aspects about the film also start losing much of its resonance and impact. The whole aspect of fish out of water, something most of the characters in this film experience, and which Doug Liman for instance explored so well in "Edge of Tomorrow", is quickly abandoned, and replaced by what seems a rather standard, and closer in tone to a Michael Bay action feature. As the film progresses, and seemingly the future of the human race rests solely on the shoulders of Dan's character, whatever nuance and intelligence the narrative promised, is quickly abandoned, with the final chapter ultimately feeling like a rushed device to close the narrative on a happy note (even if the film in this part has influences of both Ridley Scott's "Alien" and James Cameron's "Aliens"). The cast tries their best to bring these characters to life, with Chris Pratt and J.K. Simmons being the particular highlights, but for the most part, these characters have little to no dimension. The visual effects are solid, as is the score from Lorne Balfe and cinematography from Larry Fong. Unbalanced and ultimately forgettable.

Saturday, July 3, 2021

The Four Seasons

Movie Name:
The Four Seasons
Year of Release: 1981
Director: Alan Alda
Starring: Alan Alda, Carol Burnett, Len Cariou, Rita Moreno, Jack Weston, Bess Armstrong, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Alda, Beatrice Alda
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
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Synopsis and Review:
After directing a few TV Movies, actor/writer/producer/director Alan Alda made his feature directorial debut with "The Four Seasons", which he also later adapted for a short lived TV show.
The film follows the story of three middle aged couples who vacation together quite frequently. During one of the vacations, Nick confides to Jack that he is divorcing Anne. Jack is taken aback by those news, something he then discusses with his wife Kate. In their following vacation, this time on a boat, Nick shows up with someone else, the lovely and much younger Ginny. The frolicking Nick and Ginny experience, starts causing both some exasperation and also some self questioning on the other two couples. As they navigate yet another vacation together, this time around during winter time, Nick and Ginny are now married, and as some additional secrets come to the surface, some friction makes its presence known.
"The Four Seasons" is somewhat of an interesting watch, since its populated with great actors, and the premise of the film itself is also quite arresting. However for all the situations that it sets in motion, for the most part Alan Alda doesn't really know where to take the narrative, or the fate of these characters. The film tries very hard to be somewhat of a digest of what Woody Allen did, both comically and dramatically, but never really manages to reach those heights. For all the dynamic setups that are staged between the characters, for the most part all of the couples are very much a riddle. It's a surprisingly shallow film when it comes to actually understanding much of the characters, even the slightly saltier Danny Zimmer, brought to life by the always great Jack Weston. It's also a film that doesn't really know what to do with its characters, as it's demonstrated by the disappearance of Anne after the breakup/divorce. It's interesting to compare this film with Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives" for instance, since Allen's perspective on the disintegration of the relationship between the central couples, has far more insight, mixed with some good humor. "The Four Seasons" is ultimately watchable due to the talented group of actors who bring these characters to life, particularly the always wonderful Carol Burnett, Jack Weston and Rita Moreno. While not a terrible feature, it's not a very memorable one.