10/29/2019

The World is Tony's: A Scarface Essay & 4K UHD Blu-ray Review of Scarface (1983) - "The World is Yours" Limited Edition Set


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The World is Tony's: A Scarface Essay
By Jen Johans

(Note: Mild Spoilers Ahead)

Al Pacino wanted to be Paul Muni. Seeing the actor play a prohibition era mobster in what Robert Osborne dubbed "the granddaddy of all gangster films," director Howard Hawks' acclaimed 1932 movie Scarface, Pacino was as exhilarated as he was determined. Leaving L.A.'s historic Tiffany Theater to call his agent, the producer Martin Bregman, Al Pacino knew two things: that it was the right time to remake Scarface and that in it, he wanted to be Paul Muni.

Rather than try to repeat history by making a period film about Italian gangsters post-Godfather, Pacino's Dog Day Afternoon director Sidney Lumet made the wise decision to shift the action from the past to the present. No longer interested in chronicling the rise and downfall of an Italian thug, in the new film, Tony would be a Cuban criminal ready to climb the ladder in the drug trade after emigrating to Miami. And with that in mind, Lumet hoped to make Scarface a timely wake-up call about the policies of the Reagan administration in the same way that Hawks' picture begins with a warning that the film was "an indictment of gang rule in America and the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace to our safety and our liberty."


Yet while Lumet's political aspirations didn't jive with Bregman and Pacino's desire to just make it more of a contemporary crime saga full stop, thankfully they adhered to his idea to set the film in Miami at a time when 125,000 Cuban immigrants (including an estimated 25,000 with criminal records) flooded southern Florida after Castro opened Mariel Habor in 1980.

With Brian De Palma taking up the reins as director, he tapped Midnight Express screenwriter Oliver Stone to pen the script, which he did only after talking to Lumet about his reservations to the film. Moving to Paris in order to write (and kick his own cocaine habit), Stone's script for Scarface was based upon not only the Ben Hecht original but also his in-depth research about the rise of drug violence and organized crime in Miami. Managing to capture the outrageousness of it all, Stone's final draft filtered the political and criminal realism of its subject matter into the entertaining structure of an action thriller. And leaning into the mindset of a power mad gangster, the end result feels operatic, with musical highs and lows ideally suited to De Palma (as well as Pacino).

Stepping into the role of Cuban immigrant, Antonio "Tony" Montana, as opposed to Paul Muni's Italian immigrant, Antonio "Tony" Camonte in the Hawks film, Pacino's off-the-charts charisma is on display in his very first scene in the film as he answers questions from tough, badgering authorities. The only one in the room commanding our attention, even as the immigration officers voiced by an uncredited Dennis Franz and Charles Durning grow more belligerent, Chinatown cinematographer John A. Alonzo's camera stays on Tony for minutes before finally opening up the shot to include the entire office.

To misquote the ad slogan "The World is Yours," which inspired both Camonte in the original and Montana in the remake, in Scarface, the world is Tony's and he wants everything in it. As De Palma's film kicks off, we know even before Tony leaves the room that he'll do whatever he has to in order to ensure that his rise in America will be both meteoric and straight to the top.


Introducing us to the characters in his world, we meet Tony's loyal and handsome right hand man, Manny (played by the main cast's only Cuban actor, Steven Bauer), who joins him on his quest, and eventually, Tony's lovely nineteen-year-old sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), whom he hasn't seen since she arrived in the states with his disapproving mother years earlier.

When Manny makes the mistake of saying aloud that Tony's sister is beautiful, we learn that the Achilles' heel of 1983's Tony is the same as it was back in 1932. Taking the conversation from a two to a ten in seconds, Pacino's Tony shouts, "you stay away!" before warning Manny that "she is not for you."

Needless to say, that definitely telegraphs the future for would-be forbidden lovers, Manny and Gina. Yet it also reveals that, although paternalistic, in place of their American father who ran out on them years earlier, Tony's need to protect the chastity of his sister borders on an obsession that De Palma frames in a creepily romantic light from their very first scene together.

From the knock on the door to Gina running after him into the night, the moment plays less like the return of a black sheep son and more like a boyfriend who's been banned from the house since he's not the kind you take home to mama. And although this incestuous undercurrent ran through the original as well, between Tony and his sister in both versions of Scarface and James Cagney's character's obsession with his mom in White Heat, you get the impression that Freud would've had a field day with these gangsters and their Madonna-whore hang-ups.


Still, while his love for Gina is covert, Tony's most overt object of romantic obsession in Scarface is undoubtedly Elvira, the blonde, leggy goddess played by then-newcomer Michelle Pfeiffer. The girlfriend of Robert Loggia's character Frank who, incidentally, is his boss, when Tony first sees Elvira, she wears a backless teal gown that, depending on the light, flashes green like money or as blue as the ocean he crossed on his way from Cuba. Pacing with her back to him inside a glass elevator like a caged tiger, even before he sees her face, Tony knows he has to have her.

A thing to be acquired that's much too wild for him, like the chainsaw used in a bathroom in an early drug buy scene that's straight out of a horror movie or an actual tiger that he brings home as a pet, Elvira is something he feels that needs to be tamed. And sure enough, when Tony makes an early play for her, Elvira asserts her dominance like a predator by telling him not to call her "baby" before swatting him away with her paw.

Finally, "freeing" her from her gilded cage of life with Frank by (of course) taking him out because this is the law of the jungle after all and only the strong survive, Tony pulls back the sheet on her bed in the middle of the night with her deceased boyfriend's blood still on his hand to tell her she's coming with him. Having never even kissed her (consensually), unlike the scenes where Tony gives his sister an engraved heart shaped locket or watches Gina try on clothes, throughout Scarface, there's nothing romantic about his interactions with Elvira.


Not sure what to do with her once he's gotten her, since it was most likely the thrill of the chase that was his strongest aphrodisiac, we realize even before Tony does just how incompatible the two are as lovers. In their first dance together, Tony insults her while trying to size up her sex life with Frank, which is intriguing because we're not exactly sure she's better off with him since, despite the fact that Tony talks a good game in front of Manny, for all we know, the two seldom make love as it's never shown.

For a film that's known for its excess, the lack of a love scene in Scarface is significant. In fact, the only time sex is even mentioned is when Tony and Elvira fight, which doesn't bode well for their satisfaction in that department. Tony wants her to have his children but there's a reason why animals don't mate in captivity (and that's before an avalanche of cocaine is added to the mix). Proposing marriage by tying it into his rise to the top only confirms this isn't a courtship, it's a business deal, after all. Tony takes her out of one cage and puts her right into another.

By then, however, he's as addicted to power and status as she is to cocaine. But as the film continues, he matches her enthusiasm in that as well, at one point snorting so much from a mountain of coke on his desk that the drug sits on his nose like a dollop of whipped cream, making him feel even more paranoid and invincible than before. Right on cue, of course, that's when the bullets really start flying.

Famous for its excess in both its ultraviolence and F-words totaling 226 mentions in 170 minutes, Scarface received a dreaded "X" rating the first three times it went to the MPAA regardless of the cuts (and before De Palma and company appealed the rating, complete with Roger Ebert championing on the film's behalf). Yet much like the 1932 film's producer Howard Hughes didn't bow to the censors and released it on his own in all of the states without them, when his appeal for an "R" rating came through, Brian De Palma went back and released the film's original cut exactly how he'd wanted it in the first place.


While understandably, both the Cuban community scoffed at what they believed was the film's conceit that all Cuban immigrants were as bloodthirsty as Tony Montana was and other filmgoers were appalled by its content, Scarface became a monster hit regardless, influencing an entire generation of gangster films and hip hop music in the process.

Overwhelmed not by the film's violence but by its "bombast," as Pacino described it in a 35th Anniversary Reunion Q&A at Tribeca, the first time I saw Scarface twenty plus years ago, I thought De Palma's approach was ridiculously over-the-top. But funnily enough, try as I might, I found that I could not get the film out of my head. Long after I hit eject, it rattled around in my brain like gunfire. Cinema is my addiction, after all, and because the right movie can get my adrenaline going, Scarface fired my synapses as if it were a drug to the point that I felt like I had seen the film multiple times before I actually sat down to watch it again.

By now, far more well-versed in De Palma's filmography (beyond, of course, my personal favorite, The Untouchables), this time around, I found myself far more easily caught up in the Montana family circus than before. The satiric epitome of the Me Decade as well as just a terrific gangster picture that comes (as they all do) with a warning against flying too close to the sun because you crave the feeling of warmth that you get from its rays, Scarface works extraordinarily well on a number of levels.


Matching Pacino's verbosity with a more understated turn, Steven Bauer's Manny is one of the film's most compelling characters. Conveying paragraphs of meaning with his eyes, first when he sees Gina and then later when he has to stop himself from intervening as Tony manhandles Gina to scold her for her behavior with a man, Manny grows more fascinating with each viewing, thanks to Bauer's lived in performance.

Yet, similar to the way that in that opening sequence we hardly leave Tony's gaze, the same can be said of the film overall. In Scarface, most of the action happens with Tony onscreen, and even in the rare moments that Tony isn't present in the frame (where he's frequently alone and/or centered in the shot), he's never too far from our mind. Inevitably, this nearly subjective approach makes it difficult to understand some of the film's periphery characters, especially the women who are often shortchanged in the genre. Yet, despite the fact that it's Tony's world, the rest of the actors do their level best to bring everyone in it to three dimensional life.

With the teals, oranges, purples, and reds of Alonzo's gorgeous cinematography more lushly vibrant than ever before, thanks to this luxurious new 4K restoration, it's hard not to watch Scarface without wondering how much of it might have inspired the look of the TV series that was set to bow a year later in the form of Miami Vice.


Of course, the film is most famous for its final sequence, which finds a defiant Tony determined to mow down every mercenary sent to kill him with his machine gun "little friend" after his fortress is penetrated. And while it remains thrilling, you can't discount the visual wizardry of earlier action scenes. Standouts include the aforementioned chainsaw hotel sequence which feels like it belongs in a John Carpenter or Wes Craven movie (but came directly from Stone's research) as well as a bravura sequence that paints Tony as the target of an attempted assassination in a nightclub before he barely escapes with his life.

Packaged together with a crisp Blu-ray release of the 1932 original by Howard Hawks —  to whom De Palma dedicates the 1983 film along with screenwriter Ben Hecht —  the 4K gift set of Scarface contains the new film on 4K, Blu-ray, and digital as well as a film geek worthy plastic recreation of Tony's gaudy "The World is Yours" statue.

Easily transported by the sound of Italian composer Giorgio Moroder's instantly recognizable score as well as the sight of Al Pacino's wolfishly hungry, ambitious eyes in his very first scene, this new release of Scarface reminds us that although the gift set might be ours, this world belongs only to Tony. Ultimately bringing Pacino's movie dream to life, in the end, what the new film lacks in Paul Muni, it definitely makes up for with Al.


Text ©2019, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information in order to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

10/25/2019

Movie Review: Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound (2019)


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Looking for the right words to describe the late Alan Splet, David Lynch's innovative, Academy Award winning sound editor who collaborated with the filmmaker on some of his most iconic works including Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, Lynch barely hesitated. Dubbing Splet "a born soundman," he elaborated further, describing his friend, with a twinkle in his eye, as a "joyous experimenter."

And joyous experimentation seems to be at the heart of veteran sound editor turned USC professor turned director Midge Costin's newly released documentary feature debut Making Waves, which celebrates the adventurous spirit of professionals eager to contribute to what Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas agree is fifty percent of a feature film.

Chronicling the history of motion picture sound from the beginning, in Waves, we learn about the artists who performed music and sound effects live to accompany screenings of the Oscar winning 1927 silent film Wings to the advent of the talkie with The Jazz Singer that same year. From King Kong setting the bar for future sound design in 1933, we move from Orson Welles bringing the methods he pioneered on radio to his influential Citizen Kane and beyond, until later on when we circle back to Jack Foley working his magic on 1960's Spartacus in order to save Stanley Kubrick a fortune in reshoots.


With three decades of experience working in the industry on films such as Days of Thunder and Crimson Tide at her disposal, Costin's passion for and knowledge of her subject shines through in this ambitious, eye-opening documentary, which is sure to be of particular interest to both budding and established cinephiles.

Occasionally too ambitious for its 94 minute format, while rushing from one thrilling anecdote about recording the sound of animal roars in order to beef up the otherwise "wimpy" sound of jets for Top Gun to recounting what it was like to re-record "there's no crying in baseball," with the actors live for A League of Their Own, Waves struggles to cover too much ground.

At its most engrossing when it slows down enough to really sink its teeth into a topic, Costin's segments on Splet-like "born soundmen," Walter Murch and Ben Burtt — both of whom fell in love with the medium playing with tape recorders as children before ultimately making their own groundbreaking contributions to the field on Apocalypse Now and Star Wars respectively — stand out.


An MVP in any documentary (and richly deserving of his own), from his philosophical analysis about sound's importance going back to the womb when it was the first sense we could experience up through his revolutionary decision to treat each facet of sound design like a different instrument family in a symphony, the sophisticated Murch easily holds us in his thrall. And with Burtt revealing his painstaking process of eagerly cataloging a wide variety of sounds for George Lucas a year before a single frame of Star Wars was even shot in order to give life to Chewbacca and R2-D2, Waves illustrates how well sound can translate emotion to audiences around the world.

Not just a boys club despite its reputation — as a female sound professional herself now heading up a largely female production and post-production crew — Costin makes an effort to champion the vital contributions made by the industry's unheralded soundwomen in Waves. While many of the contemporary examples fly by the screen far too quickly, one of the most interesting sequences in the film is devoted to the little known role that Barbra Streisand played in bridging the divide between concerts and film.


Longing to bring to the screen the same interplay between the artist and the audience that could be experienced at one of her shows, Streisand not only rejected the use of tape playback in Funny Girl in order to sing live but also insisted upon using what was then a relatively new, two-speaker, Dolby sound format for A Star is Born. Offering to pay for the expensive, untested technology out of her own pocket — which would have amounted to a million dollars — when Warner Brothers studio heads saw the film played back in Dolby, they heard the difference immediately and reassured her that there was no need for her to foot the bill.

Featuring interview footage with filmmakers ranging from Ang Lee and Robert Redford to Sofia Coppola and Ryan Coogler as well as the expertise of a wide variety of sound designers and editors, once we reach the film's blink-and-you-missed-it section on composers, it feels as though most of the contemporary segments in Making Waves have gone by in a blur.

With so much to cover in all of the various subcategories of sound, Costin could have easily turned the documentary feature into a Ken Burns style documentary miniseries (which she could have also shown to her students at USC!). Though it's filled with amazing moments that play like an epic awards show montage, at times, the film flies by so quickly and with so much force that it feels like a Top Gun jet, complete with an animal roar added in by Oscar nominee — and Costin's Days of Thunder colleague — Cece Hall.


Although I would surely fail if I were to be tested on how much information presented to us in the rapid fire last third of the film I was able to retain, honestly the lovingly made Waves is filled with so many wondrous ideas that it makes Costin's film an undeniable success.

"Our ears lead our eyes to where the story lives," Steven Spielberg explains early into the documentary and even though it's meant to highlight the importance of the art form, it also stands out as a perfect descriptor of Waves, which makes us appreciate the role that sound plays on a number of levels evidenced therein.

Celebrating the link between what we hear and what we feel, Making Waves is as informative as it is indefatigable, despite its structural flaws. A passionate ode to creativity, Midge Costin's documentary might just inspire the next generation of would-be sound artists to do some joyous experimentation — the kind we'll have to hear to believe — of their own.


Text ©2019, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information in order to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

Blu-ray Review: Strange But True (2019)


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"The last thing," that Amy Ryan's grieving mother Charlene wants "to hear is how goddamn happy" the girlfriend of her deceased son is, especially when five years after his death, the very pregnant young woman, Melissa Moody (Margaret Qualley), shows up at her door wanting to talk.

Convinced by her other son Philip (Nick Robinson) to go and hear her out, she begrudgingly follows him first into the living room and then later the bedroom of the deceased Ronnie (played in flashbacks by Connor Jessup), where Melissa plays them a recording of her recent session with a spiritual adviser who informed her that her baby is part of Ronnie.

Telling them that she's only ever been with one man in her entire life, she gazes at them in earnest and, with hope they decidedly do not share, reveals that Ronnie is the father of her child. Not wanting to listen to any more of the girl's claims — whether goddamn happy or sad — Charlene looks right at Philip and with a pained edge to her voice that could chop the room in half, tells him to "get her out of my house."


A psychological domestic drama that longs to be a thriller (and eventually morphs into one in the final act), Strange is the sophomore feature from Wasteland aka The Rise director Rowan Athale. Written by novelist turned screenwriter Eric Garcia, Strange But True was adapted by the writer from the eponymous book by John Searles, who shares in a fascinating making-of documentary included on the recent Blu-ray release that something similar to Melissa's visit — minus the immaculate conception from the grave — had happened to his family that inspired the mystery.

And overall, it's a film that has a lot in common with that aforementioned early scene which sets everything in motion. For while Strange starts out by asking a lot of philosophical questions about the possibility of an afterlife and/or God in a voice-over as though it aims to seek spiritual guidance alongside the guileless Melissa, eventually it settles into a Philip-like rhythm of wait and see . . . before finally giving into a goddamn clear-cut suspenseful resolution worthy of Charlene.


Serving its phenomenal cast well as a strong dramatic showcase for the actors involved, Strange But True is anchored by that fiery trio and provides proof once again (and after the recent Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) that Andie MacDowell's daughter Margaret Qualley is the real deal. But the further we get into Strange, the more excited we become by the addition of more character actors including Brian Cox, Blythe Danner, and Greg Kinnear as the film oh so slowly accelerates towards its thrilling conclusion.

Yet even though the cast is there to reel you in, Athale and Garcia struggle with not only the pacing of the picture but also are unable to decide upon precisely which tone it is that they wish to strike. We watch with interest as Charlene investigates the veracity of Melissa's claim. As she looks into the possibility of freezing sperm after death, Philip tracks down the same psychic Melissa visited, while, of course, going through the exact same existential crisis over how to deal with grief that has impacted all who knew Ronnie.

Torn over whether or not it's supposed to be a straight up mystery or if Strange should indulge in some of the . . . well, strange new age elements inherent in Qualley's announcement, the filmmakers try to do both by opting for an everything and the kitchen sink approach.


Although it might just lose viewers hoping for a more faith driven storyline (or those who might very well drop off during its admittedly dull second act), it's nonetheless an ambitious if muddled effort. Adhering to its novelistic origins in its use of foreshadowing, the film contains some lovely little plot echoes as Charlene recounts the events of a memory that then seems to happen the exact same way to Melissa. And from the very beginning, when these symbolic moments work, they undeniably elevate the film.

However, the movie is at its most compelling when it finally embraces the genre of suspense and gives its dynamic cast something of real consequence to do. Never quite able to nail the balancing act required in telling a story about how hard it is to cope with grief while also adding a mystery to the proceedings, even when Strange But True loses its way, with Amy Ryan, Margaret Qualley and company at the helm, we remain goddamn happy to follow them anywhere.


Text ©2019, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. https://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information in order to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

Blu-ray Review: Angel of Mine (2019)


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Shocked when her ex-husband Mike (Luke Evans) hands Lizzie (Noomi Rapace) papers announcing that he's going to sue her for full custody of their shared son Thomas (Finn Little), Mike steels his gaze and tells Lizzie, "he feels your darkness." And it's a darkness we see close-up in Strangerland director Kim Farrant's sophomore feature length fictional feature Angel of Mine, which, written by Lion scribe Luke Davies and television veteran David Regal, is based upon the 2008 French film L'empreinte de l'ange from director Safy Nebbou.

A nerve-wracking, intense psychological portrait of a woman who might be unraveling or — even scarier — might be onto something, Angel of Mine finds Lizzie developing a growing obsession with Lola (Annika Whiteley), a local seven-year-old, whom she believes might just be the daughter she lost seven years earlier.


The sister of one of her son's classmates, Lizzie follows her intuition to the exclusion of everything else and befriends Lola's mother Claire (Yvonne Strahovski) under the guise of being interested in buying the home that she and her husband Bernard (Richard Roxburgh) are trying to sell before they move far away. With the clock now ticking and the family's leave date drawing near, Lizzie grows increasingly desperate to not only spend time with the girl whose big brown eyes and face she feels resembles her own but also try to find some sort of evidence to back up her claim.

An at times harrowing and intentionally uncomfortable film that is utterly dependent upon the portrayal of Lizzie, thankfully Noomi Rapace — who also produced — is more than up to the task. Withholding details about the tragedy that has not only left its mark on the fragile, grief stricken Lizzie but also propels the film forward, like an expert poker player, writers Davies and Regal and director Farrant wait until it's absolutely necessary to reveal the cards Rapace holds close to her chest in a gut-wrenching confrontational scene between Rapace and an equally powerful Strahovski.


Mistakenly advertised as a traditional thriller, Angel of Mine is more reminiscent of a Cassavetes picture with Lizzie a Woman Under the Influence of grief. And while it does test a viewer's patience early on as we struggle to see where the film is going and find ourselves cringing as Rapace closes in on the family as a target, overall, despite some issues with pacing, Farrant's film is a largely successful one.

Benefiting strongly from having a woman at the helm as well as her refusal to amp up early scenes with the two women or frame Lizzie like Glenn Close's Alex in Fatal Attraction, Angel is made with sensitivity and compassion, even when it completely holds us off balance. With a central thesis that incidentally ties in with the current Me Too debate since it asks us whether or not we should "believe all women," when it comes to Lizzie and/or Claire, Farrant urges us to do just that and believe that what they say is true for them, regardless of where the storyline actually goes.


A solidly constructed Australian feature, Angel of Mine takes some real risks by not falling into the well known rhythm of a traditional work of suspense and it's a gamble that pays off mightily, thanks to the ensemble. Although it's unsettling to say the least to ask us to — as Luke Evans' Mike might say — feel Lizzie's darkness, with performances such as these and a director well matched to the material, we're more than eager to see this Angel through whatever hell it might endure, since we know that whatever the outcome, we're going to see some light.


Text ©2019, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information in order to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

10/22/2019

TV on DVD Review: Veronica Mars (2019) - Season 1 (aka Season 4)


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(FTC Notice: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the DVD I reviewed in this blog post. The opinions I share are my own.)

Returning to the small screen once again after releasing a fan-funded feature film of the cult favorite series back in 2014 (along with two spin-off novels), upon first glance, the 2019 incarnation of Veronica Mars looks a lot like the original CW series which ran for three seasons in the early aughts. But the further we get into creator Rob Thomas' new eight episode trip to Mars on Hulu, the more we realize that although Veronica might be set once again in the perpetually sunny fictional southern California town of Neptune, the tone of this update is leaner, meaner, and certainly far more noir than it ever was before.

Reflected in the new cover of the theme song, "We Used to Be Friends," sung this time around not by The Dandy Warhols but rather Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, the tune we used to know is achier, harder, darker, and lonelier than the tongue-in-cheek original. And played once again by the one and only Kristen Bell, those are all words you could use to describe her titular character Veronica Mars this season as well. At one point asked in earnest if she had been mad after losing her best friend Lilly Kane to murder as a teen, Veronica matter-of-factly replies that she is still mad in a way that says more about her outlook on life than an entire season could.


Most at home in the apartment she shares with Logan (Jason Dorhing), when the Naval intelligence officer isn't off saving the world that is, Veronica's second happy place is the office she shares with her beloved father, Keith (Enrico Colantoni). A sardonic twenty-first century So-Cal noir version of Nancy and Carson Drew, Veronica might have earned a law degree after high school but she pushed that off to the side to instead pick up a license to work alongside her dad at Mars Investigations as a private eye.

Done moonlighting as a detective the way she did when she was back in high school on the UPN turned CW series, now ten years later, she's made it legal as well as official. And it turns out it's just in time for more chaos as —  early into what she calls the month long bacchanalia that is Spring Break in Neptune — a mad bomber has decided to join in the fun while taking out four people at the spectacularly busy Sea Sprite motel in the process.

With Daniel Maloof (Mido Hamada), an up-and-coming congressman hiring Veronica and Keith Mars to figure out who's behind the bombings that maimed his younger brother and murdered his fiance, Veronica finds herself at the center of an incredibly complex case which encompasses all eight episodes of the new season.


Not the only person trying to ID the perpetrator, it seems that bombing survivor and true crime obsessive pizza deliveryman Penn Epner (outstandingly played by Patton Oswalt) is trying to do the exact same thing, as are two hitmen from a Mexican cartel (Clifton Collins Jr. and Frank Gallegos) who've come to take out the person who murdered the nephew of their boss' ex-wife.

Taking a cue from True Grit, complete with a precocious protagonist who shares the same name as the young western heroine from the novel and subsequent film adaptations, as well as her tragic origin story that sets her on her dangerous quest, we meet Matty Ross (nicely brought to life by Izabela Vidovic). Having lost her father in the Sea Sprite bombing, the teenager teams up with Penn — whose online true crime group of "Murderheads" see conspiracy everywhere — along with Veronica and Keith.

A clever way to payoff on the original conceit of the series back in its 2004 launch as a whipsmart teen who — having faced overwhelming misfortune — tries to take control of her life and right some wrongs, Matty's character reminds us of teenage Veronica's strength as a rape survivor longing to find her best friend's killer. As such, the introduction of Matty would itself make for a cool cyclical call back if this was indeed the final season of the series. However, with the advent of so much male dominated TV noir in the 2010s, I cannot stress how refreshing it is to have the feminist Mars back and I certainly hope that it continues.


Rounding out the series' emphasis on badass heroines, small screen MVP Kirby Howell-Baptiste of Killing Eve and Barry, among others, reunites with her co-star from The Good Place, Kristen Bell in a triumphant turn as Nicole, the owner of popular spring bar and/or meat market Comrade Quacks, who befriends Veronica while trying to stave off the push to gentrify Neptune.

Leading the fight on the opposing side is the father of Logan's best friend, Big Dick Casablancas (David Starzyk), who has returned home from jail with a new right hand man in Clyde (the always phenomenal J.K. Simmons) and a mission to buy up properties from struggling Neptune business owners in order to make a future killing.

With no shortage of new characters to investigate, many of our original favorites — including most of the male supporting players, such as Percy Daggs III's Wallace Fennel — find themselves shortchanged by comparison. Yet, although this season is primarily concerned with the plights of both father and daughter Mars, even those two protagonists take a backseat to the main mystery which connects them all and leads Veronica down a twisty, unpredictable path of red herrings and potential leads, including some with links to people from her past.


While humorous bit players like Ken Marino's Vinnie Van Lowe make appearances, the series also welcomes back two of my favorite charismatic supporting characters in the form of PCH biker gang member Eli "Weevil" Navarro (played by Francis Capra) as well as Veronica's former love interest Leo D'Amato (Max Greenfield), who's now working for the FBI.

The new season might begin slowly by reveling too much in the hedonism of spring break but thankfully, by the time we reach the far more noirish second episode, Veronica Mars completely sucks us in. At its best when it devotes itself to the increasingly complicated mystery rather than the comically idiotic beach scene, Thomas struggles to combine the dueling approaches early on. And this narrative unease definitely shows as we weave our way from predatory guys at Comrade Quacks to various groups of spring breakers at the Sea Sprite before the bomb goes off in depictions that feel less suited to a late twenty-something Veronica Mars mystery and more befitting of the character in her high school years.

Testing viewer patience while simultaneously introducing us to individuals who might become more important as the story moves on, while it doesn't do much to help in Rob Thomas' stated goal of moving the series away from its roots as a teen soap opera in order to become a full blown detective show, thankfully, Mars evolves into something closer to the latter as it moves on. Still not forgetting the human side, the series deftly balances out Veronica's inner struggle to put her anger and fear aside to perhaps marry the man she loves, while also worrying about her aging father who's begun to struggle with serious memory loss that he fears might put their lives on the line.


Anchored by strong performances by its cast — especially Bell whose Veronica seems to be even more hardened than she was before — 2019's Veronica Mars is a different and more contemplative spin on the original wisecracking teen detective series. Enhanced by its more cinematic approach, from a sexier reunion of Logan and Veronica (or "LoVe") as the two make love in the first episode followed by a tense, film-worthy shootout in the woods between Veronica and Keith versus the cartel several installments later, when Veronica leans into both its more mature handling as well as its terrain, we are eager as ever to follow.

Ending with an admitted deus ex machina for one character that — thanks to the devastating fate of another — is easier to forgive by comparison, Thomas and company's risky decisions go a long way in helping to propel Veronica Mars down a new path that you can foresee paying off in a potential new season.

Growing far more compelling as the season continues — while still indulging in gallows humor — this grittier incarnation of Mars underwhelmed me at first with its frat party atmosphere before soon becoming so engrossing that I found myself needing to binge watch the final three episodes back-to-back-to-back.


Though best known for its dialogue, Veronica Mars Season 4 (as it was originally billed and/or Season 1 as the DVD dubs it) has as much fun reintroducing us to old supporting players as it does setting the stage for epic action. From meeting our cartel hitman as they listen to Elvis and discuss philosophy as someone bangs for help in their trunk to a Pulp Fiction reminiscent sequence where one character reaches for and considers one weapon after another before opting for a final selection, it makes for one intensely nerve-wracking trip to Mars. With quite the knotty case to unravel over the course of eight hours, although it takes awhile to get going, Veronica Mars season 4 (or 1, depending upon your preference) marks an overall thrilling return to the small screen for one of my favorite television detectives.

As flawed as she is heroic, while it's hard to see Veronica tune out Wallace or be turned on by some of Logan's most self-destructive characteristics in the first half of the new episodes when she's frustrated and/or preoccupied by a case. At the same time, however, it fits our protagonist to a T because of all the trauma that Veronica went through as a teen (and with that version of Logan before he channeled his hypermasculine behavior towards the military). Veronica gets her strength from everything she's endured, after all, which is what makes her the first in line to put everything on the line to seek out the truth and do what's right. And while this season adds a harrowing new tragedy to her life, which has predictably divided fans — including some of whom say they might not watch the series again — Thomas and his co-writers have to be applauded for their commitment to story over solely giving in to what's expected.


While I was initially unprepared for the shock to come until the seventh episode, when it started to telegraph the tragedy a little more openly, watching the season a second time in order to review it, I began to see just how smartly series writers began to drop clues as to where it was ultimately headed as early as the very first episode. Appreciating the way they foreshadowed the jaw-dropping turn of events while also pushing Veronica throughout the season to contemplate her role in Neptune as well as her overall future, it became easier to see what the writers had in store this time around and evaluate it from a narrative perspective . . . while still being heartbroken about "____," of course. Forcing her and us to consider whether or not she's just coasting and undervaluing her talents in Neptune as opposed to taking a cue from Logan and exploring the world beyond her surroundings, this season gives us a lot to think about.

Yet as daring as it might appear to be for Thomas to take such a massive risk, upon closer reflection, this move is completely on par with the shocks of Mars' first two stellar seasons. In spite of our easily nostalgic view of the series while looking back on it with rose colored glasses, Veronica Mars was never the TV equivalent of Gilmore Girls style comfort food. No, instead, just as it was in its 2004 debut, the recently relaunched Mars remains a tough series about an underdog heroine who's made stopping misogynistic rapists, killers, and villains her special mission for life. Rather than just punch them out with a sap glove a la Nicole or tase them as she does a mugger she winds up mugging in return, Veronica puts in the diligent, dangerous work so that eventually, the truth will out. As the song says, "a long time ago, we used to be friends," and it's so good to watch her continue this fight once again. Gifting longtime "marshmallows" with a compelling work of feminist small screen California noir, needless to say, with a season like this to springboard from, I look forward to seeing where in the world Mars will take Neptune's finest private eye next.


Text ©2019, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. https://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links.  Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information in order to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

10/10/2019

Movie Review: Lucky Day (2019)


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A funny thing happened on my way to review writer-director Roger Avary's new movie Lucky Day. I watched his first picture Killing Zoe, which is a film I could've sworn I'd not only seen but also liked, only to discover that I hadn't and I didn't. In fact, I hated every aggressively nihilistic, dispiritingly misanthropic second of it.

Still, in Zoe, it's clear that Roger Avary — who won an Academy Award for his story contributions to Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction screenplay — is a man of ideas both good and bad. And now with twenty-five years of life and professional experience at his disposal since Zoe, I was cautiously optimistic to see what he'd create next.

A far more polished endeavor, Lucky Day wastes little time before indulging in Francophile Avary's many creative whims, starting with an incongruous Days of Heaven style opening voice-over track performed in English by eight-year-old Beatrice (Ella Ryan Quinn), who then speaks nothing but French for the rest of the movie.

The ode to all things fran├žais continues as we're introduced to Crispin Glover's psychopathic French villain Luc who speaks with a hammy Pink Panther accent. Visibly relishing in the role, in his first scene, Glover teases out every ridiculous vowel like the sound of his own voice thrills him before we realize that Luc is a tornado looking to land.

Having just arrived in the United States, Luc is on the hunt for Luke Bracey's newly paroled safe-cracker Red, who's eager to just lay low with his French wife Chloe (Nina Dobrev), a pretentious artist who — much like Uma Thurman's wig in Pulp Fiction — wears her hair like Anna Karina did in the 1960s.


Filled with Pulpisms including surf rock and pet names like Honeybun and Bumblebee for Red's wife and daughter, while Lucky's Tarantinoesque elements feel about as fresh in 2019 as they did in the late 1990s after one new Pulp Fiction knockoff after another was released into theaters, the actors all have fun with it.

Trying to sell each new quirk as though it's the one crucial ingredient needed to make up an authentic personality we can believe in, on top of daughter Beatrice's insistence that she speak only French, Avary's film informs us that she can make herself invisible by touching her nose. Rounding out the eccentric cast of characters, we also encounter Dobrev's lecherous Harvey Weinsteinish boss Derek (David Hewlett) who tries to threaten her into sex while wearing a garish painted on mustache for no apparent reason. Two otherwise intriguing character ideas that might've paid off better if more time had been spent on them, the light whimsy of Beatrice versus the camp of Derek represent just two wild swings in tone for Day, which strives to reinvent itself in a different genre with each successive scene.

Though slightly more mature than Zoe, Lucky Day invokes some troubling racial stereotypes and caricatures throughout the film as it establishes a pattern of using minorities as a diversion to laugh at or kill off in absurd ways. Featuring stereotypical portrayals of African American, Asian, and Latino supporting characters, Avary's film is especially cruel to its female minorities and feels at times as if he's channeling Bret Easton Ellis' novels, which he adapted and directed twice in the early '00s. From an Asian woman whose last name sounds like a nickname for the male anatomy to an African American woman who is simply there to be used for offscreen sex and slaughtered within the very first act, as well as a Mexican woman who's racially insulted, humiliated, and faces a similar fate later on, Avary's (hopefully unintentional) bias is on full display.

Well shot and chopped, even though on a professional level, the quality of this film is light-years better than Avary's first, despite the sweet family unit at its core, Day's attitude remains just as mightily misanthropic, ugly, and misogynistic as, in addition to minorities, it takes a few cheap shots at cops, critics, and passersby along the way.


Evolving into a demented Wile E. Coyote cartoon, Avary temporarily redeems himself with a fast paced shootout and chase sequence that begins at a snooty art gallery and ends up in the basement of our main character's workplace (or front). An elaborately choreographed action set piece that wears its Raising Arizona style inspiration proudly in every frame, as Red's personal and professional worlds collide and his family ends up in Luc's crosshairs, Avary raises the tension and pulls us in an unpredictable high stakes pursuit. And while it does bode well for him as a writer-director of comedic action fare, unfortunately, in a film that finds him throwing absolutely everything at the wall to see what sticks, it's too little too late.

A modest improvement over Killing Zoe yet one that enjoys making its nonwhite and female characters the cruelest of punchlines, Lucky Day is bolstered by its accomplished cast, who commit to the picture like nobody's business. And honestly, for the (very few) moments it works, it works well. Yet in its current form, Avary appears to be making three very different movies at the same time — a cynically over-the-top ultraviolent thriller with a larger than life villain, a work of Madeleine-esque French child centric whimsy, and a subversive camp dramedy about a horned up sexual harasser in the workplace.

Needless to say, Roger Avary is a man with no shortage of stories up his sleeve. Although admirable indeed, Lucky Day makes you wish that idea man Avary would take a step back to see which of his ideas translate the best to the tale he's trying to tell and which ones make about as much sense as an English language voice-over in a crime film by a girl who speaks French and turns invisible.


Text ©2019, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. https://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information in order to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

Movie Review - High Strung: Free Dance (2018)


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AKA: Free Dance; High Strung 2

It's hard to make music in the keyboard equivalent of a Ford Fiesta when you've got a Ferrari in your sights, as deli delivery boy Charlie (Harry Jarvis) discovers at the beginning of High Strung: Free Dance. Dropping bread off at an elderly woman's stately home, he comes face-to-face with a gorgeous grand piano and dares to play the keys beckoning to him in the dimly lit study. And once Charlie gives into temptation, his skills make quite an impression on the reclusive owner who first complains that her previous bread order was dry before telling him that next time, he should play something by Schubert.

A delightful opener to an otherwise forgettable movie that's as bland as the rolls at Charlie's deli, Free Dance uses the same building blocks of a "let's put on a show" set love story between a burgeoning dancer and musician that served as the backbone of the pleasant 2016 original. Proof that like a xerox machine, if — as they say in Multiplicity — you make a copy of a copy, the result isn't nearly as sharp, while the first High Strung picture was constructed from bits and pieces of dance movies of decades gone by, this one feels as though it's just going through the motions to try to duplicate its success.


Yet while High Strung's new musician Charlie is an entertaining new character, the same cannot be said for the rest of the people who populate Free Dance. Unfortunately, this includes our dancer and female lead Barlow (played by Juliet Doherty), whose direct worth seems to be derived from whichever guy is standing nearest to her — whether that's bossy choreographer Zander (Thomas Doherty) or Charlie — and neither of whom address her with any real conviction.

From getting cast and kissed by Zander within the same thirty seconds — and with all the sizzle of a toothpaste commercial — to having cliched fights with her mom (Jane Seymour), screenwriters Janeen and Michael Damian (who also directed) can't be bothered to give her or anyone else onscreen anything resembling a personality. And with time, this also applies to Charlie who, despite starting strong, seems to fade into the background as Free Dance continues.


Recommended only to dance movie obsessives and even then with the caveat not to expect too much, with the wooden dialogue only accentuating the film's amateur performances, Free Dance wisely breaks the tedium with dynamic music and jaw-dropping dance choreography that routinely bursts onto the screen so suddenly that it feels as though we must've accidentally changed the channel.

Serving up various styles of modern dance with creativity and verve, in the end, I can't help but wish that Free Dance had been a been not a dull showmance but a That's Entertainment! like showcase of back-to-back free dance. While ultimately a Ford Fiesta — as Charlie might put it — thanks to the impressive work of choreographer Andreea Dumitrescu and the talented dancers on the screen, it's evident that there's enough talent behind the films that someday the High Strung franchise might just deliver its viewers a Ferrari.


Related Review: High Strung (2016)


Text ©2019, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. https://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information in order to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.