Sunday, July 31, 2022

The Devil Wears Prada

Movie Name:
The Devil Wears Prada
Year of Release: 2006
Director: David Frankel
Starring: Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Emily Blunt, Stanley Tucci, Adrian Grenier, Simon Baker, Tracie Thoms, Rich Sommer, Daniel Sunjata, David Marshall Grant, James Naughton, Tibor Feldman, Rebecca Mader, John Rothman
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review
With a career peppered with brilliant roles and performances, Meryl Streep's rendition of Miranda Priestley in "The Devil Wears Prada" is still to this day, one of her most memorable and instantly recognizable roles. The film which is an adaptation of Lauren Weisberger's novel, follows the story of Andy Sachs, a young journalism graduate who applies for a job at Runway, a prestigious and well known fashion magazine. The role she specifically is considered for is that of second assistant to the magazine's Editor-in-Chief, Miranda Priestley. After initially being dismissed due to not fitting the style they want, she manages to intrigue Miranda and is hired. While initially she struggles with fitting in, mostly due to the fact that she believes to be above fashion and its trends, Andy quickly learns some valuable lessons thanks in no part to Nigel, a close confidant of Miranda and a successful Art Director in his own right. She evolves her style and also her work ethic, constantly fulfilling Miranda's demands, at times going beyond what is actually professionally possible to be delivered. She soon finds herself struggling with her personal relationships, while also at work she is presented with a tough and morally challenging situation when Miranda asks her to go Paris for the fashion shows, something her colleague Emily had been longing to do for quite some time.
"The Devil Wears Prada" is a perfect example of how the brilliance of a performance can at times actually minimize the entire narrative of a film. "The Devil Wears Prada" is intended to be the story of how Andrea/Andy, a young and somewhat ambitious wannabe, gets tangled up in a high profile job which threatens to eat away at her soul and integrity. A bit like Alexander Mackendrick's "Sweet Smell of Success", only without the sophisticated scenario, "The Devil Wears Prada" features an iconic and ruthless figurehead, one that is feared by all, and that Meryl Streep manages to create as both a collection of quotable expressions and soundbites, but also someone she humanizes, by showing the person behind the facade. Even without being the central character in the narrative, she manages to maker her character simultaneously the most outlandish one, and the most humane. David Frankel who started his career in television before making his feature directorial debut with "Miami Rhapsody" in 1995, merely illustrates the narrative, failing to bring much in terms of a distinct storytelling, style or point of view. The film is nonetheless watchable, with the director capturing influences from Charles Shyer ("Baby Boom"), Rob Reiner ("When Harry Met Sally"), Nancy Meyers ("Something's Gotta Give") and even Nora Ephron ("You've Got Mail"), all films and directors who have somehow defined the staple for this type of "polished and elegant" comedy, where no one is ever particularly vicious, or insufferable, and where everyone is always minimally rich. The supporting cast manages to bring some dimension to the film, with particular emphasis going to Emily Blunt (in her breakout role) and Stanley Tucci. Anne Hathaway's role, for all her charm and competence, could in fact be played by a variety of other actresses to more memorable results (at the time, why not hire Reese Witherspoon or the edgier Eva Green for that role). The cinematography from Florian Ballhaus is solid, as is the score from Theodore Shapiro. The film is ultimately a good showcase for Meryl Streep's magnum talent, in a somewhat generic wrapper of a film. 

John Carpenter's Vampires

Movie Name:
Vampires
Year of Release: 1998
Director: John Carpenter
Starring: James Woods, Daniel Baldwin, Sheryl Lee, Thomas Ian Griffith, Maximilian Schell, Tim Guinee, Mark Boone Junior, Gregory Sierra, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Thomas Rosales Jr., Henry Kingi
Genre: Action, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review
The 90s were an interesting decade for the fantastic John Carpenter. While he managed to create some solid films for his cannon, including "In the Mouth of Madness", the underrated "Memoirs of an Invisible Man" and "Village of the Damned", he also released "Escape from L.A." and "Vampires", both of which were met with a tepid response. "Vampires" focuses its narrative on Jack Crow, a vampire hunter/slayer, whose activities are sponsored by the Vatican. He has assembled a solid crew which includes his good friend and second in command, Tony Montoya. After a particularly successful hunt and disposal mission, all of his team is celebrating, until they're caught by the Vampire leader, whom up until that moment they had been unable to locate. That Vampire, by the name of Valek, kills everyone, save for Crow and Montoya who manage to escape, taking with them Katrina, a woman Valek had bitten, thus creating a psychic link with him. Crow meets with his superior, Cardinal Alba, who explains Valek is in reality a disgraced priest who led a rebellion against the church centuries ago, which eventually led to his execution and transformation into the first vampire. Crow goes on the hunt once again with the additional assistance of Father Guiteau, and soon they reconnect with Montoya and Katrina, leveraging her link with the master Vampire, to locate him. Valek however has been recruiting and all is not as transparent as Crow has been led to believe. 
"Vampires" most interesting aspect lies in the perspective John Carpenter brings into the film, shooting it very much like a B-movie western (with faint traces of Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch"). Characters are economically established with bare dimension to them, with the single purpose of getting the action going. Something John Carpenter has always been able to successfully do, even with low budgets, is effectively create a context in which his characters live, making the narratives all the more consistent and enthralling. "Vampires" brings to mind Robert Rodriguez's "From Dusk till Dawn", which in itself isn't that memorable, without ever truly establishing an identity of its own. It's a film that lacks some of the visual inventiveness of the director, something that may be tied with some issues he encountered while shooting the film. The cast is also not as compelling as his previous features, with Sheryl Lee and Maximilian Schell being the highlights of the film, whereas the lead character needed someone who could marry grit, charisma and resourcefulness, something James Woods sadly is unable to properly translate (he plays the character very similarly to the work he did in Luis Llosa's "The Specialist" or even John Badham's "The Hard Way"). Thomas Ian Griffith sadly also does not bring much to the role of Valek, making the central villain an anemic one. In the end, while not a dreadful film, it's not one of the most memorable endeavors from the always compelling John Carpenter.  

Monday, July 25, 2022

Umma

Movie Name:
Umma
Year of Release: 2022
Director: Iris K. Shim
Starring: Sandra Oh, Fivel Stewart, Dermot Mulroney, Odeya Rush, MeeWha Alana Lee, Tom Yi
Genre: Drama, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
Watch it on Netflix

Synopsis and Review
Another release hailing from Netflix, and another directorial debut, this time around for Iris K. Shim, whose previous works includes some shorts and also documentary features. "Umma" follows the story of Amanda, who lives with her daughter Chrissy on a farm, raising bees, selling honey, and also raising chickens, all this without modern technology. Amanda has explained to Chrissy she has an allergic reaction to electronics and electricity, which explains the somewhat rustic way they have lived. Amanda is surprised to learn Chrissy wants to leave the farm and go to college. At the same time she receives the visit from her uncle from Korea, who is delivering the ashes of her recently deceased mother. These events spark some memories of her abusive childhood. Turns out Amanda was raised by her mother, whom she refers as Umma, in the US, and her mother was unable to speak English or understand the culture. Amanda fabricated her pseudo allergy to electricity, since her mother used to shock her multiple times as a punishment. Amanda eventually cut ties with her mother and her culture. Soon after the ashes arrive, a vicious spirit appears, with the intention of claiming Amanda's body. As the supernatural events continue to present themselves, Amanda's fears she's becoming her mother intensify. This is also enhanced by Chrissy's desire to leave for college. When Amanda decide's to bury her mother's ashes, a flurry of events occur which threaten the peaceful existence she has carved for herself and her daughter.
One of the biggest issues with "Umma" doesn't lie with the fact that it doesn't have an interesting premise. In reality the premise itself is fantastic, since it deals with issues such as cultural inadequacy, loneliness, alienation of affection and fear of abandonment. What doesn't really work is that the film showcases the relationship between this mother and daughter in a somewhat shallow manner, never truly going beyond the superficiality of certain tasks, or for that matter, never illustrating the ties that bind these characters. For that matter, it doesn't do the same for Amanda and her relationship with Umma. And that's one of the film's biggest gaps, because there's not much context illustrated for what Amanda went through in the past, and how that shaped her present (including her own relationships with others). While the film toys with shadows and darkness to build this ominous environment, it's at times too dark to actually allow the viewer to catch a glimpse of whatever is happening, which is also an apt metaphor for the fact that so much of background on these characters is actually given. It's a film that feels built around an interesting concept, but which has failed to materialize itself with actual characters and storytelling behind them. Sandra Oh tries her best to bring Amanda to life, but there's so much more to explore in that character that her rendition feels somewhat incomplete, the same going for the supporting cast who sadly never have much to do (her daughter apparently only wants to go to college, and has no interests other than that). The cinematography from Matt Flannery is at times too dark, and the production design from Yong Ok Lee is stark but efficient. While not a dreadful film, it definitely could have benefited from additional development time. As it is, it's forgettable. 

The Gray Man

Movie Name:
The Gray Man
Year of Release: 2022
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Billy Bob Thornton, Jessica Henwick, Dhanush, Alfre Woodard, Rene-Jean Page, Wagner Moura, Julia Butters, Shea Whigham, Robert Kazinsky
Genre: Action, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 2
Watch it on Netflix

Synopsis and Review
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo are back, following "Cherry" which they tackled for Apple's streaming service. "The Gray Man" is an adaptation of a book by Mark Greaney, and follows the story of a man by the code name of Six, whom we first encounter being recruited for a special undercover program, after being sentenced to jail for a particularly violent crime. Onwards a few years and Six as it turns out, is one of the most efficient agents of that secret initiative. In his latest assignment, he is given the directive to avoid a transaction taking place and take a particular target down. Things don't go quite so well, but much to Six's surprise, his target is another agent whom he doesn't know from his agency, under the name Four. Before dying, this individual tells him to take an encrypted drive, which contains data exposing the corruption going on in his agency, which traces itself to the people who are his actual bosses. His bosses intent on getting that drive back, unsuccessfully try to kill Six with their own team, and soon resort to hiring Lloyd Hansen, a former agent kicked out of the agency for being too violent. Six in the meantime becomes a worldwide target, since Hansen puts a bounty on his head, and as Six tries to elude his pursuers, his only assistance comes from Miranda, who has already been a good partner in a prior mission. Hansen however also holds a special trick up his sleeve, and is determined to get that drive and capture/kill Six.
"The Gray Man" is another Netflix production, one of their most expensive thus far, and yet it feels very much like a spy film from the 80s/90s that is essentially a mash of far better and more interesting films. There are elements of Luc Besson's "Nikita", Doug Liman's "The Bourne Identity", Richard Donner's "Assassins", Chad Stahelski's "John Wick" and even dashes of John McTiernan's "Die Hard" series peppered throughout this narrative, with obvious references also to Anthony and Joe Russo's own work in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier". All this to say, this film doesn't feel necessarily fresh or particularly distinctive, even if the directors did manage to hire a fantastic cast to bring this narrative to life. The main issue with the film is the fact that for all its mayhem and destruction, the film ultimately doesn't have much at its core in terms of character motivation or even much in terms of actually defining who these characters are. Whereas Jason Bourne's motivation in that series was to recover his memory and understand who he was, Six's motivation is the rescue of the niece of his mentor, and his nemesis who is simply established as deranged, quickly hates him with a passion. There isn't much subtlety in this film, and everything goes mechanically from one set piece to the next, as if the directors have failed to realize all the excellent work that Christopher McQuarrie for instance has done with the "Mission: Impossible" series, where there's a logic and a progressive momentum for what is occurring onscreen. The cast fails to bring much to the film, with Ryan Gosling tracing some aspects from his previous characters such as Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive" to his vision of whom Six is, whereas Chris Evans just repeats some of his prior performances but without much nuance and Ana de Armas doesn't really have much to do. It's a film that independently of its obvious production values, feels heavy handed, dated and made in auto-pilot (almost like everyone knew this was a flashy, glossy paycheck, and therefore their own investment was quite basic). The supporting cast also fails to register in a meaningful way, as does the production team itself (the cinematography from Stephen F. Windon is generic as is the score from Henry Jackman). Forgettable and unnecessary. 

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Monsters

Movie Name:
Monsters
Year of Release: 2010
Director: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able, Mario Zuniga Benavides, Annalee Jefferies, Justin Hall, Ricky Catter
Genre: Adventure, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon Prime

Synopsis and Review:
Though these days director Gareth Edwards is known for tackling "Godzilla" and "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story", his actual feature directorial debut was "Monsters", which he almost single handedly created on his own. The film which premiered at South by Southwest Film Festival in 2010, on its way to being well received a bit everywhere, follows the story of Sam Wynden and Andrew Kaulder who both meet in dire circumstances. Andrew is a photojournalist, and his boss asks him to escort his daughter Sam to safety in the US, since they're both in Mexico, and the border area between both countries is about to become inaccessible for quite some time. In fact that whole area has been riddled by issues since an alien species has come to Earth and latched on that particular area. The alien species came onboard of a space probe originally sent from Earth to investigate alien life forms. The creatures have quickly taken hold of the region, and the American side has built a large wall trying to prevent their invasion. After realizing the train lines are blocked and that option is no longer viable, they decide to hitchhike their way to the coast. Upon reaching the coast, Andrew buys a ferry ticket for Sam, however after a night of partying, they find themselves without passports (they were stolen by Andrew's casual partner of the evening). They use Sam's engagement ring to negotiate another exit strategy, this journey forcing them to go through the quarantine zone, including across the river and then by land.
Gareth Edwards managed to shoot "Monsters" on a very limited budget, with himself playing many of the production related roles, including cinematographer, visual effects supervisor, in addition to writing and directing the feature itself. And for the most part, he manages to be quite successful in his endeavors. With limited resources, he has successfully created an environment that very much feels like it is descending into an apocalyptic type of scenario, showcasing humanity's inability to unite their efforts, and also the chaos of dealing with the unknown. While not as distinctive and impactful as Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later" or inquisitive and ambitious as Alex Garland's "Annihilation", it's still very much a film that manages to convincingly portray this suspenseful and possibly lethal situation in which these characters find themselves in, smartly avoiding to gratuitously showcase much of the monsters themselves. The film feels at times like an extended "Twilight Zone" episode, save for the fact that the characters are very thinly characterized, and while their burgeoning romantic interest is completely expected, it also doesn't add much to the characters depth or for that matter, provide additional meaning to their travel. It's nonetheless an economically and smartly crafted film, featuring a solid performance from Scoot McNairy, and a stunning score from the always great Jon Hopkins. Worth watching. 

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride

Movie Name:
Tim Burton's Corpse Bride
Year of Release: 2005
Director: Tim Burton, Mike Johnson
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Richard E. Grant, Tracey Ullman, Joanna Lumley, Christopher Lee, Paul Whitehouse, Albert Finney, Michael Gough, Jane Horrocks, Enn Reitel, Deep Roy, Danny Elfman
Genre: Animation, Musical, Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon Prime

Synopsis and Review:
Coming off the well received "Big Fish", director Tim Burton premiered two films in 2005, firstly the re-imagining of Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", followed by "Corpse Bride", which he co-directed with Mike Johnson, while also authoring some of the characters of the narrative, leaving the screenplay itself in the capable hands of writer/screenwriter John August (whom with he also worked on "Big Fish", the aforementioned "Charlie...", and he would later work with again on "Frankenweenie" and "Dark Shadows"). The film which takes place in a Victorian town, follows the story of Victor, a young man still living at home with his family. His family has made its money in the fish industry, and he is betrothed to a young woman whom he has not met, by the name of Victoria. She is the only daughter of an aristocratic yet impoverished family, who considers this marriage like a transaction which will allow them to keep their mansion and their reputation. Victor is tremendously nervous with the whole situation, and when he accidentally meets Victoria before the wedding rehearsal, they both are drawn to each other, but Victor's nerves make him fail miserably during the rehearsal. Fleeing the scene, he goes to the woods, where he recites his vows out loud, and places the ring on what he thinks to be a tree. Turns out, it's actually the finger of a dead bride by the name of Emily. She rises from her grave, and announces herself as Victor's wife and brings him to the land of the dead. While there Victor learns of Emily's story, while also understanding the actual value of what he has in the land of the living.
While possibly not as immediately associated with Tim Burton's directorial career as "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (or even "Frankenweenie"), though of course "Nightmare..." was actually directed by Henry Selick, "Corpse Bride" is nonetheless very much a film tied to his universe, with plenty of Gothic elements and a story that at first glance sounds romantic, but as the layers get peeled off, is at its core a very dark tale. The central characters of the narrative are also very much drawn from his typical universe, including the hapless central hero who finds himself in a situation that he's not comfortable with, and that he desperately needs to understand and come to terms with. There's also the additional central character who has been wronged, who has her own agenda, and wants nothing more than to find closure in her existence (these characters arcs for instance, have ties with some of the characters from "Edward Scissorhands", "Batman Returns" and even "Sleepy Hollow"). It's a film that touches on topics such as wronged lovers, violent deaths, arranged marriages, topics that could be somewhat grotesquely characterized in less capable hands, but that Tim Burton elevates and brings a touch of whimsicality, humor, and irreverence, in the process also embedding an energy and exuberance to the land of the dead, which rivals the dour grayness of the land of the living (something Pixar also used in their 2017 release, "Coco" from directors Adrian Molina and Lee Unkrich). Stylistically and aesthetically it's a stunning feature, with fantastic voice work from the entire cast, with special highlight going to Helena Bonham Carter who makes the bride a mix of hopeful, naive but also embittered for all that she has gone through. The score from Danny Elfman is wonderful, as is the cinematography from Pete Kozachik. A wonderful feature always worth revisiting.  

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Bliss

Movie Name:
Bliss
Year of Release: 2021
Director: Mike Cahill
Starring: Owen Wilson, Salma Hayek, Nesta Cooper, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Ronny Chieng, Steve Zissis, Joshua Leonard, Madeline Zima, Bill Nye
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
Watch it on Amazon Prime

Synopsis and Review:
Director Mike Cahill who has made a name for himself collaborating with actress/writer Brit Marling on the features "Another Earth" and "I Origins" is back, once again tackling a mind bending concept of a story. The narrative focuses on Greg Wittle, whom we first witness being fired from his job, in a situation that quickly escalates to something much worse. Looking to flee the scene, he goes to a nearby bar, where he catches the attention of Isabel, who starts telling him some of the people in the bar, and whom he has been crossing paths with, are not real (she also knows what has just happened with him). She also mentions she can help him and get him out of the trouble he currently is. Greg follows Isabel to where she lives on the streets, and they soon forge a relationship. Isabel also introduces Greg to some yellow crystals, which allow him to manipulate reality telekinetically. While the both of them get involved in some altercations, Greg's daughter is desperately trying to locate him, so he can come to her graduation, and patch up their relationship. Looking to prove what reality actually is, Isabel uses blue crystals on her and Greg, and they wake up connected to a massive computer, alongside several other people. Greg is informed that the has in reality been experiencing a simulation within a Brain Box, something that has been created by Isabel to study alternate realities. As elements of the simulation start invading their reality, Isabel suggests they need to go back into the simulation and take more blue crystals, in order to fully exit it.
"Bliss" is an interesting concept of a film, where what is real and what is a simulation is never quite properly established. The director manages to create a strong enough case for both contexts/realities to make them fairly believable, however where the story never gels is in the lead characters themselves. Isabel acts as someone in control in both realities, but it's never really clear who she actually is (she's either a doctor doing some innovative research, or a homeless person with substance abuse problems, but we never know more than that about her). With Greg the issue is fairly similar, we understand he has had family issues, his children are somewhat alienated from him, and then he quickly forms a bond and relationship with Isabel. The characters remain cryptic for the entire narrative, and while their adventures are fairly compelling, the film fails to bring both humor and an actual sense of urgency/danger to what is occurring (what is it in fact that they potentially face losing). It has a tremendous amount of potential in concept, but it fails to materialize into something more than that. The cast is solid, with Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek embodying these characters with assuredness. While unbalanced, it's still worth watching. 

House of Gucci

Movie Name:
House of Gucci
Year of Release: 2021
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Jared Leto, Salma Hayek, Jack Huston, Reeve Carney, Camille Cottin, Youssef Kerkour, Vincenzo Tanassi
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 2
Watch it on Amazon Prime

Synopsis and Review
The prolific Ridley Scott continues his unparalleled output, this time around focusing on a dramatic series of real life events which took place surrounding one of the most famous fashion houses in the world. The film focuses its attention on Patrizia Reggiani, a young woman who works for her stepfather's trucking and distribution business (in the early 70s). One night while partying, she meets the slightly shier Maurizio Gucci, and they soon become infatuated with each other. As their relationship evolves, Maurizio's father warns him she may only be interested in their wealth and name, and threatens to disinherit him if he pursues the relationship. Maurizio who is studying to become a lawyer dismisses his father's warnings, and proposes marriage. He cuts ties with his family and starts working for the Reggiani's trucking company. Patrizia soon gets pregnant and with the assistance of Maurizio's uncle, Aldo, manages to get Maurizio to reconcile with his father before his passing. She also starts influencing Maurizio to take more ownership in the dealings of the Gucci house, which has mostly been handled by his uncle Aldo. Aldo's son Paolo, who is an aspiring Fashion Designer, also has a stake in the business, and Patrizia's goal is to phase them out of the business. Patrizia slowly weaves a web of lies between these family members, hoping to push both Aldo and Paolo out of the business, in her longing for power. However her machinations become increasingly grating to Maurizio, who eventually starts an affair, and soon seeks a divorce. Patrizia however has other plans for herself and for her quest for power. 
With a storyline as potboiler inspired as the one that is briefly summarized above, one would expect a tragic story of lust for power, mixed with over the top fashion and opulence, with dashes of high court drama (particularly since most of this storyline begins in the 70s and continues well into the 80s and 90s). However Ridley Scott merely illustrates the superficial aspect of this story, never really showcasing much of a journey for Patrizia nor for Maurizio. Both lead characters are never more than just a collection of certain details, which manifest themselves in what they wear or in some of their interactions, but that never truly amount to much in terms of probing what their motivations and ambitions actually are (case in point, we learn that Maurizio rides his bike around, which is meant to illustrate how down to Earth he actually is, though we never really learn why that happens). For a film that is well over two hours long, it's surprising how overwhelmingly shallow all the characters definition actually is. Not to mention the epilogue of the narrative itself feels rushed and anti-climatic. Another big issue with the film lies in the casting. While Adam Driver and Al Pacino (who once again brings some humanity and depth to the film), manage to walk away from this film with their unscathed reputations, Lady Gaga registers her character in a series of different tones, ranging from cliched Jersey Housewife to a farcical Lady MacBeth, never truly creating Patrizia as a real person, however flawed she may be (she also registers her character as if she's on a high end soap opera). Jared Leto in his apparent quest to be seen as a chameleon type actor, is so over the top in a distracting way, that he seems to be on a completely different film than everyone else (and with all due respect to this gentleman, he's no Christian Bale nor Joaquin Phoenix). The production team is solid as usual, with the icy cinematography from Dariusz Wolski being a bit surprising, contrasting with the warmth typically associated with Italy and the events being depicted in the storyline itself, with additional highlights going to Harry Gregson-Williams' score and Janty Yates' costumes. A missed opportunity and a forgettable film for everyone involved.