Saturday, August 26, 2023

Blood Red Sky

Movie Name:
Blood Red Sky
Year of Release: 2021
Director: Peter Thorwarth
Starring: Peri Baumeister, Carl Anton Koch, Alexander Scheel, Kais Setti, Gordon Brown, Dominic Purcell, Graham McTavish, Kai Ivo Baulitz, Roland Moller, Chidi Ajufo, Jan Loukota, Nader Ben-Abdallah, Leonie Brill, Rutger Lysen, Rainer Reiners, Ilona Schulz
Genre: Action, Horror, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 2
Watch it on Netflix

Synopsis and Review
Another release from Netflix, this time around a German film from director Peter Thorwarth, who has directed previous action films and also music videos. The narrative follows the story of Nadja who is traveling with her son Elias to the US. As we find out throughout the narrative, her ailment turns out to be a form of vampirism, since while out and about with her husband and her toddler, and due to a car problem which rendered them unable to move, her husband is killed by what Nadja soon discovers to be a vampire. She herself manages to kill the creature who killed her husband, but in the process is hurt by the vampire, and therefore carries the virus in her, which forces her to start desiring blood constantly. As Nadja and Elias start their journey across the Atlantic, the plane is highjacked by a group, who plans on blowing it up, while escaping with some parachutes into a position that has been previously arranged. While that is the initial plan, some of the highjacking team members get very violent, very soon, shooting Nadja in the process and terrorizing Elias. Nadja due to her condition manages to quickly recover and sets out to thwart their plans and protect Elias above all.
"Blood Red Sky" has the workings to be a suspenseful B-movie, mixing influences which range from Robert Schwentke's "Flightplan", David R. Ellis' "Snakes on a Plane",  to Robert Rodriguez's "From Dusk Till Dawn". Sadly it truly never capitalizes on these inspirations and soon becomes bogged down by action set pieces that are not that exciting, and characters that are not well developed. The script goes all in when it comes to describing the villains of the narrative as broadly and as generically as possibly, but tries to bring some dimension to the central motherly figure personified by Nadja, though it never really explains much about what she does, or did for that matter, what was her life like or even what her vampirism has been about and in what way has it impacted her life (aside from the "medication" she takes). And while all those plot points could have been quickly summarized, had the script approached an economical stance on what makes Nadja a ferocious protector (a vampire version of Zoe Saldana's character in Olivier Megaton's "Colombiana" for instance), it could have taken the narrative in a much more exciting direction, playing with the claustrophobic environment and the fact that Nadja herself could in turn be the danger to them all. Instead the narrative becomes this mix/hybrid of multiple styles that never truly marry well together, namely a drama of a mother who wants to get better and save her child, mixed with a horror film where she's a blood thirsty monster who refuses to let that thirst win, until another evil reveals itself. The characters sadly are not memorable, including the expected villains whose motivations and actions are equally all over the place. In the end it's an unsatisfying film, one that tries to fiddle with genres but that doesn't really know how to properly tell a simple story with a point of view. The cast, with the exception of the always charismatic Graham McTavish, is forgettable, as is the production values. It's ultimately a mediocre endeavor. 

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Movie Name:
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Year of Release: 2005
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, Helena Bonham Carter, David Kelly, Noah Taylor, Missi Pyle, James Fox, Deep Roy, Christopher Lee, Adam Godley, AnnaSophia Robb, Julia Winter, Jordan Fry, Philip Wiegratz, Blair Dunlop, Liz Smith, Eileen Essell
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review
Director Tim Burton followed the well received "Big Fish" (which was positioned for a big Oscar momentum that never occurred), with a new take on Roald Dahl's book "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", which was adapted to the screen by his usual collaborator John August. The narrative focuses on the story of Charlie Bucket, who lives with his family of meager possessions in a small town where an enormous chocolate factory exists. Charlie lives with his parents and his grandparents, all of whom are bedridden. Grandpa Joe who used to work in the factory, tells Charlie that the factory is owned by a genial chocolatier by the name of Willy Wonka. Wonka made a name for himself by creating fantastic treats and desserts, however his secret concoctions started being copied by others, and he decided to close his factory completely, laying off all workers as well. To everyone's surprise, Wonka decides to open the factory to 5 special children, as long as they find a golden ticket he has hidden in his chocolate bars that are sold all over the world. After a few attempts, Charlie finally gets his, alongside Augustus Gloop from Germany, Veruca Salt from the UK, the competitive Violet from Denver and the smart Mike, who doesn't even like chocolate. As the children and their guardians get to the factory, Wonka appears as their host, explaining that he's taking them on a journey through the factory and much of what he does, with a special prize being awarded to one of them. 
The marriage of this particular book from Roald Dahl with Tim Burton's universe actually makes total sense. Tim Burton has always focused his universe and attention on heroes/characters that are somewhat alienated from the world, or who are considered eccentric or monstrous by the world at large. Willy Wonka with his sense of humor, poise and eccentric personality fits this Burtonesque archetype perfectly. The film manages to move through the different set pieces distilling both a sense of wonder and also a slight edginess which comes from watching these somewhat spoiled children (and their parents/guardians) get their comeuppance. Tim Burton manages to bring a true sense of wonder and also melancholy to some of these pieces, all of which are amplified by the nuanced performance that Johnny Depp brings to the character. His take on Willy Wonka is a bit like a grown up that never truly stopped being a child, and yet also someone who can and has seen the darkness that lurks behind both a child's and an adult's universe. And while most of the supporting characters are indeed limited archetypes, they're nonetheless showcased in a way that makes them both endearing and humorous (for all their limitations, they're never portrayed as monsters or avarice purveyors). The supporting cast is solid, with Missi Pyle, David Kelly, Noah Taylor and Helena Bonham Carter all creating affable characters. The production design from Alex McDowell is stunning, as is the cinematography from Philippe Rousselot, costumes from Gabriella Pescucci and score from Danny Elfman. A solid film from a director whose work is always worth visiting. 

Sunday, August 13, 2023

The Trip/I Onde Dager

Movie Name:
The Trip/I Onde Dagger
Year of Release: 2021
Director: Tommy Wirkola
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Aksel Hennie, Atle Antonsen, Christian Rubeck, Andre Eriksen, Nils Ole Oftebro, Stig Frode Henriksen
Genre: Action, Comedy, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
Watch it on Netflix

Synopsis and Review
Tommy Wirkola, the writer/director known for the series "Dead Snow" has since expanded his footprint to other films such as "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" and even the more recent "Violent Night", films that have been met with mixed audience success and poor critical reception. "The Trip/I Onde Dagger" follows the story of Lisa and Lars, an apparently well to do couple who decide to go to their cabin for the weekend. The cabin has been an inheritance from Lars' family, whose father is now in a retirement home. Both Lisa and Lars despise each other and accuse each other for their shortcomings in terms of financial and career success. Lars plans on killing Lisa and giving the impression she had an accident while on a hike, whereas Lisa plans on killing Lars and giving the impression he died while fishing. When they arrive at the cabin they're surprised to find it unlocked, but move according to their plans. Their handyman Viktor shows up, as planned, to help with Lars' plan, but things go awry, and eventually Lars kills him. As the couple continues to squabble and their fighting escalates, they uncover three criminals who have bee hiding in their attic. Lisa and Lars suddenly have to help each other and fight for their lives.
"The Trip" starts in what some might say is a darker take on Danny DeVito's "War of the Roses", however it lacks the humorous tone and the magical chemistry that Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas always had. However and as the narrative unfolds, it turns into a sort of "Deliverance" meets "True Romance", with the couple trying to save themselves from some nefarious forces and having to join forces in order to do so. The main problem with this film is that while trying to portray a dysfunctional couple, it never really gives much information in terms of who these characters actually are. Lisa is an out of work actor, and Lars is a director having to work on television since he can't get any other jobs. Neither are ever more than those archetypes, and though we learn that she's had an affair and he has gambling problems, that's pretty much all we get get from these two. It's difficult to understand what brought them together, and why they've stayed together. By the time the criminal troupe comes along, it adds a layer of gore, but never a layer of actual menace and danger. The tone is borderline gore slapstick, which can work if you're a talented film maker such as Sam Raimi, but not so much in this case. The great Atle Antonsen tries his best at bringing some gravitas and menace to a thankless role, but the director can never properly set an environment in which it can really soar and give the film the edge it needs. The film oscillates between being a comedy with an edge or a thriller with comedic vibes. In the end it's neither, emphasizing the gore to somehow keep things afloat and the viewer's attention focused. Atle Antonsen, Christian Rubeck and Andre Eriksen, with little character development as they have (they're a darker version of the Coen Brothers fugitives from "O Brother Where Art Thou"), end up being the most memorable characters. Production is meager and unremarkable. Gore does not equal interest, which sums up this film. 

The Voices

Movie Name:
The Voices
Year of Release: 2014
Director: Marjane Satrapi
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Atherton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver, Ella Smith, Paul Chahidi, Stanley Townsend, Adi Shankar, Sam Spruell, Valerie Koch, Gulliver McGrath
Genre: Comedy, Crime
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review
Following the very well received "Persepolis" (which she co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud) and "Chicken with Plums", director Marjane Satrapi tackled a script she did not author, which had been on the Blacklist of the best un-produced scripts. The narrative focuses on the story of Jerry Hickfang, a young man who works at a plumbing fixtures factory. He lives above a bowling alley and has a cat and a dog as companions. They both talk with Jerry frequently, with Bosco the dog being a more supportive voice, while Mr. Whiskers the cat is more akin to a bad influencing one. Jerry also has frequent consultations with a therapist, since he is in fact on probation for a traumatic occurrence in his past, which also forces him to take medication with regularity (and he has been skipping on his medication as well). Jerry develops a romantic interest in Fiona, a co-worker of his, and invites her to a Chinese dinner theater, but she opts to go to karaoke instead with her other co-workers. When her car doesn't start, and as Jerry is on his way home, he volunteers to give her a lift. Shockingly they hit a deer, and Jerry puts the animal out of its misery. Terrified Fiona flees the scene, and while trying to find her and appease her concerns, he accidentally stabs her and eventually kills her. After getting home, Bosco and Mr. Whiskers provide counseling on what to do next, which sends Jerry on a series of increasingly bloody adventures.
"The Voices" has a great premise in the sense that it focuses its attention on a hero dealing with schizophrenia, who while haunted by a traumatic past, is somewhat oblivious to the monstrous things he's currently doing. There's a lot of opportunities for dark humor to pop up, and thanks to the always fantastic Ryan Reynolds, they do make their way through the film, sadly not with the bite they should have. The biggest problem with this film is the fact that the director can't quite settle on the tone it wants to adopt for it: it presents a somewhat stylized look to the reality Jerry views undaunted by his medication, versus a much darker one that surfaces to the surface when the same medication impacts him. However with either of those realities, the director never goes full board in either of them, so ultimately what comes across is a half baked narrative that is never fully whimsical and never fully grotesque (particularly considering the things Jerry is doing). We do progressively come to understand Jerry's motivations and what has driven him on his current path, however the supporting characters for the most part are quite underdeveloped, which also makes for the interactions with Jerry to feel fleeting and undercooked. It's a film that has such untapped potential, which could have gone in so many directions, and with a terrific cast, sadly it falls short of truly showcasing life through Jerry's prism. The cast is solid, with Ryan Reynolds once again bringing a mix of vulnerability, goofiness and shock to a character who is out of place with the world, with great support from Anna Kendrick and Jacki Weaver. The production team is serviceable, but not necessarily memorable. It's a watchable film though not necessarily memorable.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

Movie Name:
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
Year of Release: 2023
Director: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Karen Gillan, Dave Bautista, Pom Klementieff, Bradley Cooper, Sean Gunn, Chukwudi Iwuji, Will Poulter, Elizabeth Debicki, Miriam Shor, Nico Santos, Vin Diesel, Maria Bakalova, Sylvester Stallone, Nathan Fillion, Daniela Melchior, Michael Rooker, Gregg Henry, Karen Abercrombie, Linda Cardellini, Mikaela Hoover, Asim Chaudhry
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review
Writer, producer, director James Gunn is back with the set of characters he first adapted and brought him a wider audience recognition, this after venturing into DC comics with his solid adaptation of "The Suicide Squad". This time around "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3" finds the team in Knowhere, trying to rebuild what Thanos destroyed, until they're attacked by a powerful being by the name of Adam, who hurts Rocket quite severely. When they try to heal Rocket, they realize they can't do so, due to a kill switch that is embedded in him, which harks back to his genetic manipulation by an entity who calls himself High Evolutionary. The team decides to go find a way to bypass that kill switch, but in order to do so they need the help of the Ravagers, who are now led by a new version of Gamora. Their investigation leads them to Counter-Earth, where the team gets split, and matters get even further complicated when the High Evolutionary decides to decimate that entire planet. As Peter and a newly restored Rocket try to save the rest of the team, they realize the High Evolutionary's spaceship has a lofty cargo, forcing them to make some dramatic decisions.
One of the most interesting traits to James Gunn's work lies in his ability to mix a somewhat visceral approach to depicting horror/violence, with a hearty sentimentality for (and with) this lead characters, with dashes of various pop culture references, all wrapped in a rhythm that is perpetually in motion. "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3" is one of the most interesting films of the series, if not the most, since while it does have a fair amount of sentimentality, it's also peppered with various layers, some of which are very humorous, and others that are quite violent. This balance of humor/violence/sentiment is fairly well distributed, and for a change the characters have clearly established motivations, with a few of them having a backdrop which explains their origin. And while the villain of the narrative is somewhat two-dimensional alien, there's something perversely human and quite historically pertinent to his horrific experimentations, which brings to mind said experimentations people have done to animals and people themselves in the past. It's a film that ultimately focuses on the meaning of family, finding one's roots and a sense of belonging. The fact that it does so within the trappings of a comic book adaptation, is even more commendable to James Gunn's talents, who places all these narrative threads in motion with a visual aplomb that is superb, even more so than the previous films. The cast does a great job of bringing these characters to life, with their chemistry and camaraderie being both palpable and riveting. The production team is superlatively good, with highlights going to Henry Braham's cinematography, score from John Murphy, production design from Beth Mickle, and stupendous costume design from Judianna Makovsky. The visual effects are of course fantastically good. Entertaining and worth watching. 

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Babylon

Movie Name:
Babylon
Year of Release: 2022
Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Diego Calva, Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Jean Smart, Li Jun Li, Jovan Adepo, Lukas Haas, Max Minghella, Samara Weaving, Tobey Maguire, Eric Roberts, Rory Scovel, Jeff Garlin, Katherine Waterston, Ethan Suplee, Olivia Hamilton, Flea, Olivia Wilde
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 1
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review
After the critically well received "First Man" which somehow never truly found its audience, writer/director Damien Chazelle returned with a bigger canvas/opus, focused on the movie industry itself, in the roaring 20s as the talkies were changing everything in that industry, including upending the lives of its big players. The narrative while focusing on the threads of a few key characters, chooses it's core emcee to be Manny Torres, a Mexican immigrant who is intent on working in the film industry. While arranging for the transportation of an elephant to a wild party, he meets and becomes enamored withe Nellie LaRoy, a young ambitious and full of personality woman from New Jersey who declares herself a star even if she's never been on a movie set. As a result of attending that party, everything changes for them. Nellie gets recruited to shoot a film, while Manny becomes friendly with Jack Conrad, a big star at MGM, who also helps him secure a job at Kinoscope. While Nellie becomes quite popular, aptly documented by gossip columnist Elinor St. John, Manny also climbs the studio ranks, starting to even get directorial gigs. Things start to change for Nellie with the advent of sound in films, where she has considerable challenges dealing with the technical aspects of film making,  which mixed with her drug use and gambling start destroying her reputation. To pile on her issues, her father, who is also her manager is poorly managing her funds and her relationship with Fay Zhu (a Chinese-American cabaret singer) is also cut short at the insistence of the studio, due to stricter morality codes that have come into play. Another character that is a focus of attention is Sydney Palmer, a fantastic musician in his own right, who suddenly sees himself in Hollywood, but also witnesses the other side of the dream. Nellie gets in trouble with gambling debts, and desperately asks Manny for help. At the same time Jack Conrad realizes his time at the top is coming to an end and there's nothing he can do to change it.
"Babylon" is one of those features that is ripe with ambition. It has a plethora of plot threads, each competing for attention. What it doesn't seem to have is a bit of a quality barometer for the narrative that is trying to build and editing capabilities which would enable its director to recount it both succinctly and with substance. It's a film that depicts the excess of Hollywood in the 1920s, when the film industry was growing and establishing itself, how stars and fortunes were easily made. In parallel with this it also depicts its uglier side, by showcasing the racism, misogyny and sheer mercenary aspect that ruled everything and everyone working in it. None of these topics are new and have been of course the focus of multiple films and tv shows, however director Damien Chazelle infuses the film with a frantic energy that supposedly illustrates the vibe and debauchery taking place, though in an apparent quest to be somewhat graphical, taste level of any kind has been something that he has chosen to avoid. It's a very self-indulgent film, where there are entire sections devoted to plot points that add absolutely nothing to the characters or to the narrative itself (case in point, the entry scenes with the Elephant, the snake biting situation, the gangster showcase of the pits of hell, and the list goes on). There is something interesting about these characters and the journey they experience, but the director chooses to focus more on the noise and the clich├ęs one associates from that particular time period, though not much from the great depression is touched upon or even illustrated (no misery porn here). There's not much dimension given to the central characters, or the supporting ones for that matter, which is even more surprising considering this film goes on for over 3 hours (though it feels like double that time). It's genuinely perplexing how someone read this script and thought "I want to see this on the screen", and this sentiment doesn't come from the characters or parts of their journey: it's more of a sentiment towards a film that at some point turns into a pedestrian intellectual reflection on the power of film (and sadly it taints all the films it brings into its jarring mess). The cast, particularly Margot Robbie, Jean Smart, Katherine Waterston, Rory Scovel, and Lukas Haas manage to get out of this mess unscathed, the same going for the cinematography from Linus Sandgren, but this is a low point for all the people involved in this film. Avoid. 

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One

Movie Name:
Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One
Year of Release: 2023
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise, Hayley Atwell, Ving Rhames, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Esai Morales, Pom Klementieff, Vanessa Kirby, Henry Czerny, Shea Whigham, Greg Tarzan Davis, Frederick Schmidt, Cary Elwes, Mariela Garriga
Genre: Action, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
View Trailer

Synopsis and Review
After the critical and commercial success of "Mission: Impossible - Fallout", the collaboration between writer/producer/director Christopher McQuarrie and actor/producer Tom Cruise continues with another installment of the franchise. This time around Ethan Hunt is reunited with Eugene Kittridge, his original boss from when he started working for the IMF. He and his team are dealing with a superlative enemy this time around, an Artificial Intelligence engine, who is keen on dominating the world, with the only thing to stop it being a key that unlocks access to its original code. The key which is comprised of two halves has to be joined in order to be fully functional. A series of players want to get access to the key, as they all wrongly think the key allows them control over the AI entity. This entity has a nefarious individual making its bidding in the shape of Gabriel, one of Ethan's previous adversaries. As they go through the process of retrieving the key, Ethan has to enlist the help of Grace, an expert thief who was brought into the situation to also make sure the key reached Gabriel's hands. However this time around the mission will cost his team a heavy toll. 
Since taking over the "Mission: Impossible" franchise with "Rogue Nation", Christopher McQuarrie has been able to not only reinvigorate the series with ever more daring scenarios, but he's also been able to bring a sense of spectacle and elaborate action set pieces that keep getting better and better. This film is no exception, with the director allowing for its lead actor and character to have more time to both uncover what originally brought Ethan Hunt to the IMF, as well as go through a painful moment which profoundly impacts him and the team itself. This moment further humanizes all the characters a bit further, but the script smartly also maintains a sense of humor and levity that has also been a staple for this series and for this group of characters. The script smartly places the team at odds with AI, which is something on everyone's mind, but it does so by tying it with very human opponents and ones that have a personal history with Ethan Hunt's character. And that is a very smart concept, since in the past when other films have tackled nefarious AI engines, such as D.J. Caruso's "Eagle Eye" for instance (or even the AI that assists the Umbrella Corporation in Paul W. S. Anderson's "Resident Evil" series) , that enemy is always an abstractly rendered notion, with an accent or a distorted sound glitch (a la Siri). Ultimately embodying the villainous traits in a character such as Gabriel, gives the series another foe with an agenda of its own, even if at the end this character is also another puppet. The action set pieces are impeccably shot (the chase scene in Rome is formidable), and the cast assemble is once again top notch. Tom Cruise manages to carry Ethan Hunt with a bruised sense of existence for all the losses he has experienced, and he gets great support from Haley Atwell, the always fantastic Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Vanessa Kirby and Henry Czerny. The production team is also fantastic, including Fraser Taggart's cinematography, Lorne Balfe's score, Gary Freeman's production design and costumes by Jill Taylor. A very entertaining film from a solid writer/director.