Search This Blog

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.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Life Partners - A Film Review

Life Partners is a 2014 romantic comedy directed by Susanna Fogel and written by Fogel and Joni Lefkowitz. It stars Gillian Jacobs, Leighton Meester, Adam Brody, and Abby Elliott. It is a very good and likable comedy about two best friends dealing with crossroads in their friendship and their personal romantic relationships.The film has a bright and sunshine-y look to it, partially because it is set in a hip area of Los Angeles, and because many of the characters wear bright colors and have animated and talkative personalities.

Paige (Jacobs) and Sasha (Meester) have been best friends for years, and have great chemistry together despite their personality differences. Paige is a lawyer who has a type-A personality and has a controlling attitude when she wants her way, which includes trying to control Sasha’s life. Sasha is a slacker musician who has abandoned her passion to work dead-end receptionist jobs, and doesn’t know what to do with her life, feeling anxious about being nearly 30 and having a lack of direction in her life. Despite this, the two are very witty and relaxed with each other, often teasing one another. There is a fun running joke where they heckle each other while driving in their cars, pretending to be angry motorists and cursing at each other, calling each other “bitch” and “slut” with love. They complement one another, and each need the other in their life because Sasha needs structure in her life, and Paige needs relaxation in herlife.

Their relationship is tested when each of them get involved in romantic relationships. Paige, who is straight, begins to date Tim (Brody), an affable young doctor and cinephile who is much more laid-back than Paige. Sasha, who is a lesbian, dates women who are younger and more immature and flighty, a reflection of Sasha not being ready to grow up. Sasha dates Vanessa (Elliott),who is a wannabe writer that is pretentious and selfish. Both of these romantic relationships threaten the core dynamic of Paige and Sasha’s friendship,because their romantic partners inadvertently take them away from each other.Paige become engaged to Tim, and spends much more time with him than with Sasha, leaving Sasha feeling like she has been ditched and not seen as “adult”as they are. While Paige doesn’t like Vanessa because she is a bad influence on Sasha, and keeping Sasha from maturing more as an adult. The best friends struggle with each other over accepting their differences and learning to work together as friends instead of trying to change the other to what they want.

The film shines because of the great chemistry between Jacobs and Meester. They bring a realness to their portrayals that makes them seem like real best friends, with warmth, in-jokes, light teasing, vulnerable confessional moments,and a deep love and care for one another. Particularly, Meester shines in this movie, as she is a rising young actress who hasn’t been given enough of the credit that she deserves for being a charming, talented, and likable actor and personality. Sasha is very relatable because she is a young woman hitting 30 who doesn’t know what she wants in life, and is tired of working soulless jobs, yet has given up her musical passion out of boredom or depression. Her slow realization that she needs to change her life herself and to break her pattern of working boring jobs and dating immature women is very true to many women’s decisions to grow up more past their youthful post-adolescent years. Meester brings vulnerability and understanding to this role that made a true standout in this film.

The script by Fogel and Lefkowitz is based on their own friendship, and feels honest in what a friendship between young women is like. The film passes the Bechdel Test for the most part, excepting scenes where Paige and Sasha are talking about Tim. The friends often talk about their jobs, Sasha’s relationships, their friendship, junk T.V., and their life aspirations. It’s a wonderful movie about female friendship, and was an enjoyable independent film that is now streaming on Netflix.

Nightbreed - A Film Review

            Nightbreed is a 1990 dark fantasy film written and directed by Clive Barker, based on his novella Cabal. The film stars Craig Sheffer, David Cronenberg, and Anne Bobby. The film centers on a young man named Boone (Sheffer) who has visions of a city of monsters called Midian, and is disturbed by his visions. He is framed by his psychologist (Cronenberg) as a serial killer, and finds refuge in an abandoned cemetery, discovering Midian and the race of monsters known as the Nightbreed, who live hidden from humanity.

            The film may be classified as horror, but it really isn’t. The Nightbreed are monstrous-looking, but are not villains in the story. They are the last of an ancient race that has been exterminated by the Naturals (humans), and when Boone becomes one of them (through a bite that allows him to be resurrected as a Nightbreed following his shooting death by the police), he is split between being of the Nightbreed and wanting to be with his girlfriend Lori, who is one of the Naturals.

            The villain of the film is Decker, the psychologist who had been committing the murders, and set up Boone to be captured and killed. Decker uses his credentials as a doctor to get away with describing Boone as dangerous and mentally disturbed, as well as having authority to manipulate the police force based on his intellectual class. Cronenberg, known primarily as a film director, delivers a very good performance as a cold and calculating serial killer with an academic appearance.

            Both Sheffer and Bobby deliver endearing and touching performances as Boone and Lori. They are lovers who go searching through Midian for each other, both like Orpheus going into the underworld to find Eurydice to bring her to the surface. Their romance is sweet, and the audience really understands that these two would do anything for each other. They are both very strong-willed, and determined to survive and save themselves and the Nightbreed.

The visual effects are excellent, particularly the designs of the Nightbreed and Midian, with effects led by Bob Keen and Geoffrey Portass. It is obvious that lots of creativity and hard work went into this film, with amazing and twisted designs of an underground race of people. Barker said of monsters, “There's a corner of all of us that envies their powers and would love to live forever, or to fly, or to change shape at will. So, when I came to make a movie about monsters, I wanted to create a world we'd feel strangely at home in.” The Nightbreed are fascinating and charismatic creatures, and have more humanity inside of them than the angry mob waiting outside to torch them. A pertinent quote from one of them to Boone sums up their fraught existence amongst the Naturals: “You envy us, and what you envy, you destroy.” The Nightbreed can be quite likable, and when the epic final battle happens between the Nightbreed and the Naturals, it is thrilling to see the Nightbreed fight back and defend their home from those who want to destroy them.

            The music score was composed by Danny Elfman, who was rising in fame at the time as the main composer for Tim Burton’s films. The music echoed the rising and haunting crescendos of his Batman score, and made the film feel like a huge and powerful film, balancing between the horror of the world of Boone in the Naturals and the horror of the threatened world of Midian.

            The film has an epic fantasy feel to it, and it was meant to be the first of a series of three films, as the ending leaves the story open for a sequel. But the film bombed, mostly due to the poor studio cut and the marketing of the film as a horror/slasher movie, without interest in the film’s fantasy roots. Just last year, Barker was able to release his director’s cut of the film, and that is the film that is being reviewed here. It is magnificent and epic, a fantasy film with horror elements that is more about humanity than it is about gore. Hellraiser was a groundbreaking film that, while it had elements of gore, was much more a fantasy film than a straight horror movie. It had amazing visual effects, a story of love, death, rebirth, and journeys to and from the underworld, and compelling characters. Hellraiser was an intelligent film in the horror/fantasy genre, and Nightbreed was a fantastic follow-up to it. It is a treat that Barker’s vision has been restored in the version of the film he wanted, and now that it is streaming on Netflix, millions of horror and fantasy fans can enjoy a greatly underrated gem.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Gunshy - A Film Review


               Gunshy is a 1998 noir/crime drama film directed by Jeff Celentano and written by Larry Gross. It stars William Petersen, Diane Lane, and Michael Wincott. I love this film, it’s a great little sleeper film. It is about a failed journalist who gets caught up in the crime underworld of Irish and Italian gangsters. It’s got this cool, gritty vibe to it, set in Atlantic City, New Jersey, about ordinary people caught up in small-time gangster life.

                Petersen plays Jake, a journalist who just got fired from his journalism job and found his woman cheating on him. Petersen is great at playing damaged, rough types who seem on the brink of losing their mind and becoming the villain (Manhunter, To Live and Die in L.A.). Jake is saved by a beatdown by Frankie (Michael Wincott), a hired heavy for an Irish gangster named Pops. Frankie is hired to shake down and intimidate people who owe his boss money, and uses his raspy voice and love of violence to a scary effect. Frankie takes Jake home to be bandaged up by his nurse wife Melissa (Diane Lane). There, Jake immediately falls for Melissa, and is hatching a plan to steal her away from Frankie, which she refuses over and over again.

                Frankie is intrigued by Jake being able to withstand pain and grit through life, as well as his intellectual knowledge of books. So he makes a deal with Jake. Jake will teach him about books (most notably, Moby Dick, as the themes of the book will come to reflect the themes of the film), and Frankie will give him a job in his crew and give him street smarts. Jake reluctantly agrees, and is often witness to Frankie’s night and day personality. When being around Jake and Melissa, he is calm, quiet, likable, and friendly. But when dealing with someone who owes his boss money, he is cold, violent, ruthless, and dangerous. Jake asks Frankie if he enjoys doing what he does. Frankie says, “I like hurting people who deserve to get hurt.”

                Wincott is known for playing a villain in films like The Crow and The Three Musketeers, and his raspy voice, sinewy frame, and long dark hair made him perfect as an antagonist. In this role, he isn’t a villain, but not necessarily a good guy, either. He is a man who has street smarts but not book smarts, and feels he owes his life to the mob because they saved him when he was a youth, so that he can never leave, out of fear of betraying Pops, his father figure. Wincott is great as Frankie, as a thug with a conscience, and infuses him with sympathy even when he is being absolutely ruthless towards people who owe money to his boss.

                Jake and Melissa share a warm connection, like two working-class stiffs in love, and it isn’t long before they are sleeping together. It seems like a really bad choice, given that Frankie is attracted to violence, and would hurt or kill Jake if he found out about this. Frankie doesn’t have any real friends, and the betrayal would break his heart.

                As Melissa, Diane Lane is excellent in this film, it is an underrated role for her. She excels at playing tough, damaged, working-class women who have been through tough times in life and preserved. It is a combination of her stunning looks, her deep voice, and her maturity in roles that creates this fantastic combination. Other actresses like Maria Bello, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Ashley Judd also share this talent as well.

                The film progresses into a finale that will test Frankie’s resolve to keep his conscience clean in his line of work, as well as Jake’s ability to keep a secret (not only the cheating one) that would devastate his relationship with Frankie if found out. The film’s finale with a big job is a bit underwhelming, but the character development and resolution is thrilling and well-executed dramatically.

                I recommend the film if you are interested in noir dramas and B-level thrillers. It is a hidden gem to be appreciated and enjoyed.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Daredevil - A TV Review

I watched the whole Daredevil series this weekend. It is fantastic. I was really into its world, and I didn't know how dark this story would get. The acting is amazing, the fight scenes are excellent, and the pacing and camera work is fluid and impeccable. The show creators, led by Drew Goddard, definitely took a lot of care and respect for the original work. I loved how epic it was for a TV series on Netflix, there was this gravity to it that made everything feel heavy. The music was reminiscent of The Dark Knight, so I liked that allusion.
Karen was one of my favorites on the show. I loved how much she grew throughout the series, from a scared victim who became a survivor investigating corruption and facing a lot of fears. She was a whistleblower who wouldn't take bribes or be intimidated by businessmen or gangster types. She stuck to her convictions, even when there was a huge risk to herself or the people she cared about. She wasn't a damsel or the love interest, as I had feared at the beginning. I was really happy to see that she was one of the biggest heroes of this show, and was just a great character, with a superb portrayal by Deborah Ann Woll.
Matt Murdock was just a great character, and brilliantly portrayed by Charlie Cox. I loved that he was portrayed as being like a real, regular person, albeit having heightened senses. Despite that he's a great fighter and has his hearing advantages, he gets hurt a lot throughout the show, and the show doesn't shy away from showing how mortal he is. He fights while injured a few times, and it isn't a fantasy where the hero goes through mortal danger and jumps back up. Nope, he visibly winces in pain a lot and clutching his broken and bruised parts while fighting, and gets tired and worn out. I loved that touch of realism to him, breaking out of cliches where the hero can survive a fall or going through glass and never gets hurt. Besides that, he was a great friend to Foggy and Karen, they all had really sweet chemistry together. And I loved the scenes with his dad. They had this warmth to their moments together that nearly made me tear up.
Foggy was a sweet and funny guy, and Elden Henson's portrayal of him was way above Jon Favreau's from the movie version. I knew of Henson as a teen actor from the 90's, usually cast as a bully, a lunkhead, or a gentle giant (The Mighty Ducks, The Mighty, Idle Hands), but didn't think anything of him. He was excellent in this. He infused Foggy with humor, lightness, care, and as the show progressed deeper, more heartfelt seriousness. There is a vital episode between Matt and Foggy that was an fantastic showcase for Henson's talent as an actor, I was really amazed by him.
For the villains, Wesley, who was Fisk's main henchman, was my favorite. He had this quiet and calm demeanor that made him more intimidating than the brutish Russian brothers or Fisk throwing fits and attacking people. Wesley reminded me of Cillian Murphy's performance in Batman Begins, a quiet, studious-looking man who can hold absolute terror in his hands. Toby Leonard Moore was one of the standout talents on the show.
And Vincent D'Onofrio was fantastic as Fisk, and I really enjoyed how the show rounded his character out to show how he really believed he was saving the city through his methods. It is obvious that he is the villain (he works with organized crime and drug lords, and uses violence to get what he wants), but seeing depth and dimension given to the villains, as much as the heroes got, was refreshing to watch.
The cinematography on this show was glorious. I loved the slow pans and one-take shots, especially when the audience could anticipate that Daredevil was about to strike as the camera work did a continuous panning shot around the environment, with either minimal music or no music accompaniment. The camera was often pulled back for the fight scenes, with no shaky editing or jump cuts, just showcasing amazing fight choreography. The stunt double as Daredevil deserves some kind of award or recognition, he and Charlie Cox pretty much share the role, much like how Lucy Lawless and Zoe Bell shared the role of Xena back in the day.
I loved this show, and got really invested in the characters within just a few episodes. It is a genre show on Netflix, so it may not become as popular as Orange is the New Black or House of Cards, but I loved it. I didn't know anything about the character (and I'm not counting the bad movie), so seeing a faithful adaptation by people who love comic books was beautiful to watch.
This show is AWESOME.