Sunday, January 23, 2022

They Live

Movie Name:
They Live
Year of Release: 1988
Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, George 'Buck' Flower, Peter Jason, Raymond St. Jacques, Sy Richardson
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Director John Carpenter had to contend with smaller budgets following the less than enthusiastic response of the great "Big Trouble in Little China", which prompted him to direct "Prince of Darkness" which was quickly followed by "They Live". "They Live" focuses on the story of Nada, a drifter who comes to Los Angeles in search of a job. He soon finds work at a construction site, where he makes friends with Frank, who invites him to live in a slum type of town/soup kitchen led by a man named Gilbert. That night, he notices a hacker taking over the TV signal, claiming to the audience that people are being enslaved through signals that keeps everyone in a dream-like state. Nada soon discovers a rebellious group, who is trying to unmask this massive conspiracy. When that group is uncovered by the police and beaten down, he manages to escape. He notices one of the boxes the group had with them is now in the trash, and while looking for more clues, he uncovers that its content is comprised of sunglasses. When he tries one on, he notices the sunglasses render the world monochrome, but also reveal subliminal messages everywhere, while also revealing what appears to be a different/alien like species living alongside humans, pretending to be just like them. As he tries to make sense of what is happening, he comes in contact with his friend Frank, whom he attempts to convince of what is going on.
Working from a short story by Ray Nelson, writer/director John Carpenter ingeniously crafts a narrative that is a not so subtle criticism at the consumerism of the world, and in the process, on how everything in life has become a commodity where anything and everything can be bought and sold for just the right amount. The story plays out almost like a "Twilight Zone" episode, something that the monochromatic aspect of reality provided by the sunglasses is a nice nod to. John Carpenter knows how to make economical narratives work, and in this case he manages to do so once more, clearly establishing the goal for the enigmatic Nada, who goes on a crusade to uncover these aliens, with the able support of friends he makes along the way. Of course the story is also an open criticism on the effects greed and corporate malfeasance have on more exposed populations, as can be noted by the slums that are illustrated throughout the narrative. While the characters themselves are thinly described and established, it is nonetheless a film that is original and has the typical John Carpenter touch, including his typical touch where the epilogue doesn't necessarily ring a happy ending. The score from his authorship, with Alan Howarth is excellent, while the film also features a solid cinematography from Gary B. Kibbe. An entertaining film from a remarkable director always worth revisiting. 

Licorice Pizza

Movie Name:
Licorice Pizza
Year of Release: 2021
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie, Christine Ebersole, John Michael Higgins, Skyler Gisondo, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Este Haim, Danielle Haim, Maya Rudolph, Harriet Samson Harris, Ryan Heffington, John C. Reilly, Joseph Cross, Emma Dumont, Yumi Mizui, James Kelley
Genre: Drama, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
View Trailer

Synopsis and Review:
Like many of the most recent crop of Paul Thomas Anderson's films, this is another feature that lingers on, forcing one to think about everything that his narrative is packing, across many different layers. "Licorice Pizza" focuses its narrative in two central characters: a teenage actor by the name of Gary Valentine, who has been acting since he was a child, and the young adult Alana, whom we first encounter working for Tiny Toes, organizing the process of taking photos of high school kids in the 1970s. When these two meet, Gary is smitten with Alana, who is considerably older, and clearly indicates that to him, making sure he understands nothing will ever happen between the two of them. As Alana becomes a guardian or partner of sorts, they're soon involved in a business of selling water beds together, a business that doesn't last for very long, but gets them to meet the charismatic Jon Peters. As Alana sees herself surrounded by teenagers and wants to move on, she sets her sights in assisting a young candidate to the mayoral position of LA, bringing Gary along for shooting commercials. As their relationship goes through their ups and downs, they both come to the realization of the bond that ties them together.
While I've always been an enormous admirer of Paul Thomas Anderson, and continue to be so, this film feels to me like the first in all of his films thus far, where the narrative arc of whatever is happening on screen seems to be somewhat over indulgent and chaotic (and not necessarily a controlled chaos). It's a film with much to admire, since the characters are vivid, authentic, and even the ones who briefly appear in the film, inject something memorable in it, particularly the ones embodied by Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper and Benny Safdie. However the core of the film, the relationship between Alana and Gary, seems to be made of an unresolved tension, but also from what they collectively experience from a series of episodes that don't necessarily have a sensical continuity between them. While the film is successful at placing us squarely in that area of California in the 70s, Gary's schizophrenic lack of focus, which includes jumping from acting, to salesman, to pinball owner, from immature teenager, to someone looking to connect with the woman he wants, all these narrative threads seem to be all over the place, and not necessarily in a structured manner, the same going for Alana. While the universe in which these characters live is so vivid and memorable, this lack of grounding for the central characters, erodes much of the attention and power the central relationship holds (sometimes less is definitely more, case in point, "Punch Drunk Love", where the central relationship was beautifully rendered, in a much more economical manner). Albeit all of this, the film features a solid performance from Alana Haim, with excellent hilarious support from Bradley Cooper, and great cameos from Maya Rudolph, Harriet Samson Harris and John Michael Higgins. The cinematography from Paul Thomas Anderson and Michael Bauman is beautiful, as is the score from Jonny Greenwood, and costumes from Mark Bridges. Worth watching even if it's not quite as potent as some of his earlier work. 

Nobody

Movie Name:
Nobody
Year of Release: 2021
Director: Ilya Naishuller
Starring: Bob Odenkirk, Connie Nielsen, Aleksey Serebryakov, Christopher Lloyd, Michael Ironside, Colin Salmon, RZA, Billy MacLellan, Araya Mengesha, Gage Munroe, Paisley Cadorath
Genre: Action, Crime
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Director Ilya Naishuller who made a name for himself as a commercials and music videos director, had a less than auspicious feature directorial debut with "Hardcore Henry", but "Nobody" is his chance to team with writer Derek Kolstad, who has written the "John Wick" series, alongside some episodes of the Marvel series, "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier". "Nobody" follows the story of Hutch Mansell, a seemingly average middle aged men, father of a lovely family, who goes about his daily routine, working out but for the most part, keeping a low profile about everything. When his house is burglarized, he has an opportunity to deter the assailants, but chooses to do nothing and let them go. That is until he realizes those assailants took something that belonged to his daughter. As it turns out, Hutch is much more than he had led on, including to his family. Most of his professional career was spent connected to intelligence agencies, in a role he calls "auditor", but in reality an actual assassin, someone who basically wipes out problems no one wants to deal with. After stopping a bunch of hoodlums from attacking people on a bus, Hutch puts one of those individuals in the hospital, however one of those people is the brother of a Russian mobster, now intent on getting his revenge. However, the more information comes out on Hutch, or whatever they can find out, the scarier the situation seems, since it seems Hutch's skills and lethal approach to problem solving are unstoppable.
"Nobody" bares many similarities to the economical tone and narrative from "John Wick", with the biggest difference being of course, the fact that Wick walks alone, has no family ties, and adhered to a certain extent with the code established by the criminal underground. Hutch shares the same lethal traits as Wick, but operates within the mantle of protection from the "good guys", which allows him to do some really rough things, without having to consider much about consequences. It's a film that once more, reads like a straightforward B-movie, with little character development, and a narrative mostly focused on the action set pieces that comprise the bulk of the film. While Hutch is given some dimension, most of the supporting characters are mostly archetypes without many differentiating aspects, save for the personality and talent the actors bring to them. What has been the saving grace for the John Wick series, besides Keanu Reeves presence, is the fact that the films while hyper violent and deftly staged, are also peppered with humor and ultimately don't take themselves too seriously. "Nobody" borrows some of these elements, but not enough, since while attempting to humanize some of the supporting characters, fails to give them much to do, while the action set pieces are not quite as strong as the ones Chad Stahelski and his creative team stage for John Wick. Bob Odenkirk, Connie Nielsen, Christopher Lloyd, RZA, all create solid characters, while the cinematography from Pawel Pogorzelski is somewhat generic. It's watchable, though not very memorable. 

Sunday, January 16, 2022

The Tender Bar

Movie Name:
The Tender Bar
Year of Release: 2021
Director: George Clooney
Starring: Ben Affleck, Daniel Ranieri, Tye Sheridan, Lily Rabe, Christopher Lloyd, Max Martini, Rhenzy Feliz, Briana Middleton, Max Casella, Sondra James, Michael Braun, Matthew Delamater
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Actor, writer, producer and director George Clooney continues his steadily output of projects, following the successful "The Midnight Sky" which he released on Netflix. "The Tender Bar" is the adaptation of the memoir by J.R. Moehringer, scripted by the celebrated William Monahan (who won the Academy Award for Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" and has also written "Kingdom of Heaven" and "Body of Lies" both for Ridley Scott). The film follows the story of J.R. who we first encounter as he and his mom are coming back to her father's house, following the dissolution of her marriage. He is taken under the wing of his uncle, who works and owns a local bar. Charlie becomes his father figure, motivating him to pursue his dreams, and become a writer. His mom on the other hand, has openly declared her ambition that he goes to Yale or Harvard and become a lawyer. J.R. does eventually manage to get a scholarship and goes to Yale in the early 80s, making some life long friends along the way, and starting an unfulfilling relationship with Sidney, who has plans of her own, which don't include him. As J.R. navigates his first professional experiences, he also comes to terms with the role of his actual father in his life, both in terms of his absence and other issues his uncle warns him to stay clear of.
"The Tender Bar" manages to be yet another coming of age story, about a young man living with his slightly dysfunctional family, aiming to become a writer, but having to come to terms with the heavy legacy his absent and alcoholic father has had in his own life. While Cameron Crowe for instance crafted his coming of age narrative in "Almost Famous", also on the premise of a young boy growing up without a father figure but protected by a brilliant and controlling mother, permeating his narrative with humor and enough details to keep the characters always enthralling, George Clooney transfers some of that fatherly mantle to Ben Affleck's character, failing however to give that uncle much of a dimension aside from being a saintly, good humored presence who owns a bar. While there is much to admire about this film, particularly as young Daniel Ranieri navigates the dynamics of his family, and then Tye Sheridan as his grown up equivalent, tries to navigate his own life and decide what comes next, the film fails to give much dimension to both Ben Affleck's Charlie and Lily Rabe's Mom, both of whom have a fair amount of screen time, but whose characters while enticing and somewhat vivid (a testament to the quality of its performers), fail to be more than just a pale version of the stories they also could and should have shared. "Almost Famous" managed to bring William Miller to life, not because of the rock stars he interacted with, but because of the diverse group of people he learnt from, how they shaped his writing and his experiences, including his college professor mother. "The Tender Bar" feels like it's on the brink of showcasing the tribulations of this young artist, and how the people who surround him shaped much of what he has turned out to be, but shies away from giving those characters some extra dimension, or for that matter, some much needed humor. Curtis Hanson also managed to capture the tribulations of a young author in "Wonder Boys", and did so with heart and humor, something "The Tender Bar" could have benefited from. As it is, it's a competent film, with a great performance from Ben Affleck, and solid support from the wonderful Lily Rabe, newcomer Daniel Ranieri and Tye Sheridan. The cinematography from Martin Ruhe is solid, as is the score from Dara Taylor and production design from Kalina Ivanov. Worth watching. 

R.I.P.D.

Movie Name:
R.I.P.D.
Year of Release: 2013
Director: Robert Schwentke
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Ryan Reynolds, Kevin Bacon, Mary Louise Parker, Stephanie Szostak, James Hong, Marisa Miller, Robert Knepper, Mike O'Malley, Devin Ratray
Genre: Action, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
After the success of "RED", director Robert Schwentke tackled another adaptation of a comic book (though "RED" was a graphic novel), this one with a somewhat similar tone to Barry Sonnenfeld's "Men in Black". The narrative focuses on the story of Nick Walker, a Boston police detective, who alongside his partner decides to steal some valuable evidence from a crime and keep it to themselves. When Nick has a change of heart, and decides to return it, his partner Bobby kills him during a raid in which they're both involved. As Nick gets to the afterlife, he is given the option to work for the R.I.P.D. department, as atonement for what he stole while he lived. The department essentially has the responsibility to monitor the dead, making sure to bring them in when they refuse to leave the land of the living or simply dispatching them if they don't comply/resist. He is assigned a partner in the shape of Roy, and they're quickly put on a case. Their first case has ties to the gold Nick stole, and as they go through the process of figuring out what's going on, they soon realize Bobby is actually much more than he let on to believe.
"R.I.P.D." is a film that has the potential to be an interesting action comedy, since it deals with the notion of badly behaved dead characters, but also a police department created just to deal with them. While the premise is ripe, and so is the talent conjured to embody these characters, sadly the script never really manages to stitch a dynamic narrative or for that matter, articulate much sense into what's set in motion. We never really get to know much about Nick or Roy, the leads of the feature, or even the main villain, all of whom come into this shorthanded narrative spewing a bunch of nonsense, shoot a few guns, and then all too briefly, all is over. There are obvious attempts at marrying the style of "Men In Black", in the sense that the two leads are at odds with each other, and they have to deal with otherworldly fantastical creatures, sadly the film never truly manages to substantiate the after life scenario properly, wasting Mary Louise Parker's immense talent in the process. What is left is a series of vignettes, trying to pass as a coherent and consistent film, with only Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds managing to keep the film afloat, since even the reliable Kevin Bacon has literally nothing much to do. The Visual effects are also a mixed bag in terms of their quality, though the cinematography from Alwin H. Kuchler is solid, as is the score from Christophe Beck. Definitely a minor film in all these performers resumes and ultimately a waste of talent. 

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Drop Dead Gorgeous

Movie Name:
Drop Dead Gorgeous
Year of Release: 1999
Director: Michael Patrick Jann
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Ellen Barkin, Allison Janney, Kirstie Alley, Denise Richards, Amy Adams, Brittany Murphy, Sam McMurray, Mindy Sterling, Laurie A. Sinclair, Alexandra Holden, Matt Malloy, Michael McShane, Will Sasso, Brooke Elise Bushman, Casey Garven, John T. Olson, Nora Dunn, Mo Gaffney, Adam West, Jacy King
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
View Trailer

Synopsis and Review:
After working on a few TV special and shows, director Michael Patrick Jann made his feature directorial debut with "Drop Dead Gorgeous", tackling an original script from Lona Williams, until then mostly well known for work on "The Drew Carey Show". The film, which is shot akin to a documentary, takes place in Mount Rose, Minnesota, and focuses on the story of a few contestants who are in the running for the annual Sarah Rose Cosmetics Mount Rose American Teen Pageant competition. One of those contestants is Becky Leeman, who is the daughter of one of the organizers, the wealthy and ambitious Gladys, who wants nothing more than for her daughter to become the next winner of the pageant. Another contestant in the running is the hard working Amber Atkins, whose mother Annette is also a former contestant, and whose life has turned out to be somewhat underwhelming, but wishes only the best for her daughter. As the documentary crew follows the contestants on their path to the pageant, a series of incidents and occurrences also start popping out, including the death of fellow contestant Tammy Curry, a usual favorite for the winning position. Amber's mom also ends up in the hospital following a freakish explosion in their trailer, forcing Amber to reassess if she actually wants to participate. As the pageant begins, and more sabotages keep occurring, it only reinforces Amber's motivation to keep in the running and hopefully defeat the Leemans.
"Drop Dead Gorgeous" is a film that aims to emulate the tone and humor of the Christopher Guest films, such as "Waiting for Guffman" or even "Best in Show". That intention in itself is commendable, however the results fall a bit short from those aforementioned features. The problem itself lies with the script, which takes the various scenarios over the top, never allowing for the irony in which the characters find themselves in, to truly gel. Essentially in trying to amp up the parody of the pageant industry, and also of the style Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy solidly established with their films, Lona Williams failed to realize there was already plenty to mine, without the need to include murderous sub-plots or even the poor taste digs at contestants with eating disorders. The characters themselves are also generally speaking, bluntly established cliches, including the vicious rich girl, the hard working humble beautiful lead, the beautiful girl who dates all the boys, the clueless one, the slightly alcoholic mom, and the list goes on. The lack of nuance of most of these characters is also one of the downfalls of this film, since its cast is actually quite solid, particularly Kirsten Dunst, Allison Janney, Amy Adams, Brittany Murphy and Ellen Barkin, all of whom manage to create vivid characters with whatever material they have. It's ultimately a film that could have benefited from a slightly more polished screenplay, alongside a direction that is not so generic. It's watchable, sadly not particularly memorable.  

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Madame

Movie Name:
Madame
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Amanda Sthers
Starring: Toni Collette, Harvey Keitel, Rossy de Palma, Michael Smiley, Tom Hughes, Violaine Gillibert, Stanislas Merhar, Sue Cann, Ariane Seguillon, Brendan Patricks, Tim Fellingham, Josephine de La Baume, Sonia Rolland
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Following her directorial debut with "Je Vais te Manquer", director Amanda Sthers has crafted her follow up, this time collaborating with the well known screenwriter Matthew Robbins (who worked with Steven Spielberg in the 70s, and got his own film produced by Spielberg, "*batteries not included" in the 80s and more recently worked with Guillermo Del Toro on "Mimic" and "Crimson Peak"). The film follows the story of Maria, a maid for a rich American couple currently living in Paris, and trying to stay afloat while navigating some difficult financial times. Anne, the much younger wife of Bob, decides to throw one of her lavish dinners, but Bob at the last minute decides to include his son from a previous marriage, throwing the number of guests into disarray. Anne at the last moment decides to include Maria in the dinner party, much to her reservation and clear objection. During the dinner Maria catches the attention of a British art broker, by the name of David. He is informed by Steven, Bob's son, that she is of Spanish nobility, which only drives his lust further. As their relationship intensifies, and Maria tries to wane it down, Anne becomes increasingly irritated, as she herself navigates a waning marriage, while Bob is pursuing other interests, including other women. As Maria herself navigates this newfound relationship, she soon realizes that feelings are indeed fleeting and that class dynamics are more prevailing than she imagined.
"Madame" is a film that ultimately lives from the ability and magnetism of its performers. It's a film that tries to look at class struggles and what those actually mean in the 21st century, but it fails to bring either a satirical aspect to it, or even a dramatic flair to the relationships that are at its core. It's a film that has a series of commonplace narrative premises, but one that fails to capitalize on the very talented cast who is game for anything the director wants to stage. The relationship between Bob and Anne is never expanded upon, though the fantastic Toni Collette and the always impeccable Harvey Keitel have chemistry and could have built something truly interesting and memorable from that point on. Rossy de Palma who always brings some gravitas and humor to her performances, one only needs to remember "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown", "Kika" or "The Flower of My Secret", all from Pedro Almodovar, is underused in a role that mostly asks her to be surprised and astounded by the events taking place (she's portrayed more as a victim of the circumstances, never truly seizing her own reigns, only ultimately doing so by the epilogue of the narrative). It's a film that is mostly placid, uneventful, and that fails to ask more pertinent questions about class, relationships, and even the ennui of the privileged. Toni Collette, Harvey Keitel, Rossy de Palma and Michael Smiley are all great in their roles, but they deserved a richer, more gripping and satisfying story. Forgettable.

The Lost Daughter

Movie Name:
The Lost Daughter
Year of Release: 2021
Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Starring: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Mescal, Dagmara Dominczyk, Jack Farthing, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Panos Koronis, Alba Rohrwacher, Nikos Poursanidis, Robyn Elwell, Ellie Mae Blake
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
Watch it on Netflix

Synopsis and Review:
Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal has made her feature directorial debut, with this well received drama, an adaptation of the book by Elena Ferrante. The film follows the story of Leda, a professor whom we meet at the beginning of the film taking a vacation in Greece. She is renting a lovely apartment, and goes to the beach on her own. She soon finds herself surrounded by a series of noisy tourists, a large family whom with she has an early clash. As that relationship is  smoothed down, she is drawn to a woman in that group, the beautiful Nina who has a young daughter. As she observes the dynamics of Nina and her daughter, she recalls her own interactions with both her daughters, and the choices she made when they were growing up. When Nina's daughter momentarily disappears, Leda finds her, bringing the women together. However Leda keeps the little girl's doll hidden in her purse, since she witnessed some bizarre behavior from the little girl, which also reminded her of her daughter's behavior. As Leda continues to become more aware of Nina's relationships, the more she is reminded of her own life and where that has led her.
"The Lost Daughter" is an atypical film, in the sense that it resembles at times films made in the 70s, but without the same emotional or intellectual investment those films had. The film features a professor of literature, who quotes authors both in English and Italian (in different phases of her life as well), and who somehow lives in an academic bubble of sorts, which has rendered her somewhat maladjusted to the niceties of living with others outside of that bubble or for that matter, has disabled her to understand people around her. Her academic prowess has somehow turned off her ability to read those who surround her, or in some situations, hide her contempt for them. It's a film that is at its best when it lets Olivia Colman and Dakota Johnson interact and shape that ambiguous relationship, one that is tinted by fascination and almost obsession, in the sense that Leda sees in the relationship Nina has with her child, some aspects of herself and her own relationships with her children, but also she witnesses Nina being so much more than she ever was. The flashback scenes with Jessie Buckley are very disconcerting, in the sense that the tribulations with the children are hammered constantly (I'd suggest Gyllenhaal look at Lynne Ramsay's "We Need to Talk About Kevin" to get a sense of how to build that type of environment more effectively), on a persistent same note, and not very elegantly (yes, the girls require attention, apparently 100% of Leda's time). Also and as the flashback's evolve, we understand Leda's unhappiness, but again seen through a prism that never tells us much about what she actually wants, even from the man she embarks on an affair with (which again seems more casually evolving, more so than emotionally resonant). The film ultimately feels more like an opportunity to check a series of boxes on how to tell a story about a person who isn't necessarily likable, who is intellectually inaccessible, who made her own youthful and some may consider selfish choices, but who is herself on a journey to try to live with those choices and where they have led her. The topics are supple and the film is impeccably acted, particularly by Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson and Ed Harris, it just needs to feel more grounded, less artificial and definitely less like a thesis of someone demonstrating how to do an independent film that is "important". The choice of songs for the score is terrible and distracting (yes, they're in Greece, the score has Greek songs, lets be as obvious as possible), but the cinematography from Hélène Louvart is impeccable. It's a film that tries to be many things, and ultimately a lesson that sometimes, less is definitely more. 

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Movie Name:
The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Year of Release: 2021
Director: Michael Showalter
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Vincent D'Onofrio, Cherry Jones, Mark Wystrach, Sam Jaeger, Louis Cancelmi, Gabriel Olds, Fredric Lehne, Chandler Head, Dan Johnson
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
View Trailer

Synopsis and Review:
Multi talented actor/writer/producer and director Michael Showalter is back, following his breakthrough with the well received "The Big Sick", and his more recent and less successful "The Lovebirds". "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" is based on the solid documentary of the same name from Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, who have directed other well known documentaries such as "Inside Deep Throat", "Party Monster" and "Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures". The film narrates the life of Tammy Faye LaValley, as she grows up and has her connection with church and religion. In the 60s while studying at a Bible College, she meets Jim Bakker, whom she gets infatuated with, leading to an early marriage, even before she's 20 years old. As they move to South Carolina to begin their ministry, they also start a puppet show on Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, which steadily gets them more and more recognition. As their popularity starts soaring, some cracks in their marriage start showing. They eventually start their own program, the PLT Club, which again quickly soars in popularity, allowing them to create their own network, and start funding a series of initiatives, including theme parks, retreats, all with a Christian motif. Tammy in the meantime has two children, continues singing and releasing music, but feels abandoned by Jim, who is always involved in his own business (and other diverse) affairs. As some indiscretions, both from Tammy and Jim catch up with them, the empire they so diligently worked to build starts to cave in.
As I watched this film I was instantly reminded of Gus Van Sant's "Milk", which also had a celebrated documentary sibling, "The Times of Harvey Milk" from director Rob Epstein. I was also reminded how much I loved Gus Van Sant's take on Harvey Milk, since he didn't try to mimic the documentary, he built a narrative around that particular character, and infused the story with a variety of characters which brought both color and dimension to the challenges, loves and ultimate tragic death of that character. It is a film that empathizes with the central character, humanizing it, never falling trap of being condescending or making the character likable or saint-like. "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" is somewhat of a different direction. For all the investment that is placed on rebuilding the world in which these characters live, the film never truly manages to remove this judgmental stance on the characters, almost poking fun at who they are. Somewhere during the process of adapting the documentary to a fictional narrative, something got lost, and what ends up being displayed aren't actual people with longing, challenges, pain or getting through the absurdities of life. The film plays more like an elaborate and glossy film of the week, one that lacks humanity and emotional truth about who Tammy and Jim were at that point in time, what they wanted out of their lives, their relationship and ultimately themselves. It's a bauble of a film, which seems to exist to validate Jessica Chastain's pursuit of more awards (she was far better in Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" and even Aaron Sorkin's "Molly's Game"), the same going for Andrew Garfield (who was so good in Martin Scorsese's "Silence" and David Fincher's "The Social Network"). Cherry Jones and Vincent D'Onofrio manage to bring some grit and dimension to the film, but ultimately this a feature that feels superficial, and more shockingly so, unnecessary. 

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Nightmare Alley

Movie Name:
Nightmare Alley
Year of Release: 2021
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, David Strathairn, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, Willem Dafoe, Mary Steenburgen, Clifton Collins Jr., Tim Blake Nelson, Mark Povinelli, Peter MacNeill, Holt McCallany, Paul Anderson, Jim Beaver, David Hewlett, Lara Jean Chorostecki
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
View Trailer

Synopsis and Review:
After finally winning a series of well deserved awards with "The Shape of Water", director Guillermo del Toro is back, this time around with the adaptation of a book by William Lindsay Gresham, which had previously been adapted to the big screen by Edmund Goulding, with a central performance by Tyrone Power (in 1947). The film follows the story of Stanton Carlisle, whom we first encounter leaving a house which he has set on fire. He moves on and quickly finds himself working for a carnival as a carny. He soon makes friends with the clairvoyant Madam Zeena, who typically works with her alcoholic (and much older) husband Pete. As Stan starts to understand their show, he also becomes acquainted with Pete's more elaborate trick, one that he no longer performs, one which obeys a series of coded messages that have a guidebook with specific instructions, one that essentially plays off as if the performer is indeed a clairvoyant or a person with special skills. Stan is also very much interested in Molly, and comes up with a few clever ideas to enhance her show. When Pete dies, Stan decides to propose to Molly moving away and start an act with what he has learnt from Pete (and his book of instructions). They move to NY, where Stan and Molly finally have a very successful act. In one of their sessions, they're challenged by a woman by the name of Lilith Ritter, a psychologist, who suspects their act is a con. As Stan manages to turn the tables on her, she finally introduces him to judge Kimball, who had hired her originally to verify if Stan was indeed legit or not. Upon visiting Ritter at her office, they embark on an arrangement that has motivations Stan isn't fully aware of.
"Nightmare Alley" is very much a noir, one that while obeying to classic plot points, including the expected backstabbings, still flows effortlessly and with a precision that is a testament to the talent of Guillermo del Toro. Guillermo del Toro is a director with a very specific universe, one that is simultaneously shaped by his origins, but also by his focus on creatures that are while appearing to be monstrous, are in reality possessed of a humanity that far surpasses the characters typically considered human. While "Nightmare Alley" may feel at a first glance, his first film without supernatural elements or monsters, it soon becomes evident, that this universe he constructs, is very much a carnival populated with people on the fringes of society, where indeed the concept of monster or freak does exist. And Stanton falls in line with the series of monsters he typically focuses on: he may not be red tinted as "Hellboy" or blue tinted as the creature from "The Shape of Water", but Stanton is a broken individual trying to fit in,  mimicking what others have done, in order to gain love, acceptance, when he knows that his true nature is much darker than what is apparent to everyone. It's a film populated by humans performing monstrous actions, including Willem Dafoe's Clem, Richard Jenkins' Ezra and even Cate Blanchett's Lilith. It's a universe and a narrative worth embarking on, particularly since the film is so well constructed, featuring a remarkable cast, led by the always solid Bradley Cooper, who once again excels, with excellent support from the luminous Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, David Strathairn, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins and Ron Perlman. The production team is also equally fantastic, including the beautiful cinematography from Dan Laustsen, score from Nathan Johnson and production design from Tamara Deverell. While some audiences will possibly dismiss this as a minor effort from Guillermo del Toro, it's nonetheless a very dark film, with a supple universe worth getting to know. 

The King's Man

Movie Name:
The King's Man
Year of Release: 2021
Director: Matthew Vaughn 
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Harris Dickinson, Djimon Hounsou, Charles Dance, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Alexandra Maria Lara, Stanley Tucci, Daniel Bruhl, Joel Basman, Todd Boyce, Alexander Shaw, August Diehl, Alison Steadman, David Kross
Genre: Action, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
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Synopsis and Review:
The "Kingsman" series might have finally hit a snag with this unfortunate sequel from the creative mind of Matthew Vaughn and his collaborator, writer Karl Gajdusek (who also co-wrote Joseph Kosinski's "Oblivion" and some other B-movies, including Roger Donaldson's "The November Man"). This time around the narrative takes us back in time, to the beginning of the 20th century. The Duke of Oxford and his wife, are involved in a humanitarian mission with the Red Cross in South Africa. As the war there is still brewing, they get caught up right in the middle, and Lady Oxford is killed, leaving the Duke with his young son to raise by himself. A few years later, Conrad is almost an adult and wants to go out into the world and explore more, something that his father prevents and tries to shelter him from, as much as possible. When a dark conspiracy from a macabre group sets a series of events in place, resulting and precipitating the First World War, Conrad sees those events as an opportunity to enlist and make a contribution to his country. While his father initially prevents him from doing so, he does enlist his help to go to Russia and thwart the nefarious influence of Rasputin, who controls the Czar's decisions almost entirely. As Conrad becomes legally an adult, he decides to enlist anyway, much against his father's decision who fears for his safety above all. As Conrad fights in the trenches, darker forces are manipulating the players in the War, something the King of England is well aware of, and that he asks the Duke of Oxford help with.
While the previous "Kingsman" films where fairly entertaining endeavors, very much descendants of the James Bond lineage, but with a perspective of their own, particularly due to the material they originate from, namely the comics from Mark Millar, this current chapter decides to tell the story of how everything started, but in the process seems to have forgotten the entertaining factor altogether. The film laboriously and repetitively reinforces the topic that Lord Oxford doesn't want his son to go to war, and that Conrad really does want to go to war. This battle of words between father and son looms over most of the narrative, removing most of the dynamics that touch upon supporting characters, including the typical villain, and even the peers who always appear in spy films and are possessed of quirky personalities or traits. Considering all the time that is spent rehashing the battle between father and son, one would expect that those characters themselves would have some more of a background, or motivation or arc, sadly that's never the case. Lord Oxford and Conrad for that matter, are as enigmatic by the end of the narrative as they are when it first started, the same going for the members on their team (why is Polly an expert in decoding, or for that matter, a spy herself, why is Shola also a secret agent with terrific athletic skills). It's clearly a film from a very skilled director who has a point of view, but this time around, the narrative that has been constructed is simply non existent, giving nothing to the supporting cast to work with, with the notable exception of the episode with Rasputin, which Rhys Ifans gobbles with gusto, but sadly never really goes very far or extends to the remainder of the narrative itself (the main villain while fairly predictable, also has very little to do throughout the entire film). Ralph Fiennes as phenomenally talented as he is, is indeed the sole reason to see this film, but the film doesn't rise up to his talent. The cinematography from Ben Davis is impeccable as is the score from Dominic Lewis and Matthew Margeson and production design from Darren Gilford. A big let down from a clearly talented director who probably needs to pay closer attention to the material he's working with.

Music with an Impact - 2021

2021 in a way seemed like a sequel of the traumatic 2020, but a sequel where everyone's wounds started progressively healing. While the world took a very radical turn in 2020, this past year felt like an attempt at weathering and coming to terms with all that the previous year had shifted in everyone's lives. Many artists who released seminal work had to put their tours on hold, and while some started touring once more in 2021, it was something done in spurts. The year in music for me was comprised of new releases of artists I've known and loved for the past 20 years, but also uncovering work from people I had not heard of before, with albums from quite some time ago. Plenty of great music nonetheless, even if the one produced in 2021 didn't quite resonate (at least not with me). Here's hoping this new year brings more interesting sounds.

Martina Topley Bird - Forever I Wait
St. Vincent - Daddy's Home
Skee Mask - Pool
Charles Webster - Decision Time
Clark - Lisey's Story
Lapalux - Ruinism
Katie Gately - Colors
Stars of the Lid - The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid
Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972
Topdown Dialectic - Topdown Dialectic 

More favorites that are not illustrated in the list above.

Photay - On Hold
Seefeel - St / Fr / Sp
Blanck Mass - The Great Confuso EP
Cautious Clay - Blood Type
John Adams - Doctor Atomic Symphony/Guide to Strange Places