Friday, November 25, 2022

The Rental

Movie Name:
The Rental
Year of Release: 2020
Director: Dave Franco
Starring: Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon Prime

Synopsis and Review
Dave Franco has established himself as a solid and reliable actor, with films that range from "If Beale Street Could Talk" from Barry Jenkins, to "Fright Night" from Craig Gillespie with quite a few disposable titles in between (including the terrible Michael Bay feature "6 Underground" and even the recent J. J. Perry's "Day Shift"). "The Rental" is his feature directorial debut, whose script he wrote with Joe Swanberg, who previously wrote "Drinking Buddies", amongst others. The film follows a group of friends, more specifically two couples who decide to rent an AirBNB in Oregon, and have a weekend getaway. Charlie who is coupled with Michelle is the CEO of a startup. His brother Josh brings along his girlfriend Mina, who works with Charlie. Upon arrival at the rental, they meet the caretaker Taylor, who is the brother of the owner. Mina is somewhat miffed at Taylor and at the situation itself, since she thinks the owners are racists since she was unable to book the property, and only a few minutes later Charlie did so without issues (and she takes issues with some of Taylor's remarks as well). During the first night, Michelle proposes that the group experiments with some acid, though she herself abstains from doing so since she's tired. Charlie, Mina and Josh try it out, and while Josh passes out, Mina and Charlie end up making out and eventually having sex. The following day while taking a shower Mina discovers a hidden camera in the shower head, and quickly alerts Charlie. Not wanting to raise suspicions on their tryst, they choose not to disclose it. Later that evening Michelle calls Taylor to come over and fix the hot tub. Josh realizes his dog has gone missing. Things quickly escalate when Mina brings up the hidden camera with Taylor, who is unaware of it, and as an argument is generated, Josh bursts in and violently attacks Taylor. While Charlie is able to defuse the situation, and subsequently the group discusses what they should do, a masked individual gets in the bathroom and kills Taylor. 
"The Rental"'s most successful aspect is how economically driven its narrative actually is. Dave Franco quickly establishes the rapport and relationships between the characters (very similar to the archetype of your typical B-movie), giving a threadbare dimension to all of them, or at least just enough for us to understand who these characters are and some of their context/background which subsequently justifies their later actions. The film also succeeds in creating a progressively uncomfortable environment, though it could have benefited from leveraging more the isolation and seclusion of the house, and also the claustrophobia and voyeuristic aspect that peppers the modus operandi of the killer itself (and the fact that they're somewhat trapped in that house and area). The quick escalation of the killings is quite effective, and the fact that the ominous figure is never explained or further clarified, also adds up to the tone of the narrative itself. The central cast is equally solid in their performances, creating a sense of verisimilitude to the relationships between themselves, the same going for Toby Huss' supporting performance as the possibly racist Taylor. The cinematography from Christian Sprenger is effective, as is the score from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, while the production design from Meredith Lippincott succeeds in creating the environment of a posh cabin, with some faint echoes of other horror features that also take place in cabins. Worth watching. 

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Une Fille Facile/An Easy Girl

Movie Name:
Une Fille Facile/An Easy Girl
Year of Release: 2019
Director: Rebecca Zlotowski
Starring: Mina Farid, Zahia Dehar, Benoit Magimel, Nuno Lopes, Clotilde Courau, Loubna Abidar, Lakdhar Dridi, Henri-Noel Tabary, Cedric Appietto, Mickael Migliorini
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Netflix

Synopsis and Review
Director Rebecca Zlotowski who made a name for herself with the well received "Grand Central", followed that film with "Planetarium" with Natalie Portman and Lily Rose-Depp, which failed to ignite much interest or even good reviews. "Une Fille Facile" was the follow up, and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival where it was well received. The film follows the story of two cousins during a Summer in the Cannes area. Mina is the narrator and through her we learn that her cousin Sofia is visiting and has had to deal with a fair amount of challenges. Mina's mom is a cleaning lady, and Mina spends most of her time with her best friend Dodo, with both of them having some ambitions to go into acting. However when Sofia shows up, she starts disrupting Mina's tranquil existence, mostly because of her spontaneity and candid approach to flirtation, sexuality and seizing the moment. Sofia soon starts flirting with an older man by the name of Andres, who is enjoying the area in the company of his friend Philippe in an opulent yacht. And while the flirtation soon escalates to a slight affair, Mina who is only 16 also witnesses all from afar, trying to understand if this type of dynamics is indeed what is expected of women as they navigate relationships with men. She's simultaneously fascinated by the power Sofia, her beauty and approach hold over men, as she is slightly repulsed by what she thinks is the commodified aspect of those relationships.
"Une Fille Facile" is an interesting film in the sense that it illustrates the relationship between two young women, in a way that is non-judgmental or virulent in any way. While at a first glance it may be tempting to judge Sofia's character for her approach to relationships, Mina who is the narrator of the story, and who is in fact becoming an adult, manages to give a different side to Sofia's existence. And while to a certain extent Sofia's approach may be considered as the dark side of relationships which Mina gets to witness, and while there is indeed a commercialization of feelings and sexual intimacy, she also soon realizes that Sofia (and herself), have the power to choose what, when and how they want to do whatever concerns their actions, desires and appetites. The film and the script however does fail to render Sofia in a more compelling way, illustrating her for the beauty she is (much like Romy Schneider's in Jacques Deray's "La Piscine" or Ludivine Sagnier in François Ozon's "Swimming Pool"), but never truly investigating or showcasing more beyond the facade. The observational aspect of the narrative is interesting, but it also registers the film as superficial and inconsequential, and not necessarily because there isn't a large epiphany for the characters, but mostly because in this particular journey they go on, and that we go on as viewers, there isn't much of a sense to who these women actually are. Mina Farid, Benoit Magimel, Nuno Lopes and the luminous Clotilde Courau do solid work, while Zahia Dehar fails to give more to the character than its obvious physical beauty. It's an interesting watch, though not necessarily a very memorable one.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Trucker

Movie Name: Trucker
Year of Release: 2008
Director: James Mottern
Starring: Michelle Monaghan, Nathan Fillion, Benjamin Bratt, Jimmy Bennett, Joey Lauren Adams, Brandon Hanson, Bryce Johnson, Maya McLaughlin, Matthew Lawrence, Ricky Ellison
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon Prime

Synopsis and Review
James Mottern's "Trucker" is in fact his directorial debut, and the film had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, followed by a series of film festival performances until its limited release, where it was greeted with solid reviews. The film focuses its attention on the story of Diane Ford, a long-haul truck driver. Diane is very focused on her driving career, with her personal relationships coming in the shape of sporadic flings/encounters, aside from a long standing and platonic friendship/relationship she keeps with Runner, a married neighbor of hers. Her existence is thrown into disarray when she's suddenly confronted with the fact she has to take care of her son, who has spent all of his life with her ex-husband Len. Len is in fact battling cancer, and though he does have a new partner, she is also experiencing some issues with her own family, therefore preventing her from taking care of Peter. While Peter is not very excited to stay with Diane either, the both of them slowly start learning a bit about each other and how they can live together.
One of the best things going for "Trucker", much like Victor Nunez's "Ruby in Paradise", is the fact that the film doesn't have or aspires to have many pretensions about the story that is telling. Diane, the central character, has chosen to lead a life on her own terms, where she's not encumbered by emotional or family ties of any sort. The fact that she drives a truck from city to city, also allows her to distance herself from any roots she may want to potentially create, with a place or with people or even with a job (she owns her own rig). The closest relationship she has is with Runner, who is married, whom she keeps at an arm's length particularly because she knows that he is indeed married, and therefore the potential to fall into something more serious is immediately sabotaged. However has the narrative evolves and her son comes into her life, she suddenly comes to the realization her sheltered existence can't stay the same forever, and that she has left footprints behind, ones that now she has to accept and come to terms with. It's a film with faint traces from Hal Ashby's style, one that doesn't glamorize these characters' lives, opting instead for a frank depiction of someone who suddenly has to grow up and accept her responsibilities. The characters in the film could have been flushed out a bit further, the same going for their interactions and exchanges, but the central relationship between Diane and Peter comes across transparently and with tenderness. The film is a solid showcase for the talented and versatile Michelle Monaghan who made a tremendous impact in Shane Black's "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang", and subsequently has been featured in Ben Affleck's "Gone Baby Gone" and Duncan Jones' "Source Code", but who is well deserving of further lead roles. The cinematography from Lawrence Sher is solid, as is the score from the always fantastic Mychael Danna. Worth watching.

The Good Nurse

Movie Name:
The Good Nurse
Year of Release: 2022
Director: Tobias Lindholm
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Eddie Redmayne, Nnamdi Asomugha, Noah Emmerich, Kim Dickens, David Lavine, Ajay Naidu, Alix West Lefler, Devyn McDowell, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Maurice J. Irvin, Shaun O'Hagan, Gabe Fazio, Maria Dizzia, Bruce MacVittie
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
Watch it on Netflix

Synopsis and Review
Another release hailing from Netflix, this time around from director Tobias Lindholm, who has made a name for himself both as writer, by having co-written the script for Thomas Vinterberg's "The Hunt", as a director with the well received "A Highjacking" and "A War" (he also directed a few episodes of the David Fincher led "Mindhunter" in the interim). "The Good Nurse", which is based on the book by Charles Graeber, traces some of the real life events of Charlie Cullen, a currently incarcerated serial killer who has been convicted of killing at least 29 people, and is serving 17 consecutive life sentences in prison. The film opts to focus its attention on Amy Loughren, a single mother and nurse, who works in the ICU at Parkfield Memorial Hospital in New Jersey. She works long hours to make ends meet, and she herself has a critical medical issue. She has told no one at the hospital this situation since she fears dismissal. On top of this she also has to continue working long hours for additional time until she becomes eligible for health insurance (her medical visits themselves are enormously expensive). Some help comes in the shape of Charlie Cullen, an experienced nurse, who quickly befriends Amy, helping with her some tasks in the hospital and even with her own children at home. However soon after he joins the hospital, two patients unexpectedly pass away. Both of whom were being tended to by Amy and also Charlie. A police investigation starts as to what exactly happened with one of those patients, but due to the lack of cooperation from the Hospital's Administrative Board and the fact that the patient's body has already been cremated, there isn't much they can do. However with the most recent deceased patient they can perform an autopsy and gather more information. As the information gathered accumulates, the suspicions towards Charlie increase, as they realize this pattern has been repeated before.
"The Good Nurse" is a film whose narrative deftly moves forward and quickly establishes its main characters. One of its issues though lies with the fact that it tries to be a social agenda type of film, emphasizing the tremendous cost of healthcare in the US, and how even a working parent can't make ends meet, married with the somewhat shady dealings from these Hospitals' Administrative Boards. On top of these two socially driven topics it then also ties them with a thriller of sorts, where the question is raised if indeed this nurse has been consistently killing patients from institution to institution. All these threads don't get equal attention and time, and they eventually contribute to the fact that the narrative feels somewhat stunted. Which is to say, Amy's life is briefly given some insight, just enough to understand her challenges, though we never really know how she got there and why is it that she doesn't have more support. The same going for Charlie, whom we barely know much about, aside from the fact that he has some issues with an ex-wife and visiting rights with his children. The police investigation is also not given much room to actually be more than an episode that illustrates the obstacles brought forth by the Hospital Administration. It's ultimately a surprisingly shallow script, and one that is not entirely sensical (according to the narrative, if Amy was indeed such good friends with Charlie, why wouldn't she come to him first as opposed to what the film illustrates), and eventually one that doesn't fulfill the whole aspect of giving some dimension as to what drove Charlie or even what he got out of his relationship with Amy. While the director manages to create a strong sense of pacing and style, the narrative itself unfortunately just doesn't match his storytelling abilities. What is left is indeed the strong performance from Jessica Chastain who is back to her solid work (hopefully she has moved past Oscar bait material), with good support from Eddie Redmayne and Kim Dickens. The cinematography from Jody Lee Lipes is solid as is the score from Biosphere. Watchable but forgettable. 


Friday, November 11, 2022

Malnazidos/Valley of the Dead

Movie Name:
Malnazidos/Valley of the Dead
Year of Release: 2020
Director: Alberto de Toro, Javier Ruiz Caldera
Starring: Miki Esparbe, Aura Garrido, Luis Callejo, Alvaro Cervantes, Jesus Carroza, Dafnis Balduz, Sergio Torrico, Manel Llunell, Maria Botto, Manuel Moron, Francisco Reyes, Frank Feys, Ken Appledorn
Genre: Action, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
Watch it on Netflix

Synopsis and Review
"Malnazidos" is the first film directed by the team of Alberto de Toro and Javier Ruiz Caldera, though both of them have extensive experience in film making, with de Toro previously focused on editing and Caldera with considerable experience in directing. The film which takes place during the Spanish civil war, more specifically in 1938, follows the story of Jan Lozano, a former attorney now a lieutenant, whom we initially encounter about to be shot (he's a Nationalist). He is saved since his uncle is a General, who quickly assigns him a mission to deliver an important letter to the Sixth Brigade, one that is situated on enemy's lines. He is assigned a driver to get him to the location, but while on route, they get captured by a small group of Republicans. They soon find themselves tackling a series of zombies, including members of the Republicans larger squad. These zombies turns out are a result of experiments that the Nazis have been doing in the country and they all have to unite forces not only to defeat the zombie menace, but also prevent it from spreading throughout the country and world.
One of the most interesting things about "Malnazidos" is the fact that unlike Tommy Wirkola's "Dead Snow", it places the zombie threat not in the present timeline, but actually during the Spanish Civil War, which in many ways was the preamble for what World War II turned out to be. The film plays itself out as an economical B-movie, with the main set of characters quickly established without much background information, save for the essential in order to clarify their motivation. It's a film where the directors manage to illustrate the relationship of complicity and support between the main characters, even if at times it comes the film itself comes across as a borderline tv film with some gore thrown in for good measure. Unlike Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later" or even Zack Snyder's "Dawn of the Dead", where the zombie threat pervaded much of the action, the directors here are more interested in how the group of soldiers are interacting with each other and how their relationships evolve, with the zombie threat playing more of a background role in the proceedings. It's a film that moves fast and accomplishes its purpose of being entertaining, peppered with some humor. The cast is uniformly solid, as is the production team, with highlights going to the cinematography from Kiko de la Rica. It's a watchable feature even if not a particularly memorable one. 

Hitman

Movie Name:
Hitman
Year of Release: 2007
Director: Xavier Gens
Starring: Timothy Olyphant, Dougray Scott, Olga Kurylenko, Robert Knepper, Ulrich Thomsen, Henry Ian Cusick, Michael Offei, Christian Erickson, James Faulkner, Joe Sheridan, Eriq Ebouaney
Genre: Action, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 2
Watch it on Amazon Prime

Synopsis and Review
Xavier Gens started his directorial career with shorts and music videos, before making his feature debut with two films premiering the same year, one of them being "Hitman". "Hitman" is an adaptation by Skip Woods (who also wrote Dominic Sena's "Swordfish" and Joe Carnahan's "The A-Team"), of the video game by IO Interactive. The film follows the adventures of Agent 47, whom we soon learn was trained since a young age to become a lethal hitman. He has been working for a secretive entity only known as "The Organization". Following an engagement in Russia, he is informed that he failed to complete his mission. When he has to clean up the situation, he suddenly realizes he is being set up and that he has become a target himself. As he digs deeper, he realizes The Organization was hoping to gain influence with a new government, and ordered him to kill a duplicate of the President, and were planning to get him to take all the blame for the assassination. Agent 47, with the assistance of a woman who has also been impacted by the situation, traces the root of the conspiracy, removing all the obstacles that show up in the interim. 
While the video game series in which this film is based has had a lengthy existence, with the most recent release dating 2021, the film adaptations have no fared quite as well (there's a sequel with Rupert Friend, which premiered in 2015). Xavier Gens' take on this character is sadly devoid of much perspective, both in terms of giving the character an inner life and some dimension/motivation, but also in terms of how the film itself is shot and staged. The tone of the film suggests the character is somewhat monolithic and incapable of feelings, deeply contrasting with the violent aftermath of his actions, however there's never an exploration of why this regimented life for the agent exists or what life beyond the assignments he actually has. While in the narrative the character rebels against being a puppet for "The Organization, the way the film portrays him, is indeed akin to that of a puppet. The same goes for the supporting characters, which are barely sketches, with Olga Kurylenko's character in particular being offensively objectified (why does she spend 75% of her screen time topless). The film features over the top violence, but never cartoonishly funny such as Michael Davis' "Shoot' Em Up", opting instead for an overly serious tone which is supposed to marry the precision and insightful planning of the agent. Which is to say, there isn't much humor, and the film ends up being dour and sad utilization of the always reliable Timothy Olyphant, who always brings quirkiness and energy to his roles, the same going for the underutilized Dougray Scott. There's not much to highlight from the production team, the same going for the film itself. Forgettable.

Just Like Heaven

Movie Name:
Just Like Heaven
Year of Release: 2005
Director: Mark Waters
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Mark Ruffalo, Donal Logue, Dina Spybey, Ben Shenkman, Jon Heder, Caroline Aaron, Ivana Milicevic, Rosalind Chao, Ron Canada, Willie Garson
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
Watch it on Amazon Prime

Synopsis and Review
Following the success of "Mean Girls", director Mark Waters quickly returned with another comedy, only this time around with a bigger emphasis on the romantic aspect of it. "Just Like Heaven" follows the story of Elizabeth, an overworked and ambitious doctor who is on her way to get the job of her dreams in the hospital where she's currently stationed. She barely has time for anything in her life, however her sister sets her up on a blind date. On her way to that date, she suffers a dramatic car crash which results in her being in a coma. Into this narrative walks David Abbott, a landscape architect who has also been through a recent traumatic event. He's looking for a place to rent in San Francisco, and through sheer coincidence, uncovers a fantastic apartment that is only available to rent on a month to month basis. He's happy to take it on, and soon moves in. However much to his horror and surprise, Elizabeth starts appearing in the apartment all the time. It is her apartment he is occupying. She doesn't think she's a ghost, but she can't explain what's happening and can't remember what happened to her. They embark on a journey of uncovering what happened to her in the hopes they can both move on. 
"Just Like Heaven" tries to make a dramatic premise for a storyline into a "meet-cute" type of romantic film. And that turns out to be one of its biggest issues. It tries to make light of the fact that this character had a nearly fatal car crash, is lying in a coma (always looking great though), and its quasi ghost persona is roaming around trying to connect with someone she was meant to be with, while also saving herself. While Pedro Almodovar also tackled the premise of women in a coma in his wonderful "Hable con Ella/Talk to Her", his much more layered narrative allowed for those women to come to life by contextualizing who they were prior to their dramatic medical issue. Almodovar also built a series of relationships connecting those two women, which further explained how they related to the men in their lives and how they both had a web of connections that informed who they were. Sadly in this "Just Like Heaven", both characters are stunted puppets servicing some romantic comedy tropes (the same going for the supporting characters), never truly making these characters come to life beyond the very limited archetypes they represent. The cast tries their best to bring this story to life, with Reese Witherspoon once again playing the overachiever, Mark Ruffalo the disheveled yet sensitive romantic interest, Jon Heder the eccentric supporting character, and Donal Logue and Dina Spybey as the friend/family archetypes. Sadly it's a film that doesn't work, from the tone to the production itself, with some lackluster visual effects (and good luck finding an apartment that size available in San Francisco). One to skip. 

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Cabin Fever

Movie Name:
Cabin Fever
Year of Release: 2002
Director: Eli Roth
Starring: Rider Strong, Jordan Ladd, James DeBello, Cerina Vincent, Joey Kern, Arie Verveen, Matthew Helms, Eli Roth, Tim Parati, Hal Courtney, Dalton McGuire, Dante Walker
Genre: Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
Watch it on Amazon Prime

Synopsis and Review
Though now writer/director Eli Roth is a well known and celebrated film maker, "Cabin Fever" is in reality his feature directorial debut, which had its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2002. The film follows the story of a group of college friends, who decide to go unwind and spend a weekend in a remote cabin in the woods for Spring Break. While there they come in contact with a hermit by the name of Henry, who has become infected by something his dog was carrying. The group decides to push him away, and when he attempts to take their car to seek help, they eventually kill him. The next day some of the members of the group set out to find some help to repair the car, while the sensitive Paul who has always had a crush on Karen, stays behind trying to comfort her for what happened with Henry. When things start getting more intimate, she realizes she has an infection in her groin. As it worsens, the group decides to isolate her in a nearby shed, for fear of contamination. As events escalate and the infection progressively spreads throughout the group, Paul discovers that Henry's dead body ended up on the water reservoir and has in fact contaminated the water supply. 
"Cabin Fever"'s setting immediately brings to mind Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead". However and unlike that series, this film goes in a slightly different direction, one that is not so reliant on the paranormal, but one that instead relies on a few different horror movie tropes that hark back to even John Boorman's "Deliverance" (or for that matter, Wes Craven's "The Hills Have Eyes"), case in point, people on remote and isolated villages who are vile, violent and racist (to name but a few of the terms with which they're characterized). What gives "Cabin Fever" its distinct flavor is the fact that the director sets a horrific set of events in motion, each perpetually worse than the previous, while also playing with the tropes of the genre itself (turns out these teenagers are not so innocent, and the people in the remote village, are not all overwhelmingly so vile). However and while the director keeps a brisk pacing to the events taking place, with the film at times playing like a taut B-movie, it still lacks more dimension to its characters, not to mention some insightful humor and a more distinct tone/point of view (for instance, akin to what Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino did with their "Grindhouse" films). The cast is uneven in their quest for success in bringing these characters to life, but the film is nonetheless watchable, though not necessarily memorable. 

Friends with Money

Movie Name: 
Friends with Money
Year of Release: 2006
Director: Nicole Holofcener
Starring: Frances McDormand, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Aniston, Joan Cusack, Jason Isaacs, Simon McBurney, Greg Germann, Timm Sharp, Jake Cherry, Scott Caan, Bob Stephenson, Marin Hinkle, Ty Burrell, Troy Ruptash
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
Watch it on Amazon Prime

Synopsis and Review
After "Lovely & Amazing" which premiered in 2001 to solid reviews, writer/director Nicole Holofcener tackled a few directing jobs for reputable shows (including Alan Ball's "Six Feet Under"), before resuming her feature directorial career with "Friends with Money", which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The film follows the story of a group of friends, 4 women who have known each other for quite some time. With the exception of Olivia, who is single, all the women are married. Jane is a fashion designer, who is having issues with getting older, and who has a supporting husband who wants to have another child (and who everyone thinks is gay). Christine is a screenwriter, and is tangled up in a renovation & expansion project with her house, and is constantly fighting with her husband, who seems to really not care or even bother with her, Finally there's Franny, who lives off a trust fund with her husband Matt. Olivia in the meantime has quit her job as a teacher, and now makes ends meet by being a cleaning lady. Her friends are all going through their own challenges, but are also concerned about Olivia's relationships so much that Franny in particular decides to set her up with her personal trainer. 
"Friends with Money" has the clear benefit of having a terrific cast, one that is capable of making all these characters imminently watchable and viewable. However, what they can't really do is actually make these characters particularly interesting, and therein lies the problem with the narrative and the film itself. While there's a somewhat contemplative tone to the film, the feature never truly questions any of the status quo of these individuals, what made their lives what they are, and why they stay in the relationships they have. Even the slightly homophobic tone that happens throughout the film towards Jane's husband ("he's clearly gay", as if that was possibly the worst thing in existence), never goes beyond that, nothing is ever truly explored about that character, aside from a flirtatious episode he has with Ty Burrell's character (and that episode itself and where it leads, is also of questionable taste in terms of what it hints at). Some possible emotional probing almost occurs with Christine and her relationship, but that is also wrapped up and quickly settled. In the end, Olivia's journey which seems the most distinct of all, particularly for all its challenges, also remains unsatisfying not because of its uncertainty, but mostly because her ambitions, longings and aspirations remain opaque and never truly rendered. It's a surprisingly shallow film, which never truly works neither as a satire nor as a dramatic vehicle. The saving grace for this film is indeed its cast, with everyone managing to make this enjoyable and watchable, particularly Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand, Joan Cusack and Jason Isaacs, even if there's not much to it. It's watchable, but sadly not memorable. 

The Northman

Movie Name:
The Northman
Year of Release: 2022
Director: Robert Eggers
Starring: Alexander Skarsgard, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Bjork, Willem Dafoe, Gustav Lindh, Elliott Rose, Phill Martin, Eldar Skar, Olwen Fouere, Edgar Abram, Ingvar Sigurdsson
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review
Writer/director Robert Eggers has returned after the well received and celebrated "The Lighthouse". "The Northman" is a passion project from its lead actor Alexander Skarsgard, and its narrative is based on the legend of Amleth, a medieval Scandinavian legend, who turns out was also a direct inspiration for William Shakespeare's Hamlet. The film follows the story of young prince Amleth in the 9th century. His father recently returned from overseas conquests, fears his time is at hand, since he was seriously injured in his last excursion. As he prepares Amleth to take over, even in his young age, he is betrayed by his half brother who murders him, and wants to kill Amleth as well. Amleth manages to escape and promises revenge. Years later, now an adult, Amleth is involved with a Viking group in taking over and pillaging small kingdoms. After taking over a village, he's warned by an oracle of what lies ahead, namely of his quest for revenge, what has since happened to his uncle and mother, and how his life is going to be tangled with that of a young maiden. Amleth sets a plan in motion, which includes pretending to be a slave and going to Iceland in order to fulfill his destiny. On his route he meets Olga, a young captured woman who claims to be a sorceress, and they eventually become slaves for his uncle, Fjolnir. Amleth bides his time, observing his mother who has since bore a son for his uncle, deepening his relationship with Olga, and setting his plans in motion. 
"The Northman" is a deeply immersive film, thanks mostly to the director and his production team who manage to create a fiercely compelling and gritty look, representative of medieval times. At a time where many TV shows such as "Game of Thrones" and even "Lord of the Rings", seem to have mapped out what is perceived to be the Middle Ages or something fantastical akin to that, this film opts for a visual that simultaneously tries to be more realistic, but also and personally, something that instantly reminded me of John Boorman's "Excalibur". The medieval legend at the core of the narrative isn't of course a profoundly different tale than many medieval revenge tales that have bee tackled on screen. What is indeed quite rewarding about this feature is Robert Eggers' point of view, one that combines a formal and distinctive aesthetic flair, with a cast that tries to embody these characters the best way they can. And while the story is indeed visibly and vividly brought to life, the fact remains that most supporting characters end up being sketches, while the female characters are for the most part largely flat and have almost nothing to do (Nicole Kidman's Gudrun has one moment in the entire feature, in what is her interaction with her adult son, whereas Anya Taylor-Joy's Olga doesn't even get that). The film largely remains focused on Alexander Skarsgard's capable hands, with the actor solidly illustrating both the ferocious warrior, but also the wounded soul and son, one who is trying to respect his father's wishes, but also one who wants to fulfill his destiny. While the antagonism between the main forces never truly crystalizes into something memorable, the narrative is nonetheless peppered with striking events and episodes. It's a beautifully rendered film, one that could have indeed benefited from some additional character development, but nonetheless one that is ambitious, and showcases Robert Eggers ability to draw good performances from his cast. The cinematography from Jarin Blaschke is wonderful, as is the production design from Craig Lathrop. Worth watching.

Monday, October 31, 2022

Blonde

Movie Name:
Blonde
Year of Release: 2022
Director: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, Julianne Nicholson, Xavier Samuel, Evan Williams, Dan Butler, Lily Fisher, Toby Huss, Scoot McNairy, Ned Bellamy, Sara Paxton, Caspar Phillipson
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Netflix

Synopsis and Review
Writer/director Andrew Dominik is back, following a long hiatus since his previous feature, "Killing Them Softly" (in the interim he did direct some episodes of the series "Mindhunter"). His new feature is an adaptation of the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, and follows the life of big screen icon Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jeane Baker. We witness her humble beginnings with her mother, and her mother's mental health issues which have a profound impact on Norma Jeane's upbringing. Her mom also informs her that her dad is someone well known in the entertainment industry, and that he is absent largely because of her. After a dramatic episode which lands her in a mental institution, Norma Jeane finds herself alone, and is dropped off in a state institution. A few years later we witness her progressive success as a model, and her first dabbles in entering the movie business, already under the moniker of Marilyn Monroe. As she navigates these first interactions in the business, further trauma is inflicted upon her, but she eventually starts a relationship with both Cass and Eddy (the sons of Charles Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson). That relationship results in an unexpected pregnancy, which she terminates much to her despair. After that situation, she embarks on a few additional relationships with more well known men, namely Joe DiMaggio, who is somehow controlling and brutal to her, and the writer Arthur Miller, with whom she has a semblance of domestic bliss, until another unexpected miscarriage occurs. Around this time her own relationship with the Marilyn Monroe persona starts to create conflicts within her and with those around her. 
Andrew Dominik had this film in the works for quite sometime, and its leading lady changed throughout the years, as the film languished in development. It was finally scooped by Netflix, which also gave it a wide release in its platform. Marilyn Monroe's life and career is at this point a subject that has been covered by so many films, plays, and books, that what this film unveils in terms of content isn't necessarily something new. However what is interesting about Andrew Dominik is the point of view and the angle with which he approaches this narrative. He mostly anchors this story on the fact that Norma Jeane/Marilyn is somewhat of a lost person, always waiting for her father figure to present himself and provide the stability and support she never had growing up. As she looks for that in the men she has relationships with, she invariably gets manipulated and later on as she makes her way in Hollywood, she gets chewed up by a system that is vicious towards women. It's an interesting angle, but one that is repetitive and constantly hammered throughout the whole duration of the feature, capturing Marilyn Monroe/Norma Jeane as someone perpetually at the brink of a dramatic collapse. And while the drama and emotional strain of course makes for compelling viewership, it also reduces her persona to a very narrow collection of traits and complexity is also flattened. Independently of the content, Andrew Dominik manages to bring his strong point of view, both stylistically, but also from the work with his actors, all of which is quite strong. Ana de Armas is fantastic as Marilyn, and has great support from Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, Julianne Nicholson, Dan Butler and Toby Huss. The cinematography from Chayse Irvin is stunning as is the score from Warren Ellis and Nick Cave. While not necessarily as solid as his previous features, it's nonetheless worth watching. 

Sunday, October 23, 2022

The Purge: Election Year

Movie Name:
The Purge: Election Year
Year of Release: 2022
Director: James DeMonaco
Starring: Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Mykelti Williamson, Joseph Julian Soria, Betty Gabriel, Terry Serpico, Edwin Hodge, Kyle Secor, Ethan Phillips, Adam Cantor, Christopher James Baker, Jared Kemp, Raymond J. Barry, 
Genre: Action, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon Prime

Synopsis and Review
James DeMonaco who has originated The Purge franchise, has continued to mine the series with additional titles, and this one in particular came out in 2016, coincidentally an election year as well. The film follows the story of Leo Barnes, now handling security for Senator Charlene Roan, who has actually survived a traumatic purge ritual, where most of her family got killed. Now in 2040, that senator is running for President on the premise of ending the purge for good. Her main opposing candidate, also aligned with the current administration, decide to revoke immunity on government officials during the Purge, so they can target her specifically (and eliminate the competition). At the same time this is occurring, deli owner Joe Dixon and his assistant Marcos are dealing with issues of their own, which they can overcome thanks to the presence of Medical Emergency Tech Laney Rucker.  On the night of the Purge, Leo and Charlene quickly realized they've been betrayed, as their security team gets killed, forcing Leo to take Charlene to the streets. They eventually get rescued by Joe and then Laney, and as they seek to avoid being hunted by the team on Charlene's pursuit, they get further assistance by another underground group who is intent on putting an end to the Purge. While fleeing the city, the ambulance which they're using to get away is hit and Charlene is captured. Leo, Joe, Laney, and their recent collaborators go in her pursuit, hoping to save her. 
The nihilistic future "The Purge" sets in motion seems more and more closer to reality, one where privileged sectors of society control its fate and outcomes and where those marginalized suffer the brunt of the challenges in terms of security, stability and hope. This subject matter makes for interesting socially driven films (Ken Loach has made a career of tackling social inequality driven topics), however "The Purge: Election Year", definitely moves in the direction of being a steadfast genre B-movie, while also peppering its narrative with these insights on the perpetual state of inequalities in society. DeMonaco navigates the action set pieces and what he's trying to say message wise fairly deftly, and as a polished B-movie the film for the most part succeeds in getting its point across. The characters are faintly characterized, which is where the film loses some charm, since they're all very highly contrasting, without much nuance, which is to say, the good characters are very beatific and the bad characters, are essentially well deserving of whatever is coming their way. And while this is indeed the premise and terrain in which these films operate, it also dimmers their reach and some of the commentary they set in motion (a bit similar to the conversations and discussions the "Dirty Harry" series started in 1971). The supporting cast brings much of the engagement to this narrative, in particular Mykelti Williamson, Betty Gabriel and Kyle Secor. The cinematography from Jacques Jouffret is effective as is the score from Nathan Whitehead. Worth watching. 

Christine

Movie Name:
Christine
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Antonio Campos 
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Maria Dizzia, J. Smith-Cameron, Timothy Simons, Kim Shaw, John Cullum, Morgan Spector, Jayson Warner Smith, Kimberley Drummond, Lindsay Ayliffe
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon Prime

Synopsis and Review
After making a name for himself with the features "Afterschool" and "Simon Killer", director Antonio Campos tackled the true life story of reporter Christine Chubbuck with  "Christine", written by Craig Shilowich, in his first produced script (though Shilowich has had a considerable career in producing duties). The narrative focuses on the story of Christine Chubbuck, a news reporter originally from Ohio, who by 1974, at the brink of turning 30 had recently moved to Sarasota, Florida, and was working for a local TV station. She was at the time living with her mother, and had a contentious relationship with the station director, Michael Nelson. Michael wanted for her stories to be more crime focused, more ratings driven, as opposed to human-interest pieces. She nursed a crush on the station's news anchor, George Peter Ryan, which never went anywhere, as his focus was on someone else. As Christine dealt with some health issues, she also learnt that George had gotten a promotion, which translated into an opportunity of going to Baltimore. Witnessing her ambitions being thwarted, Christine was further disillusioned but maintained an air of composure both to her mother and her co-workers, until her final moments. 
"Christine" makes for an interesting viewing experience, since it showcases both the professional and personal challenges a woman with a fairly visible position in the workforce faced in the 70s. It was a transitional period for women as the women's liberation movement which started in the late 60s, was still making its strides. It's also a film that while acknowledging some of the mental health problems Christine was dealing with, which included her struggles with depression and inability to establish close personal relationships, shies away from actually giving a point of view or perspective on what had shaped her condition or was prompting those issues. While the narrative smartly focuses on a very specific timeline, aside from Christine, most of the remaining characters are faint sketches always portrayed with a focus on a specific trait or particular angle (for instance, the station's manager who is always at odds with Christine, the charming lead anchor, the supporting co-worker, and her mother, who lives with her). Christine herself is perpetually characterized in a very unique tone, as someone who is ambitious, inflexible and seemingly devoid of a sense of humor. It's a film who tries to humanize a dramatic situation, but does so while reducing someone to a patterned behavior. The cast is filled with talented performers, starting with Rebecca Hall in the central role, with great support from Tracy Letts, Michael C. Hall, Maria Dizzia and the underrated and always great J. Smith-Cameron. The cinematography from Joe Anderson is solid, as is the production design by Scott Kuzio and costumes by Emma Potter. It's an interesting film and rendering from a dramatic and true story. 

The School for Good and Evil

Movie Name:
The School for Good and Evil
Year of Release: 2022
Director: Paul Weitz
Starring: Sofia Wylie, Sophia Anne Caruso, Charlize Theron, Kerry Washington, Laurence Fishburne, Kit Young, Cate Blanchett, Michelle Yeoh, Peter Serafinowicz, Earl Cave, Jamie Flatters, Oliver Watson, Myles Kamwendo, Misia Butler, Steven Calpert, Patti LuPone
Genre: Action, Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
Watch it on Netflix

Synopsis and Review
Director Paul Feig is back, following a string of films that were met with a tepid response, namely "A Simple Favor" and "Last Christmas". This time around he's adapting a well known and popular young adult novel from author Soman Chainani, who has already a series of novels written in this series. The narrative follows the story of two lifelong best friends, Sophie and Agatha. They both live in a small village by the name of Gavaldon, and are considered outcasts by most of the other teenagers in the village. They soon find out about the School for Good and Evil, and through a series of circumstances find themselves there, with Sophie being placed in the School for Evil and Agatha in the school for Good. As Sophie tries to get her way back to the School for Good, they soon become targets for the school's cliques though Agatha soon learns there's more to their headmistresses intent that they have led on. As both girls navigate the school's inner workings and machinations, they also realize there's a larger and more sinister intent behind some of the events that led them there, from a villainous force that they've yet to contend with. 
"The School for Good and Evil" suffers from an obvious issue of coming at the heels of the Harry Potter universe and suffering from the obvious comparisons with it. However , whereas the Harry Potter films grew progressively darker as the narrative went along, this one in particular has a distinct tone, at times remembering more Tommy O'Haver's "Ella Enchanted", mixing lighthearted banter with darkly menacing high school comedies (a magical version of Michael Lehman's "Heathers"). The tone also trickles to the characters, who sadly never get to be much more than stereotypes, from the leads all the way to the supporting and supposedly more colorful characters, whose tone oscillates from sincere and heartfelt, to over the top and nearly risible (and not in a good way). For all the world building the director sets in motion, and the sheer amount of characters that are introduced, the narrative feels rushed, never giving any of the characters enough room to create an impactful statement (or presence). Both Charlize Theron and Kerry Washington are underserved, as is Laurence Fishburne and Michelle Yeoh in much smaller roles, and from a production design statement, this feature bears more resemblances with Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" films (from Tim Burton and James Bobin), more so than the Harry Potter ones (which isn't good either). The cinematography from John Schwartzman is solid, as is the score from Theodore Shapiro. It's a misstep for this interesting director, a questionably tasteful film that is quickly forgotten. 

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Goodnight Mommy

Movie Name:
Goodnight Mommy
Year of Release: 2022
Director: Matt Sobel
Starring: Naomi Watts, Cameron Crovetti, Nicholas Crovetti, Peter Hermann, Jeremy Bobb, Crystal Lucas-Perry
Genre: Drama, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
Watch it on Amazon Prime

Synopsis and Review
"Goodnight Mommy" has the distinction of being Matt Sobel's sophomore feature, and also a remake of a very well received Austrian film with the same name from directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. The film focuses its narrative on twin brothers Elias and Lukas who are coming to their mother's home to spend some time with her. Their parents have separated/divorced, and this is the first time they have seen her in a while. Much to their surprise, they find her wearing an almost all concealing face mask, since she communicates to them she has had some surgery to refresh herself up. The boys notice her behavior seems different, since she doesn't want to spend much time with them, imposes a series of rules, which includes not going to her room or the barn in the back, and generally speaking, just keep low energy. They soon suspect the person behind the mask is not their mother at all, a suspicion which becomes more noticeable when they verify that the person living with them has blue eyes whereas their mother has green eyes (at least according to a headshot she has in her house). Terrified, they flee and seek the help from neighbors, only to realize that the nearest house of those same neighbors is actually deserted. Some state troopers find them and return them to their mother's house, who by then has taken off the face mask. As the brothers try to survive the situation, things quickly escalate. 
"Goodnight Mommy" benefits from the fact that Matt Sobel efficiently characterizes the relationship between the twin brothers as one filled with complicity, support and to a certain extent, joy. The director also successfully builds and captures the tension that exists in the household, in the damaged relationship between the somewhat absent mother and their children. While the lack of additional context in what caused the rift and distance between the mother and their children allows for the ambiguity in which the narrative lives to keep the audience engaged, as the events unfurl, there are somewhat sudden changes of attitude, particularly from Naomi Watts' mother character that are a bit more surprising (and don't necessarily feel the most logical). While the film has a third act which seems almost identical to the reveal moment from a M. Night Shyamalan's feature, it fails to resonate quite as strongly since for the most part of the narrative the mother character was always presented in a repetitively unique fashion, without deviating much from a repetitive pattern. By the time we start to understand a bit more about who she is, and what has driven her, the film is nearing its end, and by then the final reveal is front and center in the narrative. All this to say, the peeling of the mask which occurs with that enigmatic character could have occurred more progressively, so the dimension of that character was more vividly understood. As it is, the film comes across as a somewhat taut and polished B-movie, which takes a not entirely unexpected final turn. The always excellent Naomi Watts manages to keep the film afloat, with good support from both Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti. The production team is solid, featuring the cinematography from Alexander Dynan and production design from Mary Lena Colston. Watchable but forgettable. 

Halloween Ends

Movie Name:
Halloween Ends
Year of Release: 2022
Director: David Gordon Green
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Andi Matichak, Rohan Campbell, Will Patton, Jesse C. Boyd, Michael Barbieri, Destiny Mone, Joey Harris, Marteen, Joanne Baron, Rick Moose, Michele Dawson, Keraun Harris, Kyle Richards, Michael O'Leary, Candice Rose, Jaxon Goldenberg, James Jude Courtney, Jack William Marshall, Diva Tyler, Blaque Fowler
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 2
View Trailer

Synopsis and Review
Director David Gordon Green's eclectic career continues and this film is his wrap up of his take on the "Halloween" characters John Carpenter originated in 1978. The narrative focuses once again on Laurie Strode, who after the events of the previous feature and the brutal death of her daughter, is now living in the suburbs with her granddaughter, trying to rebuild her life away from all that trauma. She crosses paths with a young man by the name of Corey, who has experienced his fair share of trauma after a dramatic babysitting event which resulted in the death of a young child. Looking to help Corey, Laurie also introduces him to Allyson her granddaughter, who immediately is drawn to him. Corey however has his own demons, and he eventually comes face to face with Michael Myers, who has been laying somewhat dormant since the latest killing spree. There's a symbiotic relationship that is started between the two, which results in Corey seeking revenge on those who were demeaning or violent towards him, with brutal consequences. And while this happens, Michael Myers has a resurgence of his own, seeking Laurie to put an end to his journey.
"Halloween Ends" sadly is not a fitting end to a trilogy or even an elegant homage to the work John Carpenter crafted with his iconic original feature. What was always so remarkable about that film was how economically stated the director managed to be, creating just enough of dimension to those characters for us to be invested in their fate, while also forcing us to embrace the enigma that was Michael Myers. We never truly understood his motivations, but as Donald Pleasance's frantic quest continued, we embarked on his and eventually on Laurie's journey. This new script places Laurie as a reflective survivor, somewhat licking her wounds, focused on protecting her granddaughter, who is drawn to a character who has been damaged by life and is just trying to get by. The problems start with the fact that this new central character that is introduced, while inhabiting a gray zone of being a catalyst for death and also a victim, doesn't have much in terms of his own actual motivations. His encounter with Michael Myers which could be a dramatic and life changing moment in his life (and in Michael's as well), comes across as an interlude moment in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", coincidentally where also some its action set pieces also took place in the sewers. While the narrative has little nuance and is trite and filled with clichés (Laurie's pleas for her granddaughter not to leave town with Corey, and Allyson's rebel moment to seemingly disavow her life long protector, a la Romeo and Juliet), the film itself looks and feels poorly shot, edited and assembled. The brutality of the staged screen deaths, does not hide the fact that the suspense of working with shadows, and everything that made the original so enticing (less is more in terms of what you show), is completely gone. The cinematography doesn't work, the production design is poor and all that is left is the score from John Carpenter, this time working with his son Cody and Daniel Davies, and the always compelling presence of Jamie Lee Curtis. I admit to be surprised by the lack of attention that seems to have been devoted to this film, and I question the direction in which David Gordon Green seems to be going. Avoid. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Do Revenge

Movie Name: 
Do Revenge
Year of Release: 2022
Director: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson
Starring: Camilla Mendes, Maya Hawke, Austin Abrams, Rish Shah, Talia Ryder, Alisha Boe, Ava Capri, Paris Berelc, JD, Maia Reficco, Sophie Turner, Rachel Matthews, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Eliza Bennett, Francesca Reale
Genre: Comey
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
Watch it on Netflix

Synopsis and Review
Writer/Director Jennifer Kaytin Robinson continues her collaboration with Netflix, with her sophomore directorial effort, following her debut entitled "Someone Great". "Do Revenge" focuses its narrative on two high school seniors, Drea and Eleanor, who both attend a costly private school and have high hopes of getting into Ivy League universities. Drea's hopes suffer a huge blow when her boyfriend, the rich and privileged Max leaks a sex video they both did, even though he denies it. Drea suffers most of the downfall of that escapade and most of her friends soon abandon her. Unlike everyone she knows, she goes to the school on a scholarship, since her single mom is a nurse and can't afford her tuition. She convinces the recently moved into the school Eleanor to work with her in an elaborate revenge plan, where they each go after the people who wronged them, but with Eleanor going after Drea's targets and Drea's focusing on Eleanor's tormentors. They soon start seeing some results, with Eleanor's antagonist soon expelled from the school for planting drugs in the communal farm, though Drea's situation is far more complicated due to Max's popularity. However as their relationship evolves, not all is what it seems in these two girls lives. 
"Do Revenge" uses Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" as a baseline premise (and that film in turn was an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel, with a screenplay from Raymond Chandler, Whitfield Cook and Czenzi Ormonde) in order to create this new version of a dark teen comedy, taking place in an upscale high school. The biggest challenge with this film however is that unlike Michael Lehman's "Heathers" or even Amy Heckerling's "Clueless", while this writer/director knows exactly what the cliches surrounding these characters are, she doesn't necessarily try to add much dimension to them or for that matter, populate it with a layer of humor. There's a glossiness to the film which allows for the universe that it depicts to come across very rapidly and evidently, but while Mark Waters' "Mean Girls" allowed for the characters to experience an evolution throughout the narrative, while also marrying that same narrative with a fantastic sense of humor, this feature by contrast attempts to illustrate the modern mentality of our times, and how that at times is a perfect escapade for people to get away with very bad behaviors. The film's plot and twists ultimately don't add much in terms of giving the characters that additional spark and in the end its tone isn't necessarily the most successful, since it's not exactly a particularly satisfying satire, ending up being more of a light romance with pseudo edgy characters who in the end aren't edgy at all. Camilla Mendes and Maya Hawke are successful in bringing their characters to life, as is Sarah Michelle Gellar as the headmistress of the school. The cinematography from Brian Burgoyne is solid, as is the production design from Hillary Gurtler. While not terrible, it's a rather forgettable film.