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Saturday, May 23, 2015

Darkman - A Film Review

Darkman is a 1990 superhero film directed and co-written by Sam Raimi. It stars Liam Neeson, Frances McDormand, Larry Drake, and Colin Friels. It is a tribute to 1930s Universal horror films, and was made after Sam Raimi was turned down as a director for The Shadow movie.

The film is about a scientist named Peyton Westlake (Neeson) who is nearly killed by crime boss Robert G. Durant (Drake) and corrupt developer Louis Strack, Jr. (Friels) through being tortured and left for dead in a science lab explosion, but survives. He was being targeted because his girlfriend, attorney Julie Hastings (McDormand), had a memo that implicated her developer boss in dirty zoning deals with crime syndicates, and the memo was in his lab. However, his face and hands are burned off, and the doctors gave him a special treatment that involved severing his nerves, which left him with an inability to feel pain, but heightened emotions due to adrenal overload, which, when he becomes highly emotional, he has enhanced strength.

Westlake had been trying to develop a synthetic skin to replace burnt or damaged skin, but the skin was photosensitive and kept melting in the light. He figured out a way to keep the skin intact for 99 minutes in the light, and that the skin could survive in the dark. After his near-death, he develops skin through 3-D printing and makes a replica of his original face, as well as the faces of his killers, in order to seek vengeance.  He poses as the gangsters often to either kill them or trick them into killing each other.  While he is successful at seeking justice, he is frequently set back by the mask time limits and his struggles with his scientific experiments.

The film is a dark and sad story, more along the lines of The Phantom of the Opera and House of Wax, as well as The Crow graphic novel, than a triumphant superhero story. It is rare to see a superhero story that is an original character, and not adapted from a comic book/graphic novel. Darkman was very successful, both on a box office level and a cult following level, and spawned two sequels: Darkman II: The Return of Durant, and Darkman III: Die Darkman Die.

Liam Neeson delivers an honest and sympathetic  performance as Westlak, the caring scientist whose life is destroyed by Durant and Strack, and who becomes Darkman in his quest for vengeance. While he doesn’t feel remorse over killing Durant’s henchmen, he often feels sadness and anger over losing Julie, his livelihood, and being reduced to a monstrous face wrapped up in bandages. Some of the saddest scenes in the film are when Peyton is alone in his makeshift lab in an abandoned building, screaming and crying, unable to control his emotion levels. Even if he defeats the villains and Julie accepts him, he’ll never have his life back, always changing masks 99 minutes at a time.

Frances McDormand delivers a strong and measured performance, albeit in a role that is mostly reduced to being the girlfriend. Julie is intelligent and strong-willed, and is an intellectual match for Peyton. She isn’t a victim or a damsel, and investigates into the background surrounding Peyton’s supposed death.

Larry Drake is fantastic as Durant. He brings the right kind of menace and humor to this role, and gives a lot of character to this role. It is clear that Drake is enjoying playing Durant, and it is one of his best performances ever.

Colin Friel was excellent as Strack, playing a sleazy and slimeball yuppie prick. He is so without morals that, just a few days after Peyton’s supposed death, he’s already putting the moves on Julie, a still-grieving girlfriend. He is low and despicable, but a great villain in this film.

Danny Elfman did the music score, and it is epic and beautiful. Like I previously stated in my review of Nightbreed, Elfman can take his Batman score and re-work it to sound strong, dark, and exciting for any low-budget sci-fi or horror film to have. His talent is a gift that elevates any film because of his magnificent score.

Sam Raimi has a talent for making films that have relatable, interesting characters; great action sequences (a sequence involving a helicopter is phenomenal); dark humor, and a sci-fi or horror brent. His films feels unique and special, a creative touch that is of his own style.

Darkman is an excellent film. It is sad and epic and powerful, is a standout in the genre of superhero films and is a wonderful tribute to the Universal horror films that were so beloved to Raimi’s childhood.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Heart and Souls - A Film Review

Heart and Souls is a 1993 fantasy-comedy directed by Ron Underwood (Tremors, City Slickers). The film stars Robert Downey, Jr., Kyra Sedgwick, Alfre Woodward, Charles Grodin, Tom Sizemore, and Elisabeth Shue. The film is about four ghosts who are the guardian angels of one living man, and they use him to help them complete their unfinished business in order to ascend to heaven. It is one of my favorite films of all time, because it is a really positive and happy movie about second chances and making the most out of life.

Four people die in a bus crash in 1959 San Francisco, and become the guardian angels to a baby boy named Thomas, who was born at the same time they died. They can be seen only by him. Seven years later, when Thomas’ parents worry about him talking to his “imaginary friends” and consider having him committed to a mental institution, the ghosts decide to make themselves invisible to Thomas in order to protect him.

Nearly 35 years later, Thomas has forgotten about the ghosts, and has become a high-powered yuppie jerk, only caring about money and status. He is selfish and thoughtless, and keeps his girlfriend at arm’s length, fearing commitment with her. The ghosts, who have been with him all of his life, find out from the ghost of the bus driver that caused the accident that they were supposed to use Thomas’ body in order to resolve their problems from their lives, which would allow them to leave limbo and go to heaven. When they reveal themselves to Thomas and explain their predicament, it takes a lot of convincing on their part to get him to agree to this arrangement in order to free their souls.

Robert Downey, Jr. showed a lot of talent for physical comedy, taking on the personality, voice, and mannerisms of each ghost. It showed a lot of versatility in his talent as an actor, and is an underrated performance from him.

The performances from the cast playing the ghosts really make this film special, as they put a lot of personality and character into four ordinary people from different walks of life. Milo (Tom Sizemore) is a thief who stole petty things for rich people, and his lowest moment came before his death, when he stole rare stamps from a ten-year old boy. He regretted it, and uses Thomas to get them back. Harrison (Charles Grodin) was an opera singer with stage fright, who quit an audition due to his fears, and uses Thomas to get over his fear of singing before an audience. Penny (Alfre Woodward) was a single mother of three who worked the night shift as a telephone operator, and wanted to find her kids, who were split up in foster homes and adoptive families after her death. She uses Thomas to investigate about their whereabouts. And Julia (Kyra Sedgwick), like Thomas, kept her boyfriend at arm’s length and pushed away his marriage proposals until it was too late, and wants to search for him to deliver a message of love.

One of the best scenes in the film is due to Alfre Woodward’s performance, where she finds her long-lost son. Her happiness and joy is absolutely infectious, and she fills the scene with so much spirit and elation of a mother being reunited with her son. It is a very charming performance from her, taking what could be an overly sentimental scene and making it touching.

The film is very enjoyable, and is a light movie that mixes in fantasy and comedy, and is an unusual premise for a family-friendly movie. It was a modest success when it came out, but I recommend it as a sweet and funny film.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Jack's Back - A Film Review

Jack's Back is a 1988 crime thriller directed by Rowdy Herrington (Road House, Striking Distance) starring James Spader and Cynthia Gibb. Spader performs a dual role as identical twins John and Rick Wesford. The film is about a copycat serial killer imitating Jack the Ripper's murders on the centennial of his murders, killing prostitutes in the Los Angeles area. John Wesford is a nice and idealistic med student who is concerned about the welfare of the city and of his patients at the clinic where he works, much to the jaded dismay of his superiors.. A prostitute gets murdered, and John is blamed for it as the prime suspect. But John then gets murdered himself, and his murder is framed as a suicide. Enter his twin brother Rick, who has visions of his brother's killer. Rick has had a juvenile crime record of gang life and breaking & entering, and wasn't close with John, yet is determined to find his killer. He has a jaded and cynical attitude, yet has a good heart underneath. Also standouts were Cynthia Gibb as the naive love interest and Robert Picardo as the oddball psychologist.

Spader showed a versatile range in his acting ability as his career was rising, playing two characters who are very distinct from one another. At this time in his career, Spader was mostly playing villains in films, and this was an opportunity for him to play two good guys, albeit one who seems untrustworthy on first impression. Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, made this astute statement: "I don’t have any statistics to prove this, but my notion is that actors who play villains early in their careers often turn out to have more interesting careers than those who always play the lead. They find more interesting places inside themselves, and they carry a hint of complexity and secretiveness even into heroic roles." He would go on to play complex characters in films like sex, lies, and videotape, Crash, Secretary, and The Blacklist

The film itself has a sleazy, B-movie noir vibe to it, and is an engaging thriller with some surprises and solid writing and direction from Rowdy Herrington.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Chinese Puzzle - A Film Review

Chinese Puzzle is a 2013 French comedy-drama written and directed by Cédric Klapisch, and is the third and final installment of the Spanish Apartment trilogy, after L’Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls. The film stars Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Kelly Reilly, and Cecile de France. The film series centered on Xavier (Duris), a writer who first met his friends while studying abroad in Barcelona ten years ago, fell in love with both Martine (Tautou) and Wendy (Reilly), and has now become a family man at 40 years old. This film often is about mid-life crises, and adjusting to a new stage in life beyond youth.
Wendy tells Xavier that she is leaving him for another man, and she takes their two children and moves from Paris to New York City. Xavier, while not overly surprised that his wife is leaving him, is distraught over being separated from his children, and decides to move to New York City as well. There, he struggles as an undocumented immigrant and newcomer to New York life. He is working on a novel for a Parisian publisher, but in the meantime, gets a job as a messenger, lives in a small apartment above a restaurant in Chinatown, had donated his sperm to his lesbian friend Isabelle (de France) in Paris so she and her girlfriend can have a baby, and gets a sham marriage to a Chinese-American woman so he can get a green card. All of this, and he and his friends are adjusting to turning 40 years old, accepting their age, and trying not to repeat youthful mistakes of the past.

           Klapisch has a talent for making charming films about ordinary and likable people who seem like individuals one would know in real life, whether in Paris, New York City, Barcelona, or elsewhere. His previous films, like Un air de famille (Family Resemblances), a comedy centered around a family birthday dinner and all the drama and merriment that goes with it; and Chacun cherche son chat (When the Cat’s Away), a comedy about a Parisian woman who loses her cat and, while searching for it, gets to know her colorful neighbors, are both wonderful and enjoyable films about everyday people in Parisian life.

            Chinese Puzzle is a witty and interesting film about people starting their lives over again in NYC, and adjusting to a new culture, confronting age, changes in maturity levels, and easing out of their adolescent mindsets from their youth. 

Friday, May 1, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria - A Film Review

I enjoyed seeing Clouds of Sils Maria today. It's a character drama starring Juliette Binoche as a theater actress who is acting in a revival of a play she did 20 years ago, only now playing the elder character instead of the ingenue, whom she still identifies with. It's a film about a woman dealing with aging, loss (she is in a bitter divorce with her husband; a beloved director friend of hers died), time, and her personal relevance, both as an actress and as a middle-aged woman. Binoche was fantastic in this, and I really found it mature and fascinating.
It was written and directed by Oliver Assayas, who directed another arthouse film that I really liked, Clean. It starred Maggie Cheung as a woman who struggles through drug addiction, losing custody of her son, and finding a new sense of self and purpose in life. Cheung was great in it, and I liked the Paris parts of the film, as well as Nick Nolte's performance as the paternal grandfather of her son.
Kristen Stewart played the actress's assistant, and I was mixed on her performance. Stewart is definitely better when she does indie movies, and seems to have more comfort in them. But her monotone voice can be very flat, and I didn't care much about her character. The assistant was loyal and sympathetic to her actress boss, and I found their personal relationship interesting, especially as it mirrors the play's themes, but I didn't find Stewart herself interesting as a performer. She wasn't bad in it, it was more her flat voice that made her sound very one-note in her delivery. I read that she just won a Cesar award for her performance, so it's great that she was well-received. I just didn't find her very compelling to watch.
It is a very good film, and was a pleasure to watch this afternoon, I definitely recommend it.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Beautiful Girls - A Film Review

Beautiful Girls is a 1995 romantic comedy-drama directed by Ted Demme (The Ref, Blow, Who's the Man?), written by Scott Rosenberg (who also wrote Con Air), and featuring an ensemble cast: Matt Dillon, Lauren Holly, Mira Sorvino, Timothy Hutton, Uma Thurman, Michael Rapaport, Rosie O’Donnell, Martha Plimpton, Noah Emmerich, and Natalie Portman. It is a well-written and well-acted film about old friends coming back together for their ten-year high school reunion, and facing crossroads in their lives, and inabilities to grow up and let go of the past. The film has a warm and familiar feel to it, set in a small Massachusetts town during the winter, in a town where nothing ever changes, and people live ho-hum, average lives. The film feels intimate and small, and is heavy on dialogue without it feeling overly-talky or redundant.

The central plot is that Willie (Hutton) is returning to his hometown of Knights Bridge, Massachusetts, for a high school reunion. He lives in New York City, and can’t decide whether he should give up his career as a pianist and become a salesman, as well as whether or not to marry his girlfriend, Tracy. He re-connects with his old buddies, who are all going through issues of their own:

Tommy (Dillon) a popular high school football star, the “Birdman,” but now works construction, and is upset that he never did anything remarkable with his life after high school. He has a girlfriend, Sharon (Sorvino), but is still having an affair with his girlfriend from high school, Darian (Holly), now married with a kid.

Paul (Rapaport) works construction (a snow plow in the winter), and has had a tumultuous relationship with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Jan. They broke up, and he’s jealous that she’s dating another guy, so he keeps harassing her by piling snow on her driveway and proposing marriage in a confrontational, upset way. (“She’s a vegetarian. What kind of life can she have with a man who smells of brisket?” He blasts 80’s music in his truck out of nostalgic love (Split Enz, Flock of Seagulls), and has unrealistic expectations for a girlfriend, and worships supermodels because beautiful girls are “bottled promises.”

And Mo (Emmerich) is a happy family man who wants the best for his friends, and often gives them good advice about moving as adults and not being fixated on the past.

The women characters, meanwhile, have their own complex thoughts about their relationships and their own crossroads:

Sharon knows that she should break up with Tommy because of his inability to commit, but she is trying to save the relationship.

Gina (O’Donnell) is the brusque voice of reason, which cuts through the melodrama with sharp insight, and delivers a fantastic monologue about men’s unrealistic expectations of women through Playboy, MTV, and swimsuits model photos.

Jan (Plimpton) is frustrated with her ex Paul always bothering her, and only wanting to marry her because he’s fed up and lonely, not out of real love.

Besides Gina, the only other woman that has her life together is Andera (Thurman), a cousin of the local bartender who comes to visit from Chicago. She is the epitome of the Cool Girl, the beautiful woman who can hang with the local guys, drinks whiskey, follows sports, is witty, and is past immature mind games and wish-washy attitudes. She helps Willie out with his romantic issues, stating that her grounded, loving relationship with her boyfriend is the kind of down-home comfort that she wants, thus inspiring Willie to strengthen his relationship with Tracy.

And Natalie Portman, at 13 years old, was a standout in the film as Marty, a likable and charming kid who is smart and perceptive, and good at reading people. Sometimes her dialogue sounded like what an adult thought a precocious, “old soul” type child would speak like, but Portman’s talent and intelligence made her likable and realistic. She and Willie become friends, based upon their identities as existential searchers, and while there is an uncomfortable mutual attraction (especially on Willie’s part), they smartly know not to overstep those boundaries. Marty seems aware that she has an innocent crush on Willie, while Willie ultimately understands that his interest in Marty (and wanting to wait until she is of legal age) is more of a reflection of him not wanting to grow up. There’s a great moment where he uses the analogy of Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin with Marty, saying that Christopher Robin had Pooh until Christopher grew up and didn’t need him anymore, as an analogy about adolescent changes and outgrowing things from childhood. He says, “I can’t be your Pooh.” It is disappointing for Marty, but it is a mature and responsible way to end the mutual attraction while still having respect for one another. Portman was still on the rise to fame when she appeared in this film, and despite having a small role, she was a total scene-stealer and a charming presence.

The film feels comfortable, and it feels warm as the audience sees old friends reconnecting with each other at the bar, drinking, laughing, sharing old stories, and bonding with one another over their shared history. The series of bar scenes with friends reflect movies like The Deer Hunter and Diner, scenes with male friends bonding with one another over life, relationships, and personal crossroads.

Paul has screwed up idea about beautiful women, calling them “bottled promises.” He states: “Supermodels are beautiful girls, Will. A beautiful girl can make you dizzy, like you've been drinking Jack and Coke all morning. She can make you feel high full of the single greatest commodity known to man - promise. Promise of a better day. Promise of a greater hope. Promise of a new tomorrow. This particular aura can be found in the gait of a beautiful girl. In her smile, in her soul, the way she makes every rotten little thing about life seem like it's going to be okay. The supermodels, Willy? That's all they are. Bottled promise. Scenes from a brand new day. Hope dancing in stiletto heels.” He has a terrible and misguided idea about beautiful women. He doesn’t consider that these women have problems of their own, or their own worries, thoughts, or cares. That just by being beautiful, they always have to be carefree and happy, and supportive to a man. He is completely wrong in his view of women, and learns a tough lesson in the film about his expectations of women.

Another poignant scene is when Tommy is talking about his life, and his disappointments after high school: “Wondering how I got here, you know? How I’m not anything like what I’d hope I’d be, you know? I’m not even – I’m not even close to the guy that I thought I’d end up being, and it kinda blows, you know?” Dillon did a fantastic job delivering this monologue, of a guy who would have fit right in as a character in Bruce Springsteen’s song “Glory Days,” as a guy who peaked in high school and didn’t do anything remarkable afterwards.

This film is very poignant and relatable, a film about life changes, turning 30 years old, accepting the past and moving on, and not being held back from one’s own insecurities. The film had a solid cast, good writing and directing, and was a captivating film for its time.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

While You Were Sleeping - A Film Review

While You Were Sleeping is a 1995 romantic comedy directed by Jon Turtletaub, and written by Daniel G. Sullivan and Frederic Lubow. It stars Sandra Bullock, Bill Pullman, Peter Gallagher, Peter Boyle, Jack Warden, and Glynis Johns. It is one of my favorite films ever. It’s not so much because of the romance part, but because it’s a sweet and endearing movie about a lonely woman who finds a loving family. The winter setting in Chicago makes the film feel warm and homey, a busy city in Middle America, with honest and kind folk from Midwestern towns.

                Sandra Bullock is wonderful in this film. Lucy is a lonely transit worker who lives alone with her cat, and doesn’t have any immediate family. She has a crush on a handsome man, Peter (Peter Gallagher), who commutes to work every day, and admires him from afar, as she has never spoken with him. On Christmas day, she saves him when he gets pushed onto the train tracks by muggers and hits his head, falling unconscious. At the hospital, he is in a coma, and through a misunderstanding, she is believed to be his fiancée. Lucy meets his family, who are loud, boisterous, bickering yet loving people, and Lucy knows the truth would hurt them, as they haven’t heard from their son in ages, so she pretends to be Peter’s fiancée. And as she gets to know them and they accept her, she feels blessed and joyful to have a family, and to share her life with people.

                Lucy’s actions could make her seem like a crazy person or con artist in real life, and it would be a lot less appealing. But Bullock’s kind and sympathetic portrayal made her likable, charming, and relatable. You just want to see good things happen to her, even as she is caught in this deception and confusion.

  I love that Lucy has a taste for wanderlust, gotten from her late father. He raised her with stories of adventure, gave her a globe lamp, and ignited her passion to travel, particularly to Florence. It’s sweet, and Florence seems like a random place, but romantic and nice for Lucy. Her dad was fond of maps. She tells to Jack (Bill Pullman) of her father, “He used to hear of a place on the TV, we would pull out the atlas, we’d find where it was, and we’d route out this, like, little way to get there.” It’s a beautiful memory, and one that touches upon Lucy’s sentimental side.

                A wonderful actor in this film is Bill Pullman. Jack is cynical of Lucy’s claim to be Peter’s fiancée, but is still kind-hearted, and charmed by her imperfections. Pullman, for years before this role, had played men who had been jilted by their lovers, dumped, rejected in love, or cheated on. This film broke that streak, giving him the opportunity to play someone who gets lucky in love. Pullman plays Jack with warm, a lived-in comfort. He is a nice, normal, average guy who works in the family business of buying and selling furniture from estates, but really wants to branch out and build furniture for a living. He is an all-around good guy, and not perfect, just nice.

                The family are often talking over each other in their scenes, and the actors have great chemistry together, they really do seem like a real family, with history and memories. There is a particularly funny scene where there are two conversations going on at once at the dinner table: compliments about the food, and comparing the heights of tall movie actors. It’s just dinner table talk, but meshes well together, as it is the way a family talks at dinner with love and togetherness.

                Another standout performer in this film is Michael Rispoli, who plays Joe, Jr., the son of Lucy’s landlord. He acts like a stereotypical Italian-American guy, and is frequently hitting on Lucy and often fails in his pursuit. Yet he isn’t portrayed as a predator or as a creep, more of a misguided guy who cannot say the right thing to women. Rispoli’s characterization was spot-on, and his mannerisms (clicking his tongue, smoothing his hair, pounding his fist, Italian-style hand gestures) were hilarious. He is meant to be comic relief, and while it is a stereotypical portrayal, Rispoli’s attention to detail in small, telling gestures was fantastic.

                The film is a beautiful gem. It is a romantic comedy that isn’t cloying or annoying, and has likable and relatable characters in it. Chicago looks very inviting and close-knit, and you just want good things for the characters in the film. It’s just a wonderful film to see.