Sunday, July 31, 2011

Day 102 - Into The Wild

Into The Wild (2007) directed by Sean Penn

Where does happiness come from? I suppose that is one of quintessential musings of human existence, right along with "What is the meaning of life?" and "What is love?" There are no simple answers and more importantly no right or wrong ones. Life is all about trying to find these answers. Some people go through their whole lives without ever knowing. More sadly, some go their whole lives without ever asking.

Chris McCandless is a man of the 60's living in the 90's. He is a hippie at heart, rejecting the norms of society; money, career, home, even family in favor of a simpler more peaceful existence. Be one with nature, have no attachments, just be free; free of attachment, free of troubles, free to live. Chris thinks he has it all figured out, going out on the road to roam the wilderness, to find himself and to find this happiness. However, Chris' tragedy is not being able to differentiate between finding himself and running away.

Into the Wild tells the true story of Chris McCandless who left behind his troubled family, his bright future and society itself to wander the wilderness. His ultimate dream is to go to Alaska and live off the land. He talks about Alaska reverently as if it will solve his troubles, help him find his inner peace. Drug addicts have a phrase for that, it's called "Chasing the purple dragon." It's all about trying to obtain the unattainable and it is never as good as you imagine.

The film opens with Chris (Emile Hirsch) in the wilderness of Alaska where he finds an abandoned bus. He settles there for the next couple months and seems content living in solitude, hunting for food, reading books and writing in his journal. The story is then told from a series of flashbacks leading up to his arrival in Alaska. First he graduates from college and talks of going to Harvard Law with his parents though there is an obvious disconnect between them. He cannot wait to escape from them and the life they represent and hits the road not even bothering to tell anyone. From there he bounces around from place to place, the Pacific Northwest, a midwest farm, kayaking down the Colorado River into Mexico, hoboing across country in trains.

These scenes show his greatest moments and also his greatest failings. His travels are highlighted by serene beauty and the cinematography is quite breathtaking. It is easy to see why he is so attracted to nature and also easy to see how he overlooks what truly makes him happy, other people. It is ironic that he runs away from his troubled family only to seek out others despite the pretenses of his solitude. He wouldn't have gotten very far without the help of the people he meets, yet he single-mindedly pursues Alaska. Chris establishes genuine connections with a hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian H. Dierker), his boss on the farm (Vince Vaughn) and an old man (Hal Holbrook) who comes to view him as a grandson. Each are sad to see him go and I get the feeling they think he won't find what it is he's looking for out there. What he's really looking for has been in front of him this whole time, as he later realizes, "Happiness is only real when shared."

Into the Wild is beautifully shot and poetically narrated. It is driven by the strength of Hirsch's performance and Sean Penn's direction. Penn had wanted to make this film for years and the amount of care he took into telling Chris McCandless' story shows.

Grade: A-

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Day 101 - Crazy, Stupid, Love

Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) directed by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa

Love can be crazy, love can be stupid. True love is something worth fighting for, worth changing for, worth living for. That is the central theme of Crazy, Stupid, Love, a fun and fresh multi-layered romantic comedy. Love is in the air, but the main focus is not necessarily the romances of the film but the two lead characters, Cal (Steve Carell) and Jacob (Ryan Gosling), who work together as classically mismatched buddies. Cal is stunned when his wife Emily (Julianne Moore) wants a divorce after 25 years of marriage. Distraught, he goes to a bar to lay out his troubles to those who will listen and catches the attention of ladies man Jacob who wants to help him. Jacob, meticulously groomed and impossibly attractive, takes Cal on as a pet project teaching him the art of picking up women. It goes without saying that during this process Jacob goes through a transformation of his own when he finds The One in Hannah (Emma Stone). The two men's lives diverge in opposite directions but, as expected, both come to the same conclusion, love.

The film is highlighted by its funny and clever screenplay. It understands that it is formulaic and has a little fun with it. At a critical down point, rain appears out of nowhere. Before I even got the chance to think it, Steve Carell sighs, "What a cliche." The screenplay is also surprisingly moving. Aside from a hilarious scene towards the middle-end, my favorite moment was actually a tender one, a simple phone conversation between Cal and Emily.

Another strength of Crazy, Stupid, Love is in the casting. Steve Carell has the lovable loser down pat. Ryan Gosling is handsome and charming. Emma Stone has a bright future ahead of her, though I did find her pairing with Gosling a little off. (She just looks so much younger than him.) Even though Julianna Moore dumps Carell, she's not really a bad guy. Neither is home wrecker Kevin Bacon. Marisa Tomei has a funny role as one of Cal's flings and brings a lovable energy to the film. Even kids have a chance to shine as Jonah Bobo plays Cal's son Robbie who is in love with her baby sitter Jessica (Analeigh Tipton). Oh by the way, she is in love with Cal. Confused yet? Don't worry, all the loose ends come together in the end in sweet and humorous fashion with our faith in true love in tact.

Grade: B+

100 Days....

So I've just completed 100 days straight of movie watching. At first the task seemed pretty daunting but once you start getting into a rhythm it becomes much easier. I think I could watch a movie a day indefinitely, but the hardest part by far is the writing. In the beginning it took me almost as long to write my blog entries as watching the movie itself, so I'd have to devote like four hours of my day to this project. It's just really hard to think up of interesting things to write sometimes especially for a lot of these classics. I have to try to find something to say that hasn't been said a billion times by people much smarter than me. I have found that in the past month or so I've been able knock out these entries much faster than before. I guess it becomes a little easier once you're used to it.

Looking back at some entries, I noticed I've definitely followed into a habit of saying stuff like, "This movie is really well shot" and "The music was great." These seem like terribly unoriginal things to say yet I say them for nearly every movie. I'm still not even sure I understand what a good looking shot really is.

I've really enjoyed watching all these movies I haven't seen before, even the ones I thought kind of sucked. It has taught me a lot about movies and exposed me to stuff that I would have never watched or thought about before. Netflix and Hulu have been invaluable and I'd never be able to do this without them. I think I've watched about 20 movies from my own DVD collection and 23 in theaters.

So here are is a brief statistical breakdown on what I've been watching (including two bonus movies).

By decade:
2010: 26
2000: 10
1990: 6
1980: 5
1970: 11
1960: 19
1950: 11
1940: 7
1930: 6
1920: 1

No surprise that the 2010's are winning as I watch like two movies a week in theaters so this decade will win by default. I've watched a lot of movies from the 1960's. It seems to me that a lot of the Criterion Collection films are from this decade. It's kind of surprising I haven't watched more films from the 1940's as when I think of "classics" I sort of imagine 1940's Hollywood. I'll try to make a conscious effort to watch more films from the 20's which means more silent movies. I will have to expand beyond Chaplin to get an overall feel for them.

Now breaking down by grade. I think some of the movies I've watched have been A+ worthy, but I didn't want to really deal with that right so an A is the highest score I am going to give for the purpose of this blog. I may retroactively change some scores around or eventually include an A+ rating.

By grade:
A     21
A-   15
B+  20
B    14
B-   11
C+  13
C      4
C-     1
D+    1
D      2
D-     0
F       0

It shouldn't be that big of a surprise that I've given pretty high scores. I have been purposely picking well regarded movies. I also tend to like a lot of stuff so a movie has got to really rub me the wrong way for me to hate it. Hopefully I won't be watching any F movies anytime soon...

I think it is noteworthy to list out the movies I've given A's to. If you had to pick a movie of the ones I've watched so far, obviously I would recommend one of these, in alphabetical order:

Adaptation, All About Eve, Casino, Charade, City Lights, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Double Indemnity, Le Doulos, Dr. Strangelove, Fallen Angels, High Noon, The Killing, Lady Snowblood, Modern Times, The Red Shoes, Samurai Rebellion, Scarface, Throne of Blood, Twilight Samurai, Vengeance, 13 Assassins

Just looking at this list of great movies it's impossible to decide which one I think is best or even like the most, though I can clearly see that some are not on the same level as others. That doesn't mean they don't deserve A's, but that not all A's are created equally.

Right now in my hearts of hearts I'd say it's a toss up between Double Indemnity, Samurai Rebellion, City Lights and All About Eve.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Day 100 - Vengeance

Vengeance (2009) directed by Johnnie To

"What does revenge mean when you've forgotten everything?"

Vengeance begins with a brutal hit on a family. A man and his two children are shot dead with the wife critically injured. The woman's father, Costello, arrives from Paris to Macau in light of the shocking news. Hanging on life support the woman is able to relay one simple message to her father, "Avenge me." And thus begins a rather fantastic blend of revenge drama with Hong Kong style action and flare. Mix in a little bit of Memento and a remarkable visual style and you get Vengeance.

I mention Memento because Costello's memory is fading, so it is important that he avenge his daughter's family before he forgets not just who he must kill but also why. A stranger to Macau, he enlists the help of a trio of hit men who he happens to cross paths with. He takes a picture of his allies to remind him of who they are. The four men bond together. There is a language barrier between them. He is French and they are Chinese and must communicate to each other in broken English, but there is an unspoken understanding between them. They know what must be done, they feel his pain.

This is a really great film, unique and stylish, thrilling and at times moving. Director Johnnie To has been around Hong Kong cinema for over two decades and I'm sure I've seen some of his movies as a kid, but Vengeance is the first I've seen as an adult. If this film is any indication of his talents then I'll gladly dig a little deeper into his filmography.

There are a couple really great scenes. One is so beautifully choreographed that if you stopped to think for a second you'd realize how preposterous the set up is, but you don't really care because it looks so damn cool. In it, the trio of hit men are surrounded in a open junkyard by their enemies. In a widescreen shot you can see the bad guys circling in on their location crouching behind big bundles of scraps rolling forward like gigantic dice. The wind is the equivalent of a category 3 hurricane as debris and paper fly around everywhere. It is really quite the scene.

Another visually compelling shot is Costello lost in streets of Hong Kong in the rain. He holds up his polaroids of his friends trying to match the faces in the pictures with anyone on the street. The combination of the neon signs with the gloomy rain makes for such an interesting look.

I really liked Vengeance so a special thanks to my friend Zach for recommending it to me, even though he may or may not read this blog!

Grade: A

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Day 99 - Blue Velvet

Blue Velvet (1986) directed by David Lynch

I am not really familiar with David Lynch other than The Elephant Man and I actually didn't even realize he directed that. I knew Lynch's name through Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet which I have heard really good things.

I liked Blue Velvet but I didn't love it. There are things I found really intriguing and other things I found head scratching. I guess I don't really understand the juxtaposition between the darkness of the sexual encounters with the almost campy setting of the film. Is there a point in contrasting the twisted sadomasochism with this Pleasantville-style suburban utopia? That there are dark secrets underneath the surface? Okay that I can get with, but it just feels much more self important than it really is and creates an odd balance to the film.

The film opens with Jeffery (Kyle MacLachlan) returning home from college to visit his father in the hospital. On the way home he discovers a severed ear in a field. His curiosity leads him to discovering a dark and twisted underworld hidden beneath the surface of seemingly perfect suburban life. It is highlighted by the intensely sadomasochist sexuality of Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) and her encounters with both Frank (Dennis Hopper) and Jeffery.

I appreciated how well shot the film is. The very opening sequence where Jeffery's father has a heart attack is really well shot (sorry I can't really describe it any other way than that). The whole film is full of imagery and symbolism.

Reading more about Lynch and Blue Velvet on Wikipedia, one of Lynch's common motifs is this hidden underworld. Jeffery even says something to that effect in the film, stating that he is seeing something that was always hidden. I suppose the point is that there is no such thing as perfect, that behind the doors there is something dark hidden inside. However, I feel like Lynch could have went all out on the sexuality and violence rather than mask it behind the rest of the film to make it really powerful.

Dennis Hopper as Frank is so insane that it is hard to really judge his performance. I thought he was great, but it made me wonder if I was supposed to understand more about his character other than that he is a complete psycho. Was I supposed to read more into it than that?

I liked Blue Velvet. It had a lot of good parts to it and I liked how strange it was, but at the same time I felt the strangeness might have actually detracted a little from the overall effect.

Grade: B

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Day 98 - Vivre Sa Vie (My Life to Live)

Vivre Sa Vie (My Life to Live) (1962) directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Of the French New Wave directors I have watched, Godard (Breathless) seems to be the most unique and innovative. You know you are watching more than just a film when you see his pictures, you are experiencing art. I can't tell you exactly what makes Vivre Sa Vie great other than it is different, different in the way it is shot, different in the way it is told, different in the way it feels. And if this were shot in smell-o-vision 4D, it'd probably smell a little funky too.

In short, Vivre Sa Vie is about a young woman named Nana who aspires to become an actress but instead falls into prostitution. The film is broken down into twelve chapters, each one digging deeper into Nana's descent into this underworld. She discusses matters with her ex-husband. She works at the record store. She has trouble paying rent. She takes in her first client. She finds herself a pimp. There is even a chapter devoted to explaining the rules and customs of prostitution. Further and further Nana spirals into the abyss.

Stylistically the film is quite unique. The very first glimpse of Nana is in the opening credits where we see an extreme close up of her face, in a cross between mug shot and magazine cover. Anna Karina, then Godard's wife, is featured prominently like a model, her meticulously shaped hair, her flawless skin and those deep penetrating eyes.

Then as the film begins for real, we no longer see her close up but see her from the back facing away from the camera. An entire conversation is shot only seeing the back of their heads. We can steal occasional glimpses of their faces through the mirror. What is Godard trying to tell the viewer in this shot? Perhaps that we can observe Nana from afar but will not be able to read her? Perhaps it is a metaphor for her prostitution, we get this impersonal glance at her, but nothing more. Or maybe Godard just wanted to be different. Regardless of how you read it, immediately we can see that this film will be different and it is. Like Breathless, Vivre Sa Vie sort of has a documentary feel, thanks to a hand held camera rather than the traditional mounted one. This camera follows Nana around throughout this journey and we are treated to some great shots. There is this shot of her smoking a cigarette while with a customer. There is the scene when a man smokes and they kiss and she exhales it. There is the shot of her in the theater watching The Passion of Joan of Arc.

The film is shot in crisp black and white. Many people who say they hate black and white don't realize just how beautiful black and white photography can be and often times it looks much better than color. Anna Karina's face literally glows on screen in some instances, an effect that can only be done in black and white.

Another distinct feature of this film is its use of music. The main score recurs over and over throughout. It is a powerful and tragic sounding melody that seems to be used to highlight the emotion of a scene.

A couple scenes that popped out to me is when Nana plays the jukebox and starts to dance. She looks so sexy and she has so much energy and joy in her, the only time in the whole film where it looks like she is enjoying herself. Another scene is when her pimp gives a detailed run down of how prostitutes work, how much they should charge, how often they change sheets in the hotel rooms, how many customers they average a day, etc.

I hate to admit it, but this film may just be too smart for me. Reading critics' discussion of this film only further proves that I am just an amateur at best, not just as a critic but as a writer as well. They go into some really heavy stuff that I'm still trying to wrap my brain around. I've watched the conversation between Nana and the philosopher twice now and I still don't really get what they are talking about. I'll gladly give a dollar to anyone who can explain it to me like an eight year old.

Yet despite not understanding themes and metaphors and interpreting scenes wrong and just flat out not getting it, I still somehow found enjoyment in the film. I was instantly drawn to Nana's character and her plight. I was captivated by the visual style and accompanying music. I appreciated the intellectual discourse even though I wasn't a part of it.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Day 97 - Pale Flower

Pale Flower (1964) directed by Masahiro Shinoda

The film opens with the lead character Muraki narrating. He just finished serving prison time for killing a man, but he wonders, "What's so wrong with killing one of these stupid animals?" He's an old time yakuza hit man with seemingly no meaning to life. The only thrill he gets is from gambling, but even then he doesn't reveal any emotion. At the gambling house he meets a young woman named Saeko who is also there to feel alive. She is bored with life and is looking to feel something, anything. The difference between him and her is that while she is searching for something, he already knows there is nothing out there. Life, he says in more or less words, is stupid.

Pale Flower is dark and moody. It explores these two nihilistic characters' quest for fulfillment and takes the viewer to the darkest corners of their lives. This is perhaps both a strength and weakness to the film. It allows us to view the emptiness of their lives, but it also means a sort of emptiness to the film as well. Despair and soul sapping moroseness this film has, deep characterization or plot it does not. It is all about the feel, the style, the ambiance and little to do with much else.

I sort of need to watch this film again to talk about it fairly because I feel I missed a lot of the stuff between the lines. If you watch Pale Flower at face value, you will not get much out of it. The characters are not particularly well developed and the plot doesn't really offer anything exciting. Much of the feel is in the visual style and tone and if you're not receptive to it you'll miss a lot of the feeling of the film.

Visually the movie is well shot and is obviously heavily influenced by film noir. I seem to have watched a ton of these types of movies lately because I've been noticing it a lot. There are two scenes that really popped out to me. One is the dream sequence that feels so surreal. The other is the ending in the restaurant.

Overall I have a sort of mixed reaction to the film and most of it is my fault for being so distracted when I watched it. Nearly every review I have read of Pale Flower mentions a bunch of stuff that I just flat out didn't get or bothered to think about. But I will say that having watched the film and having a brief understanding of it, I feel like it sort of misses the boat. The main problem is that we never get to really know Muraki and Saeko so it becomes difficult to have any connection with them. Perhaps that is the point though, their existence is so futile that what is there to even know?

Grade: B-

Monday, July 25, 2011

Day 96 - The Thief of Bagdad

The Thief of Bagdad (1940) directed by Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger, Tim Whelan and a a couple others

While watching this film I was reminded a bit of three films, the first being The Adventures of Robin Hood. Both are big fairy tale adventures shot in Technicolor. Both fill the viewer with wonder and excitement, reminding them of when their parents told them bed time stories. They both have that cheesy kind of play acting that seems almost amateur yet innocent and sweet. It doesn't matter if they are not particularly well acted films, you are captivated by the timeless storytelling and the adventure.

Perhaps the film that The Thief of Bagdad has most in common with cinematically is The Wizard of Oz, another Technicolor adventure. Both share a vivid fantasy element unlike any other movie at the time and employed state of the art special effects, particularly The Thief of Bagdad. The effects may seem crude by today's standards, but no other film at the time was doing this kind of stuff and they are still pretty impressive today.

The other film is obviously Disney's Aladdin, as both are based from the tales of One Thousand and One Nights. Many of the plot points and characters are the same. The bad guy in both films is named Jafar and there is a thief named Abu. There is even a genie and a flying carpet.

What I liked most about The Thief of Bagdad was just how magical the story seemed. This was accentuated by the special effects. There is the sultan's toy room and the wind up flying horse, a flying carpet, an evil spell turning a boy into a dog. Perhaps the most pronounced effect is the giant genie. Each episode in the film is highlighted by different special effects. It seemed like one scene after another.

The film doesn't necessarily have one singular plot, it is a series of episodes that reads like an adventure story. The king of Bagdad Ahmad is tricked by his Grand Vizer Jaffar in a manner that has Ahmad on the run deposed of his title. He meets a young thief named Abu and they go on a series of adventures together, all leading of course to Ahmad retaking his throne. Ahmad's driving force is his unrequited love for a princess. There are an array of settings for the adventures, the streets of a city, a storm at sea, a scary cave with giant spiders, the grand palace.

This also marks the third film that Michael Powell has directed that I have seen (The Red Shoes, Peeping Tom) and I've enjoyed all of them, although he was just one of several directors attached to this film. Before I started watching all these movies I had never even heard of him, so I guess I'm learning a little something!

A true test for a film like The Thief of Bagdad is to see how kids react to it. With all their distractions and fidgety ways, kids these days would tend to balk at the idea of an older movie, but my guess is that they'd find this film as fascinating as any Disney cartoon. Kids like adventure in any form.

Grade: A-

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Day 95 - Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) directed by Stanley Kubrick

I kind of dread watching these super famous movies sometimes because you have to invest so much energy to watch them. That is why I held off so long to watch Lawrence of Arabia and why I still haven't seen some other classics like Gone with the Wind. Also for the purpose of this blog, it is hard to write about a film that has been talked about to death by people much smarter than me, but here I go...

To fully appreciate Dr. Strangelove, you have to understand the context in which it was made. It was filmed during the heart of the Cold War where fear of nuclear bombs was constant. It is a perfect satire to this whole era. While the Cold War is long over and we don't have to worry about communists anymore, I think there will always be a fear of nuclear weapons. This will always make Dr. Strangelove relevant even as memories of the Cold War fades away from our social consciousness.

Above all, this film is really funny. It is highlighted by Peter Sellers' triple performance as Mandrake, the President and Dr. Strangelove, but the supporting cast is great too. There is Sterling Hayden as the insane General Ripper, Slim Pickens as Major Kong and George C. Scott as General Turgidson. It is hard to pinpoint a single character but I guess my favorite would be Mandrake. There is just something really funny about him. Maybe it is his British accent or his thick sophisticated mustache, but more likely in his nervous interactions with General Ripper. You can tell he's thinking "WTF?" when Ripper explains his theory on bodily fluids, but can't really say anything because Ripper is clearly insane. He is stuck in an impossible situation and it's just so comical.

Sellers is also great as the President. His mild manner delivery of absurd lines like, "There's no fighting in the war room!" are gold. This role kind of reminded me a lot of Gene Wilder, and that is a compliment in the biggest way.

Scott as Turgidson is pretty hilarious too. He is so over the top. I like how he's always pointing at the map of Russia. "The Big Board!" I laughed hard when he's describing the skills of his pilots proudly, only to realize that it probably means the end of the world.

Speaking of the War Room, the whole thing looks preposterous. It is just a giant empty room with a table in the middle. The Big Board that Turgidson is always worried about spies seeing is just a giant map of Russia. There is even a buffet in the back.

Underlining this comedy is an actual tension and suspense. I had no idea how it was going to end, nor how it should end. Would Genearl Kong's bomber hit his target and trigger the end of the world?

I think the film works perfectly for what it wants to accomplish. It works as a satire and as a suspense. It also goes to show that maybe machines won't be the end of the the world, but rather humanity's own stupidity.

Grade: A

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Day 94 - Friends With Benefits

Friends With Benefits (2011) directed by Will Gluck

Can two people have sexual relations and still be just friends? It would seem like the answer is obviously no, which is why it makes for such an easy premise for a romantic comedy. Undoubtedly Friends With Benefits will draw comparisons to No Strings Attached, a similarly themed rom-com released earlier this year, but they are actually pretty different. While I enjoyed No Strings, Friends is consistently more funny and has more heart. Also there seems to be a genuine chemistry between Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake, while anything Ashton Kutcher is in is in serious danger of totally sucking.

I won't bother dealing with the plot, that much should already be obvious. Two friends start to have casual sex with no attachments. Feelings, complications, inevitable fight and reconciliation with a few laughs and tears along the way. What is most noteworthy about this film is that it showcases Kunis and Timberlake in the lead roles and they shine. They are funny and charming and have the superstar good looks to back it up. Timberlake has gone a long way from being the lead singer of a boy band to a legitimate actor. He faced immense pressure to not screw up The Social Network but he turned out to be just fine. I think he'll end up alright given the right kind of roles. Maybe one day we will think of Timberlake as our generation's Frank Sinatra. Kunis is also proving to be a good actress with her dramatic breakout in Black Swan. Here she tackles comedy, a genre she is perfectly comfortable with. The two work great together, helped along with a smart and funny script.

The film is also highlighted by a great supporting cast. I wish Andy Sandberg and Emma Stone played bigger roles because their little scenes were really funny. Woody Harrelson is hilarious as a flamboyantly gay friend of Timberlake's character.

The keys to successful rom-coms? 1) Chemistry between the leads. 2) Be legitimately funny. 3) Not be overly romantic as to not scare away the guys from taking the ladies out to see it. That is all people really expect out of these movies. As simple as that formula sounds, so many of them fail in one way or another. I'm happy to report Friends With Benefits doesn't.

Finally, to answer that question in the beginning, in my humble opinion I think two people can have a sexual relationship and still be friends, but it probably means that they weren't really close friends to begin with. When it is two best friends then that is where it gets too complicated, at least that is what the movies tell me.

Grade: B

Friday, July 22, 2011

Day 93 - Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) directed by Joe Johnston

Yep, I wore my Captain America tee shirt to the theater today. Looking around the theater, I saw four or five other patrons wearing Captain America shirts too. One of them saw my shirt and nodded in approval. I acknowledged him with a half smile and nod of my own. No, I was not embarrassed. Yes, I'm kind of a dork. What can I say, I like heroes. I like adventure. I like to tease my imagination a little with stories of disbelief. These are a few bits and pieces of my childhood that I have been able to keep with me.

Captain America: The First Avenger satisfies all these needs, as should any good comic book movie. It stars Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as a puny man with a giant heart. If he can be a hero, anybody can, maybe you, maybe even me. It's got action and adventure set in the middle of World War II and of course it's got the ultimate villains, Nazis. (Dr. Erskine even asks Rogers, "Do you want to kill Nazis?" in a tone that makes it seem a privilege more than anything.)

What I enjoyed most about this film is that the writers and director Joe Johnston took their sweet time in developing Steve Rogers to make us care for him, cheer for him and ultimately understand him. The film shows that he is deserving of the powers he receives rather than just thrust them upon him. The point of the film, and Captain America himself, is that he was already a hero before he got his powers, he just needed a chance to prove it.

The main appeal of the film isn't super powers (Captain America's only real power is being in peak physical shape, he has no real powers beyond that) or big action sequences (though there are plenty) but about heroism and inspiration, the qualities that those classic comic books are supposed to evoke in the first place. If there is one complaint about Steve Rogers' portrayal is that his eagerness and heroism is borderline comical. In one scene, he selflessly jumps on top of a grenade ready to sacrifice himself. When he doesn't blow up, he asks almost disappointedly, "Is this a test?" So no, maybe he doesn't have the complexities of a Batman or Iron Man, but his zealousness is almost refreshing here. It's okay to be a good wholesome hero sometimes.

There are a slew of great supporting roles who are all given stuff to do. I was pretty surprised how much each character was allowed to shine. There's of course the main villain Red Skull played by Hugo Weaving. Just looking at his hideous face there is no doubt at all he is pure evil. Stanley Tucci plays the compassionate and wise Dr. Erskine who develops the Super Soldier Serum that gives Steve Rogers his powers. There is love interest Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and a hard nosed colonel played by Tommy Lee Jones. Best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) shows that Captain America isn't the only hero in this war and is a reminder of all the brave soldiers out there. An obvious tie in for Marvel fans is Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) who plays a surprisingly important role. He, of course, is the father of Tony Stark aka Iron Man.

It goes without saying there are big action sequences. However, none are particularly elaborate, which is okay given the nature of Captain America's powers. He can't fly or shoot lasers and isn't invulnerable. He is pretty much a regular guy so it would be a bit much to expect him to stop bullets without his trusty shield. He also fights the good old fashioned way, with guns, knives and fists. Oh, and of course his trusty shield. Maybe the best special effects of the film is how they made Chris Evans into a puny 90 pound kid, pretty remarkable considering how hunky he is in real life. Despite my bitter beliefs that such perfect bodies don't exist in the real world, I'm told yes, that is indeed Evans' perfectly chiseled body with no CGI. Taylor Lautner, eat your heart out.

This is a fun action adventure with a little bit of everything for everybody. I will say that I felt the very end of the film could have, should have been handled a little better and feels a little cheap compared to the rest of the film. It does make the film a little worse in my eyes, but not enough to the point of ruining it for me. And yes, there is something at the end of the credits if you care for such things.

Best comic book movie of the year so far.

Grade: B+

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Day 92 - Samurai Rebellion

Samurai Rebellion (1967) directed by Masaki Kobayashi

I was out all night/morning so this write up will have to be brief, which is a shame because this is a really great movie.

Here is that familiar face again, Toshiro Mifune, who has become one of my favorite actors of all time. Like Clint Eastwood, he is a man's man. His gruff face and mean scowl actually hide his brilliant acting abilities. It is interesting to watch him in a film not directed by Kurosawa, but in Samurai Rebellion he shows that he is his own man and once again is great in the lead role.

Samurai Rebellion is kind of a misleading title because at its core it is not really a samurai movie. It is a domestic drama that feels more Shakespearean than Japanese; it just so happens that the lead character is a samurai. The rebellion of the film refers to the lead characters' refusal to obey their lord's order and perhaps in a more worldly sense, it is a rebellion against traditional Japanese ideals.

Isaburo Sasahara (Mifune) is an aging samurai who has played by the rules all his life. He has served his lord faithfully, married into a good family and has put up with his nagging wife for twenty years. One day, the local magistrate informs him that the lord has banished his mistress from the castle. Lady Ichi, who has just borne the lord a son, attacked the lord in a rage after discovering his infidelity. The lord requests that Isaburo's son Yogoro marry Ichi. The Sasahara family initially refuses such a demanding request but reluctantly agree to it. Much to everyone's surprise, Yogoro and Ichi end up loving each other and make a perfect couple and soon have a daughter. The conflict of the film arises when the lord's eldest son and heir dies, leaving the son borne by Ichi to be the sole heir. Seeing as how it would be improper for the heir's mother to be married to a vassal, the lord requests that Ichi return back to the castle.

Enough is enough! Isaburo, Yogoro and Ichi can't believe this is happening. The audacity of the lord to force them to marry in the first place and then take her back on a whim after they've been happily married and have a child together is too much. Isaburo, who has been stuck in a loveless marriage for twenty years, cannot bear to see this injustice. He impores Yogoro and Ichi to never let go of each other, exclaiming that their love for each other has reinvigorated his life. The main focus of the film revolves around the negotiations between the Sasahara family and the lord's people regarding Ichi and the implications of their refusal to return her. This is the rebellion of the film.

This film is great all the way around. The acting and drama in the film is top notch, led by a powerful performance by Mifune as Isaburo. If you really think about it, the subject matter kind of makes this a chick flick. It places a lot of emphasis on emotions and the lead characters' thoughts and actions are pretty romantic if not heroic. It also carefully considers Ichi's feelings and opinions making her a strong and important female character, something that I don't really think I've seen in many samurai films. Don't worry though, you do get a chance to see sword fighting and Mifune kick ass, but that is almost an afterthought. The real action and turning points are in the drama.

Samurai Rebellion also boasts a terrific visual style. The double layered flashback scene where we find out why Ichi attacked the lord is unique and pretty modern and edgy, using jump cuts and freeze frames which is very out of line with how the rest of the film is shot. I also felt like the pictures (or compositions, what is the difference?) presented on screen were very ascetically pleasing.

Sorry, i'm exhausted right now so excuse me for the crappy entry, but I'll just close by saying I really enjoyed this film and thought it was great!

Grade: A

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Day 91 - Le Doulos

Le Doulos (1962) directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

This is the second appearance on my blog for two French men, director Jean-Pierre Melville (Bob le Flambeur) and Jean-Paul Belmondo (Breathless) and both have grown on me immensely. I'll just start off by saying I really enjoyed this movie!

Doulos is the French word for hat, but to the world of cops and robbers it also means informant. Rappers would love this movie. It has it all, gangsters, tough guys, honor among thieves and of course the code of the street, "Stop snitching." The main focus of Le Doulos revolves around trying to decipher the actions and motivations of Silien (Belmondo) who seemingly snitches on his friend Maurice in a heist. Maurice is convinced Silien is an informant and must decide what to do about it. For his part Silien does some pretty unsavory stuff throughout the film to make us believe he is at least of questionable morals, but is he a snitch? Why does he do the things he does throughout the film? There are plot twists galore and the details of the plot are pretty intricate, but it is nowhere near the labyrinth that The Big Sleep is.

But like The Big Sleep, the whole point of this film is its style and watching Belmondo do his best Bogart. As I mentioned in my blog entry about Bob le Flambeur, Jean-Pierre Melville loved all things American and if Le Doulos wasn't in French you'd have no idea that it wasn't filmed in 1940's Hollywood. Everything about the movie screams classic noir. Shadow intensive cinematography, crime drama plot, the tough guys, sexy dames, and hard boiled dialogue? Check, check, check, check and check. The film is intentionally exaggerated in that regard. Everybody in the film wears a trench coat and fedora. These supposedly sophisticated Frenchies like their liquor hard, scotch and whiskey only please. Standard locations include sleazy bars and fancy night clubs. One scene uses so much shadow that it intentionally hides a character's face and since everyone wears a trench coat you don't really have any idea who it is.

This isn't just Melville's ode to his favorite gangster films though. It is also combines elements of the French New Wave that gives it a different kind of edge. One thing that I tried to focus on were any unorthodox scenes in terms of camera movement or editing. A scene that jumped out to me was when the police take Silien in for questioning. The camera is set up square in the middle of the room and swivels back and forth following the characters and their conversations. As Silien talks with the detective, rather than cut back and forth between the two the camera instead moves right to left to right to left (something that I noticed Woody Allen does a lot in his films). Then later in the scene the camera follows the detective as he makes a complete 360 degree circle around the room, then he paces back in the other direction and goes another 180 degrees. This entire interrogation scene is shot in a single take with no cuts or editing lasting over eight minutes! Great job by the actors and an even better job of directing by Melville.

The star of the film is Belmondo who just exudes cool from his pores, something I noticed right away from his role in Breathless. It is impossible to look at him and not see a little bit (or a lot) of Bogart in him. He's just fantastic.

I don't want to ruin the ending but the last ten minutes are great. The closing shot has so much style that it is almost a cliche and I mean that in the best possible way.

Note: One complaint someone might have about this film is that it is misogynistic and Belmondo has some really good slaps that would make Sean Connery blush. Melville would defend himself stating something to the effect, "I'm not misogynistic towards women, the characters are!"

Grade: A

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Day 90 - Let the Right One In

Let the Right One In (2008) directed by Tomas Alfredson

Let the Right One In is a vampire movie that isn't really about vampires despite some pretty bloody scenes. It is a story about relationships and loneliness. It has more in common with a film like Lost in Translation than it does to Twilight in that regard despite its very Twilight-esqe moments. "I've been twelve for a long time," Eli says.

It also doesn't go into any of the vampire mythology, how Eli became a vampire or even really use the word vampire; it may be only mentioned once or twice. A vampire exists in this story and that's all you really need to know. Rather than focusing too heavily on typical vampire plot lines, the film instead digs deeper into what being a vampire means to a twelve year old girl. The beautiful part of the film is that it doesn't need any real explanation, it is told in a restrained and subtle manner that evokes emotion rather than intellectual analysis. Eli doesn't ever mutter, "It's so lonely being a vampire" or "I've finally found someone to connect with." Instead, you can sense these things through her actions, her expressions, her tender moments with Oskar.

The story begins with Oskar, a young twelve year old boy who is alone in the world. He has a distant relationship with his parents who are divorced. He is picked on mercilessly by bullies at school. He spends his nights sitting alone in the park by his apartment. There he meets a young girl named Eli who just moved in next door. She doesn't express it herself but you can sense she is alone in the world too. Obviously, she is a vampire.

If I had to categorize this film it would be an adolescent romance which is ironic considering it probably isn't suitable for kids, but take away the blood and dark ambiance and you get a touching and tender film that parents would gladly take their kids to. But the darkness works well for the film because of just how despairing the two kids' lives are. The darkness matches the loneliness in their hearts.

This film is well made all the way through, acting, directing, cinematography. The best part about the film is that it doesn't go about explaining itself, it allows things to develop slowly and lets the viewer soak everything in, the setting, the mood, the budding relationship between the two, Oskar's coming of age.

Let the Right One In is definitely a slow burner and those expecting Twilight will probably be disappointed, but those expecting an actually well made vampire romance should be delighted.

Grade: B+

Monday, July 18, 2011

Day 89 - Red Beard

Red Beard (1965) directed by Akira Kurosawa

For some reason I decided to start watching today's movie at 2:30 in the morning, so I probably wasn't in the best frame of mind to start watching a three hour movie. The first half of the movie was a bit of a struggle to sit through. I was kind of fidgety and had to pause it a couple times to go to the bathroom or find something to munch on. Kurosawa took his time setting everything up with no real central plot lines to focus on, but the pay off is worth it; the last half of the movie is some of the best stuff Kurosawa has ever filmed.

Red Beard would mark the end of the decades long sixteen film relationship between Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. How fitting that in their very first film together, Drunken Angel, Mifune would play the young disciple and in their last film, he would play the role of master. Surprisingly, Mifune's character, Dr. Niide, isn't even the main character of the film. The story is really about Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), a young doctor who is sent to a public clinic for the poor as part of his training. Noboru, arrogant and contemptuous, initially resists his assignment. He is on the fast track to becoming the shogun's personal doctor and feels working with these people is below him. He's received advanced medical training at a prestigious school and doesn't feel like he can learn anything from working at the clinic under "Red Beard" (Dr. Niide's nickname because of the reddish tint of his facial hair). The film's direction is obvious; Noboru does indeed have much to learn. Under the tutelage of the compassionate Dr. Niide and interactions with patients, Noboru learns the harsh realities of the real world and just how precious life is. Redemption, humanism, life lessons, etc etc. Thematically, Red Beard is typical and obvious. In fact, one of Kurosawa's biggest criticisms amongst haters was that he was too naive, too sentimental in his works. (As much as I appreciated Ikiru, I thought he laid the sentiment on pretty thick.) But why is that such a bad thing? Why can't people just watch movies to feel uplifted and think that maybe life is meaningful?

Structurally the film can be divided into three or four chapters, each involving a different patient and Noboru's interactions with them. Through each interaction, Noboru learns a little more about not only what it takes to be a doctor but a human as well. Part of my restlessness throughout the beginning of the film was the fragmented stories and lack of a central plot, but upon further reflection I can see why the film was made this way. The drama of the film can only be told through these interactions, Noboru's growth can only be shown through what he learns from these patients. Each story is given ample time to develop, even though they may not have much relevance to the overall plot of the film, which may or may not turn some people off. However, that does not make any of the stories less compelling and more importantly, any less relevant to Noboru.

The last act of the film is a revelation in itself. It is touching and endearing, heart breaking and heart warming. It involves the story of Otoyo, a young girl rescued from a brothel. (This part of the film is actually pretty hilarious as it involves Dr. Niide unleashing the inner Mifune as he beats up a gang. As the scene started to materialize, I said aloud, "You can't f*ck with Yojimbo, man!") Dr. Niide gives Otoyo to Noboru as his first patient. The two broken characters end up learning from each other and ultimately heal each other. Otoyo, who has only known bad people in her life, slowly learns to trust and care for others. She ends up meeting a seven year old thief and this side story almost brought me to tears.

Visually Red Beard is a very striking film, something you wouldn't really expect from this kind of movie. Kurosawa shoots some interesting pictures. Little details like the spacing between characters on screen can have such a strange effect on a scene. In one scene, Noboru is on the far left of the screen while a woman is on the far right. In a widescreen picture the space between them looks enormous. They have just met each other and are strangers, but watch closely as she reveals more about herself bringing her closer to him. The spacing on screen is directly correlated to the drama in the story. One shot involves Otoyo hiding in a darkened corner with only her eyes visible, as if the entire screen were a ninja's mask. Yet another shot fills up the screen with multiple layers, almost as if shooting two shots in one. It involves Otoyo secretly meeting the young boy in a yard with a bunch of sheets hanging on clotheslines. They are situated in the top half of the screen partially blocked by sheets yet in plain view to the viewer. In the bottom of the screen, Noboru and a nurse secretly eavesdrop on their conversation behind a different row of sheets. It kind of reminded me of that scene in Citizen Kane where there's an interior scene and an exterior scene going on at the same time in the window. Perhaps the best shot of the entire film is also at the core of its biggest moment, so I don't want it away, but pay close attention to the camera's effortless movement and think just how complex it must have been to plan it. It would be very easy to miss given how emotional the scene is, but that is what made Kurosawa so great, he paid attention to every last detail.

Mifune, as always, is great as Dr. Niide. Interestingly though, this film would cause tensions between Kurosawa and his star actor. Red Beard took two years to film and during this time Mifune had to maintain his natural beard which made it impossible for him to star in any other movies at the time, causing some financial strain for the actor. Also, the script writer of the film had mentioned to Kurosawa that Mifune played the part "all wrong." Despite their long history with each other and the fact that Mifune's portrayal earned him universal praise, the script writer's comment caused Kurosawa to question Mifune's abilities for the first time. Perhaps it was just coincidence, but the two never worked together again, marking the end of one of the best director-actor collaborations in the history of cinema.

Kayama as the young Noboru is fine, though it is almost impossible not to only focus on Mifune whenever he is on screen. Not only does he have such immense screen presence but Mifune actually looks physically much bigger than Kayama. I was very impressed by the young girl who played Otoyo, who is practically the main character in the third act and handled her scenes very well.

Red Beard is wonderfully acted and directed. The last half of the movie might be the most touching and emotional work of Kurosawa's career. Yes, its message is simple, maybe even naive as his critics may say, but so what? Since when did humanism become a source for scorn and when did nihilism and negativity dictate how people should perceive life and what we should expect of our stories about it?

Grade: A-

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Day 88 - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011) directed by David Yates

I'll be honest. I never really got into Harry Potter. That's not to say I didn't enjoy the films but I never had a particular attachment to them. For what it's worth, I never read the books which I heard is a requirement to love these films, but that's kind of a ridiculous argument. Guess what, I never read Lord of the Rings either and I really liked those movies. I just found it hard to really get into the Harry Potter films, but I will say that for the most part I have enjoyed the series even though I can barely remember any of them. (I distinctly remember disliking at least one of them, probably The Half Blood Prince, but it's all a blur to me now.) It's hard to believe that The Sorcerer's Stone came out in 2001 when Daniel Radcliffe was just eleven years old. We've watched him grow up before our eyes and ten years and seven films later he's matching wits and wands with Ralph Fiennes as a full grown adult in the last installment of the most successful movie franchise ever. The Deathly Hallows Part 2 probably does the best it can do in closing out the series respectfully, perhaps even impressively. Certainly as the last film it has a lot to live up to and I think it does a good enough job.

Given that the series has spanned eight films over ten years and that I don't think I've ever seen any individual one more than once, you can excuse me for not being up to date on all the matters of Hogwarts. There are a lot of characters to keep up with and lots of subplots that I needed reminding of. I'm sure there were parts of Deathly Hallows 2 I should have known better if only the other movies were a little fresher in my mind. Not that the movie is a complete puzzle, it's pretty clear what Harry and company must do and I just took the minute details as part of the ambiance of the film. I may not know who this flying ghost is, but I don't really have to, I just know that she exists in the world of Hogwarts and is one of the little quirks I should come to expect. I suppose that was the huge appeal to the Harry Potter books. In them, J.K. Rowling created a magical little world with its own mythology and lexicon. I'd imagine half the fun of the books was just learning the mythology.

I won't divulge into details but here is a brief rundown. Harry, Ron and Hermione must find and destroy the rest of the horcruxes. There is an epic battle between the forces of good and evil at Hogwarts and of course the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort that all the films have been leading up to. So how does the film handle all this? Slowly but surely. I wouldn't really call this a rip roaring action adventure, there is a good deal of exposition involved, but the action sequences are interspaced nicely throughout. I will say though that as grandiose as the final showdown may look, I feel it lacks the emotional punch required to make you care for it. We see familiar faces fighting for the good guys but they aren't given much to do other than wave their wands. We see bodies lying everywhere but without proper development to the characters or scene, you're more like, "Oh" than "Aw." Of course this film isn't required to build that much up. It is the culmination of all the previous films which were developed solely for this one, so we were already supposed to care for what happens because of those movies. Obviously nobody is going to watch Deathly Hallows 2 as their very first Harry Potter film, but if you were never particularly attached to the other films, it might be hard for you to suddenly get up for this one.

Cinematically speaking, the film is dark and moody and has the appropriate cinematography to match. I've always felt that the Harry Potter movies were well shot. I've never really been impressed by Daniel Radcliffe, who is good but not great, though to be fair Harry Potter as a character is a little bland. He is the hero but is he really that interesting? Compare that to his supporting cast who cover a greater range. There is Ralph Fiennes as his evil foil Voldemort who relishes in his role as the bad guy. Alan Rickman as Snape wasn't given much to do last film and even here he shows up in limited capacity, but his mere presence on screen overshadows anything Radcliffe does. I must say that I am a huge fan of Helena Bonham Cater who plays the bewitching Bellatrix. She's been stellar in her past several movies including The King's Speech, Alice in Wonderland and Sweeny Todd.

I think between Harry, Ron and Hermione, Emma Watson has by far the biggest potential. It goes to show just how much growth and experience pays off because I thought she was the pretty bad in the first couple ones, now I think she has a chance to be a real star if she choses to. I think she has stated she'd like to go to college after Harry Potter and it is easy to forget that she, like Radcliffe and Rupert Grint, was thrust into basically a ten year role at such young a young age. Perhaps it was never her childhood dream to become an actress? As far as Radcliffe himself? I'd like to see him do well, but I think he will probably suffer after this. He is just way too recognizable as Harry Potter. Just ask Mark Hamill about life after Star Wars.

Grade: B

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Day 87 - A Hard Day's Night

A Hard Day's Night (1964) directed by Richard Lester

Light hearted whimsical fun, filled with humor, energy and of course great music by the one and only Beatles. From the opening sequence of John, Paul, George and Ringo running away from crazed fans you can get a feel that you're going to watch something special. A Hard Day's Night is a mockumentary about the famous band during the height of Beatlemania. The "behind the scenes" looks are filled with an off beat humor that reminded me a bit of This is Spinal Tap, another famed mocumentary about a rock band.

I loved the banter between the four Beatles which is whimsical and humorous.

George: Ah, you have an inferiority complex, you have.
Ringo: Yeah I know, that's why I play the drums - it's me active compensatory factor.

And their interactions with the media.

Reporter: Has success changed your life?
George (in a total deadpan expression): Yes.

If I had to describe what this movie is about in one word, it'd be freedom. The Beatles have become trapped by their fame, by the crazed fans and the pressures of their manager and director. They are set free in the scenes when the music plays where they flee from fans, run loose frolicking in a field, or just get behind their instruments and jam. This was set in the heyday of the free loving hippie liberation movement during the 1960's and rock and roll music was the soundtrack to the era.

The film is really well made, intercutting the behind the scenes documentary feel with moving action shots following the Beatles' hectic lives and of course the music. It is part documentary, comedy, music video, concert film and 100% good fun. All the Beatles have great one liners and each have their moments to shine. I really loved Paul's grandfather who is just hilarious. There isn't much plot going on, it just chronicles a couple days in the lives of the most famous band in the world. Certain situations are obviously absurd, but that is sort of the point. The Beatles were larger than life in that every little step they took was magnified to ridiculous proportions. Every little thing they did was made into an event, a feeling that this film captures perfectly.

Grade: A-

Friday, July 15, 2011

Day 86 - Winnie the Pooh

Winnie the Pooh (2011) directed by Stephan Anderson

So while the rest of the world was watching Harry Potter, I decided to watch Winnie the Pooh. The film is sweet, charming and decidedly very child friendly, even more so than typical Disney fare. Looking back at the old Disney classics, I was genuinely surprised that they are all rated G and not PG. The Lion King, for instance, can be very scary and traumatic. Rest assured, kids will be safe watching the lastest adventures from the Hundred Acre Wood. That is of course if you can get past Pooh's tragic drug addiction.

Yeah, I said it, Pooh is a drug addict. He mopes around on screen determined to find drugs, practically begging his friends to let him have a little hit. He is fiending so badly that he has hallucinations where everything he sees or hears resembles that sweet sweet stuff. What is more troubling are kids reactions to Pooh's series of misadventures. Kids laugh at Pooh as he gets worse and worse, leading me to wonder how they will grow up treating the homeless and drug addicts. While Requiem for a Dream shows people the dark and depressing side of drug abuse, Winnie the Pooh teaches people to mock it and ignore it. I can just imagine these six year olds ten years from now mocking homeless people on the street. They'll look at them with bemused scorn and say, "Pull it together, Pooh Bear!"

Also, Winnie the Pooh teaches kids it is okay to treat your friends badly. Look at how badly Pooh treats Piglet! Pooh makes Piglet go get some drugs for him, leaving him in a precarious situation. Rather than attempt to help Piglet, Pooh's concern is for the drugs first. Then when the drug dealers chase the two, he makes Piglet give him a piggy back ride (haha). Can you imagine a miniature pig giving a full grown bear a ride on his back? He'd get crushed! Piglet is clearly suffering from low self esteem as he allows himself to get bullied around by his friends in hopes that they would like him. Another way of looking at it is that Piglet is that little brother that you can boss around just because he's smaller and doesn't know better. It's just not right.

Then of course there's Eeyore, the depressed donkey. He's lost his tail, but his friends don't seem terribly concerned for him. They think it's about his tail, but there is a more deep rooted problem with Eeyore, who is two steps away from suicide watch. There's also Owl who is arrogant and pompous. Who would want to be friends with him? Don't even get me started on Tiger who is training to be a mugger, or maybe even a rapist, as he lurks in the bushes pouncing on people. Rabbit has anger issues. Kanga uses her son Roo as an excuse not to help out, saying "I am with child." The two redeeming characters are Roo and Red Balloon, who seem like nice guys. I am undecided about Christopher Robbin, though clearly he should learn to spell a little better. He gets his animal friends in trouble by leaving behind an ambiguous note that if spelled correctly would have saved everybody a world of trouble.

So if you can get past the drug abuse and despicable cast of friends, you may be able to find a sweet children's movie that is whimsical and endearing and occasionally pretty funny, even for adults. It is hand drawn with a subtle beauty that is refreshing in today's age of computer animation and 3D effects.

Oh, in case it wasn't clear, I'm talking about honey.

Grade: B

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Day 85 - The Twilight Samurai

The Twilight Samurai (2002) directed by Yoji Yamada

It seems like the majority of samurai pictures I've seen aren't set in the glory days, but rather around the period of the Meji Restoration, when the way of the samurai was slowly dying. The common theme of many of these films deal with holding onto this romanticized ideal of honor and duty while the world around them was quickly changing. This is true in such films as Seven Samurai, 13 Assassins, and (I hesitantly mention it since it is a distinctly American film) The Last Samurai. It is also the case in the excellent The Twilight Samurai.

However unlike those films, The Twilight Samurai is not an action film. There are no dramatic scenes of horses coming over the horizon and there is just one real sword fight. Even the high drama is subdued. Everything about this film is subtle and restrained, which makes its key moments all the more powerful.

Seibei Iguchi is a low ranking samurai who is called Twilight by his peers because of how quickly he returns home after the day's work is done. He forgoes socializing and drinking with his buddies to go home to his aging mother and two young daughters. It is revealed in the beginning of the film that he is a widower and living near poverty after medical care and the expensive funeral for his wife. Perhaps he has a chance to rise up in ranks and prove himself as a true samurai despite his lowly rank? Well, not really. He is indeed an honorable man and a skilled swordsman, but he has little ambition in moving up in life. He is content in caring for his family and is forced into action when backed into a corner only to shyly retreat back to his life. There is no glory here, Seibei is simply struggling to survive.

The key to this movie is in the strength of Hiroyuki Sanada's acting as Seibei. He is quietly strong despite the outward appearance of fatigue. His tired eyes show a weariness of life but also a deep compassion. Wrinkles creep up on his face, maybe from the years wearing on him, or perhaps an unrealized wisdom hidden underneath. You can also see in his face how hard he struggles to express how he truly feels. For instance, consider the scene when his friend suggests that he propose to his sister who obviously likes him and his two daughters. You can see the expression on his face betray his words as he refuses, citing that he wouldn't want her to live in poverty with him. Oh Seibei! Why don't you just give in to your heart?! That makes a later scene between Seibei and Tomoe (the friend's sister) all the more emotional because we know how difficult it is for him to him to express his feelings.

It all builds up to the finale where Seibei reluctantly accepts an assignment to kill a man who has refused to obey an order to kill himself. Can you imagine the audacity? This other man has also endured hardships like Seibei and makes one wonder what is the whole point to being a samurai? What has it ever done for these two men? Their fates are even more tragic given the upcoming Meji Restoration when all of this will become irrelevant anyways.

This film is remarkable for its quiet and effortless storytelling. It is a slow burner, but is always compelling and and often very moving. I cannot give enough praise to Sanada for his portrayal of Seibei, who gives life and character to a sympathetic and endearing hero.

Grade: A

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bonus - Dave Chappelle's Block Party

Dave Chappelle's Block Party (2006) directed by Michel Gondry

Remember when Dave Chappelle was the effing man? This was what seems like way in the day when Chappelle's Show was all the rage and everybody was yelling "I'm Rick James bitch!" He was perhaps the funniest man in America at the time, had a hit TV show and just signed a $50 million contract. Then he just walked away from it all. The pressure got to him and everybody says he went crazy. But they were wrong, he didn't go crazy, even as crazy as turning down $50 million might seem. As it turns out, money can't but you happiness. He was much more content on being a normal dude without all the money and fame. Fast forward a couple months later and Chappelle threw a hip hop concert block party in New York City, maybe as a way to tell everyone he was still around and kicking, but more likely to finally be able to do something he's always wanted to do. As he reflects in the documentary, "This is the single best day of my entire career" and seems to genuinely mean it.

I was listening to iTunes and a song from the soundtrack came up and it got me thinking back to this movie and suddenly I was in the mood to watch some bits and pieces from it. Block Party holds a special place in my heart because it features a bunch of my favorite rappers, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, and The Roots, a who's who of socially conscience emcees along with mega stars Kanye West and the Fugees. So it was much to my delight that Dave Chappelle and I share the same appreciation in rap music. Combine my favorite rappers with my favorite comedian in one package, how could you go wrong?

As soon as I put in the DVD and pressed play, I was taken back by just how cool Dave Chappelle is. Some celebrities you'd think would act like celebrities, distanced and unapproachable, but Chappelle seems like a genuinely humble down to earth guy. There is this hypothetical question that asks, "If you can hang out with any celebrity for a day who would you pick?" Typical answers would be George Clooney or Brad Pitt, the megastars. But I generally think those are poor answers because just because these guys are rich and mega famous, how fun would they be to actually hang out with once you get past the glitz and glamor? Dave Chappelle would be near the top of my list. He just seems like a really cool dude. Oh, and he's funny as hell.

I was reminded by how funny he was with his bits of spontaneous comedy and jokes in the film. He has little nuggets of gold sprinkled throughout. But the funny man is also surprisingly insightful and reflective.

One observation he makes is that all comedians want to be musicians and all musicians think they are funny. This film is a perfect blend of both worlds, funny bits sprinkled in with great music. The concert footage doesn't disappoint. It helps that these are basically my favorite rappers of all time, but I get the feeling that people who say they don't like rap music would like this film. Chappelle even goes out of his way to make sure to invite people who say they don't like rap music, from old white folks from his hometown in Ohio to free loving hippies living in the Bed Stuy projects the concert is to take place in.

Block Party is a wonderful little documentary film about Dave Chappelle's desire to put on a good show for everyone to appreciate, really no different from what he wanted to create with the famous show he walked away from, but only this time it seems it was more for himself than anything. A man should be allowed to do what he loves.

Grade: A-

Day 84 - Crimes and Misdemeanors

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) directed by Woody Allen

What an utterly dark and bleak movie. This is not to be confused with another great Woody Allen film, Matchpoint, in which a character also kills a woman with whom he is having an affair with. That film briefly touched upon the notions of luck and fate and worked as a more conventional crime film. In this earlier Allen film, fate does not play a role at all and acts as a more philosophical journey. You make your own fate, you are a sum of your choices and in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Judah, played wonderfully by Martin Landau, coldly and calmly justifies squashing this woman like a bug. Of course, he is indignant at the idea at first, but even in his protestations to the idea, you can see the gears turning in his mind to the idea.

Certainly this isn't the first movie where a man kills his lover and it wouldn't be the last either, but very few have dealt with the moral dilemma as well as this film. Judah, the son of a rabbi, is told as a child that "the eyes of God are always watching." Even if he gets away with the murder in the real world, what of the kingdom of God? He justifies it by saying "God is a luxury I cannot afford." He has too much to lose. He is a man of wealth and prestige, a family man with a loyal wife and kids who idolize him. In his heart he wants to believe in a higher moral order, but in reality he cannot believe in it, at least if it does not convenience him. But suddenly when the deed is done, he is stricken with this guilt and the realization that perhaps God is indeed watching him.

That is the heavy part of the film, now on to the comedy. Woody Allen once again plays his poor self, a pitiful kind of man resentful of the world around him and perhaps his own life. His story is told parallel to Judah's and also deals with morality. He is unhappily married and meets a woman that he becomes smitten with. It is a light hearted kind of quasi-romance but is it any less meaningful or sinful as Judah's decision to kill his mistress? I don't think Allen is trying to suggest that they are equal, but at the same time he points out that these decisions can weigh equally heavily on any person. One person may feel guilty for killing another person, another may feel distraught over forgetting to leave a tip at lunch. Or conversely, the killer may feel nothing at all. Levels of sin and guilt are all relative to the people doing the crimes and misdemeanors. (See what I did there?)

So what does Allen say when Judah gets away with it free and clear? While he admits to feeling a dark cloud of guilt and despair, one day he wakes up and the sun is shining, life is good, his family loves him and this weight has been lifted off his shoulders. Meanwhile, the generally good meaning Cliff (Allen) is left out in the cold. He doesn't get the girl and instead sees her engaged with a man he totally despises. In a way, it is a challenge to God asking why is evil rewarded. Cliff argues that even if a man got away with murder, he must live with it for the rest of his life. Judah, who once had notions of being a moral man forgoes God, and does indeed live with it.

Crimes and Misdemeanors is dark and cynical. It challenges you and makes you uncomfortable with the implications. Above it all, it is also a fine piece of film making by Woody Allen.

Grade: A

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Day 83 - The Italian Job (1969)

The Italian Job (1969) directed by Peter Collinson

Remakes have been as old as film itself, as there simply aren't that many original stories to tell. As Nas raps, "No idea's original, there's nothing new under the sun/ It's never what you do, but how it's done."

Luckily for many of today's film makers, many older films have been lost in the wake and most people don't even realize what they're watching is a remake. For instance, I actually did not know that the 2003 The Italian Job starring Mark Wahlberg was a remake of this 1969 film starring Michael Caine until the other day when I saw it available to stream on Netflix. That being said, the newer Italian Job is a loose remake that borrows elements from the original rather than being a straight retelling. Fans of the original however will be glad to know that the famous Mini Coopers are here, as is the obligatory chase sequence, the stealing of gold, and of course Italy itself. (Though remember that in the 2003 version, the title is only a reference to the job in the very beginning of the movie in Italy. The rest of that film actually takes place in Los Angeles.)

Despite the obvious similarities, it was much to my surprise just how much better the newer version is. Part of it has to do with modern action sequences, but the other is the overall tone of the two films. The 2003 version is a straight heist action movie with comedic elements, this 1969 version can almost be classified as a straight comedy. It is rather whimsical and almost campy in nature, but unfortunately it's not really as funny as it intends to be. I did really like this line though that Michael Caine delivers to his British crew, "Just remember this - in this country they drive on the wrong side of the road."

I found much of the story rather bland and the plotting and preparation scenes, the staple of all heist movies, to be a tad on the light side. It wasn't all that compelling. Also there is no real assembling of the team, they sort of just show up with limited characterization, though to be fair this isn't necessarily an ensemble cast, it is definitely a Michael Caine vehicle. Speaking of which, I can't remember a movie where Michael Caine was the lead star. In recent years I remember him for his supporting roles, particularly in Christopher Nolan movies and as Austin Powers' father. I don't feel like he was given much to work with in this character, though his wacky British charm and humor does get the chance to occasionally shine through.

The chase scene in the end is nice, but unfortunately a case of too little too late. The ending, however, is a little unexpected and I love how it leaves off on a cliff hanger, literally and figuratively.

Grade: C+

Monday, July 11, 2011

Day 82 - Super Fly

Super Fly (1972) directed by Gordon Parks Jr.

"Said that I would've stop before I even started/ When I get to one brick, then the game I would depart with/ Got to one brick then I looked to the sky/ Like, sorry God I lied but give me one more try."

"The irony of selling drugs is sort of like you using it/ Guess there's two sides to what substance abuse is." - Jay-Z (Fallin')

Is the life of crime a means to an end or is it the life that you chose for yourself? Can you escape who you really are? Can people change? Priest seems to think that you can. One last score he says, then he's out. Ever hear that one before? His partner Eddie is far more pragmatic, or pessimistic, however you want to put it. Hustling is the way of life, it's the American dream.

"When I get out what am I gonna do? I don't know nothing else but dope, baby. Takin' it, sellin' it, bankrollin' some other small time pusher. Ya know, you've got this fantasy in your head about gettin' out of the life and setting that other world on its ear. What the F*CK are you gonna do except hustle?"

It's easy to gloss over a movie like Super Fly and just see a world of drugs and violence and to be fair, the world of Super Fly, the ghettos of 1970's NYC, is filled with drugs and violence, but the film doesn't attempt to glamorize these aspects. It is simply a part of life in the streets. Certainly Priest is a cool dude, ghetto fabulous if you will, a true to life hustler with a Cadillac, girlfriends, money, penthouses, and all the coke you could ever snort. But he is a product of his environment, thrust into a lifestyle that was more a process of evolution than personal choice. There is a telling point in the film where members of a black power movement try to recruit him and he responds, "You go get a gun and all these black folks you keep doin' so much talking about get guns, and come back ready to go down, then I'll be right down front killin' whitey. But until you can do that, you go sing your marching songs some place else. Now we're through talkin.'"

The Civil Rights movement didn't do shit for guys like Priest and Eddie. Its issues have no relevance in the urban decay of their lives; the prostitutes, the pimps, the hustlers, the drugs, the guns, the corrupt police. It is a completely separate world with its own set of rules. But this film doesn't try to glamorize the life style. Through Priest, it attempts to understand it. It's not about selling drugs, it's about surviving it. The truth is that selling drugs can be just as damaging as taking them, as soon as you start, you're stuck in that life forever. But not Priest. He has grand plans to escape the life even though everyone around him tells him he can't.

Aside from being an entertaining film, Super Fly is interesting in that there are moments of great insight, something you wouldn't expect out of a blaxploitation flick. It would be easy for characters to be caricatures but everyone is well thought out and have unexpected dimensions, particularly the character of Eddie, Priest's long time partner. While many of the actors give uneven performances, Eddie (Carl Lee) is always on point throughout especially during his monologues and words of wisdom. He knows that life is short on the streets, but he intends to make the most out of it.

Priest, played by Ron O'Neal, may come across as naive in his dreams, but he is no fool. He knows exactly the difficulties of achieving his dreams and will do everything he can to do so. O'Neal  wasn't a great actor, but he was perfectly cast as the charismatic and utterly believable Priest. Unfortunately, like many actors who gained notoriety for one role, O'Neal would be typecast into similar roles for the rest of his career.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Super Fly is its music. The soundtrack, put together by none other than Curtis Mayfield, is perfect in its funk and soul. I just love this kind of music. Every song seems to be waiting for Kanye West to sample for a beat. (The soundtrack for Super Fly would actually outsell the movie itself.) Also the film does a great job in capturing the atmosphere of the inner cities. It is grimy, dingy and full of life. I enjoyed watching the different little locations in the beginning when Priest chases the mugger through the ghettoes.

Grade: B+

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Day 81 - Peeping Tom

Peeping Tom (1960) directed by Michael Powell

It's kind of crazy to think that one movie can effectively kill someone's career, but that is pretty much what Peeping Tom did to Michael Powell (The Red Shoes). It was universally reviled upon its release and only gained its classic status years later, too late to fix Powell's broken reputation. The director noted in his biography, "I make a film that nobody wants to see and then, thirty years later, everybody has either seen it or wants to see it." Incidentally the film that Peeping Tom is most often compared to, Psycho, which came out only months later, would gain instant success and critical acclaim, further bolstering Alfred Hitchcock's status, while Powell and his film would languish in the shadows for years. It's been a while since I've seen Psycho, but Peeping Tom compares favorably to it and is a victim of the unfortunate but common theme of being misunderstood in its time. (Though to be clear, Psycho is a better movie.)

There are similarities in both Peeping Tom and Psycho, like having a serial killer as the protagonist and also in how they are portrayed. Both killers are soft spoken and seemingly harmless. Both have traumatic childhoods by the hands of a parent, Norman Bates with his overbearing mother and Mark Lewis with his father who performed psychological experiments on him as a child.

However, thematically, I think Peeping Tom is much closer to another Hitchcock classic, Rear Window, namely in the ideas of voyeurism and how it relates to the movie watching process. In both films, we get to watch people who like to watch other people. Serial killer Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) likes to film his victim's reactions of fear when killing them. We become not just the audience to the movie Peeping Tom, but to his personal snuff films as well. It is like watching a world within a world; Powell allows us to peer into this fictional world, but it is Mark that is the true director of this movie and brings the viewer much closer, perhaps uncomfortably so, to the action. When people ask him what he's doing with his camera, he responds by saying that he is shooting a documentary.

In a way, we are watching the movie as Mark would want us to. We effectively become him or at the very least we watch uncomfortably beside him in his dark room as he relives his kills that he's filmed. In a way, Peeping Tom is more about making and watching movies than it is about killing people. Martin Scorsese has said that this film, along with Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, contains all that can be said about directing:

"I have always felt that Peeping Tom and 8 1/2 say everything that can be said about film-making, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two. 8 1/2 captures the glamour and enjoyment of film-making, while Peeping Tom shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates... From studying them you can discover everything about people who make films, or at least people who express themselves through films." (Thanks Wikipedia!)

Okay, all boring film theory stuff aside, this film is also a good character study of a serial killer. Underneath that mild mannered and shy exterior, he is a monster, but it is also important you understand why he is that way. Perhaps you will feel sorry for him after learning that his father performed all sorts of cruel experiments on him or maybe you'll still find him equally repulsive. Either way, like in Fritz Lang's M, you are at least invited to the psychology of the killer.

I've also seen enough episodes of CSI and Criminal Minds to know that there is a link between sexuality and violence and Peeping Tom makes a blatant connection between the two. Perhaps that is one of the things that turned critics off to this film. They just weren't ready for something this suggestive. There is a definite sexual link between Mark and his camera, as a means for his voyeurism and as an actual weapon. He slowly lifts one of the legs of the tripod up and towards his victim like a penis and penetrates them with its sharpened end.

Anyways, there is also a good amount of suspense and genuine horror in the film as well. It doesn't go for the cheap thrills of modern day slasher films, but the build up of scenes and situations makes the shrieks on screen all the more believable.

I think Psycho, which has arguably even more controversial subject matter, benefited greatly by being released after Peeping Tom which absorbed much of the general shock (and scorn) of the public for these kind of movies. Viewed in a modern light, it is kind of hard to see what the big fuss was about. Then again half of all PG-13 movies nowadays would have been rated R back then and two thirds of rated R movies would have been rated X. The other third would have been ordered to be destroyed and the directors hanged. Michael Powell was just a victim of the times.

Grade: B+