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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Dirty Girl - A Film Review

Dirty Girl is a 2010 coming-of-age dramedy written and directed by Abe Sylvia. The film stars Juno Temple, Jeremy Dozier, Milla Jovovich, Dwight Yoakam, and Mary Steenburgen, with cameos by William H. Macy and Tim McGraw.  Sylvia based this fictional film on his own experiences as a teen boy in 1980s Oklahoma.

The film centers on two teenagers in 1987 Oklahoma who are outcasts: Danielle (Temple), a troubled and promiscuous teen girl who never knew her father, has a strained relationship with her nosy mother (Jovovich), and hates her mother’s Mormon fiancé (Macy), who is controlling and abusive in his methods to force his religion and rules on Danielle; and Clarke (Dozier), an overweight gay teen boy who is shy at school, is pressured to act straight by his homophobic father (Yoakam), is close to his sympathetic mother (Steenburgen) and secretly loves pop stars like Pat Benetar, Debbie Harry, and Melissa Manchester. The two meet in a high school class for “slow” students, and are partnered together in a class project where they are “married” and have to take care of a bag of flour as their “child.” They bond over their social weirdness and find kinship with one another, and, when both have had enough of the pressure from their families to conform, steal Jeremy’s dad’s car and hit the road to find Danielle’s absentee father in Fresno, CA.

The film is carried by two talented and spirited performances by Temple and Dozier. Both infuse their characters with a sympathetic air and a humor that cuts through a lot of the angst that they are going through. Dozier excelled at playing Clarke, a kid who is more self-assured around Danielle than anyone else, and gains the courage to be gay and unapologetic for it. And Temple shined in this role, making Danielle caring and kind underneath her bad-girl exterior, bringing out both vulnerability and a devil-may-care attitude that made her an awesome person. Temple, in particular, is a very talented and charismatic actress who has been great in indie films like Cracks and The Brass Teapot, despite the mixed to negative reviews of some of her films, and has developed a stellar career in the indie film world while being overlooked in the mainstream media.

The supporting cast give admirable performances, but the film centers on the two teen characters. The story is creative and interesting, as a coming-of-age road trip movie starring two high school outcasts who shake off the confines of their environment and find their identities. It also has a great soundtrack of 80’s women-led pop songs, opening beautifully with Pat Benetar’s “Shadows of the Night”; Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” over Clarke dancing in his room; Joan Jett’s “Do You Want to Touch Me” as Danielle struts across school, and Sheena Easton’s “Strut” in a roadside bar scene. The film was charming and likable, and was quite better than the initial title and image, which give a raunchy idea of what the movie would be about. It is streaming on Netflix, and I definitely recommend it, as well as Temple’s other indie films (more notably The Brass Teapot and Cracks).

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.