Monday, October 31, 2011

Day 194 - Friday the 13th

Friday the 13th (1980) directed by Sean S. Cunningham




So concluding my mini-run of horror films for Halloween is Friday the 13th. I always mix up this franchise with A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween (which would have been a much more fitting choice to watch today) as these are the big three of the slasher flick genre. The names Jason Voorhees, Freddy Kruger and Michael Myers are practically household names. I've seen a film from each series, but bizarrely enough, none of the originals. As it turns out, I picked the one that is least regarded by the critics. Oops.

Camp Crystal Lake. A drowned boy. A series of gruesome murders. Forty years later a new group of teens go out to the lake. A big storm is brewing. A sex scene with bobbies. Girls wandering off by themselves in their panties. A young Kevin Bacon. Bodies start to drop.

What is kind of interesting about the film is that we don't know anything about the killer until the very end, but it's not meant as one of those Scream type whodunits so there is no surprise. We just wait till the end to have things explained to us and have the killer revealed. But since there is no build up to it, the impact isn't as great.

Another thing regarding the killer is that not only do we not know anything about the killer, we never see the killer till the end. All the kills are done either with a POV shot or with the weapon of choice slashing the victim with the killer off screen or shrouded in darkness. In a way the killer is sort of like the shark in Jaws, how we don't see it in full form till pretty deep into the film. I think most horror films work like this. It allows you to build up an image of the monster in your head; often times your imagination will work better than anything the director could put out there. However, in this film it kind of works against it because there are none of the patented cat and mouse hide and seek scenes between the killer and the victims. One of the problems with the film is that the killer picks off the victims one by one without the victims even realizing they're being hunted. As the audience we know they're going to die, but sometimes it's important for them to know it as well to add to the terror of the scene. So all the scary moments come down to waiting for something to pop out on screen rather than an actual build up of suspense and fear. In other words, cheap ten second thrills rather than well crafted scenes.

So between all those issues, you get a decent film that doesn't transcend its genre; it is as good as the formula allows it to be. So I am somewhat skeptical when people say this is a classic. It's enjoyable for what it is but that's where it stops. I will say though that the ending is pretty trippy and once the killer is out in the open things get pretty juicy. It's too bad the rest of the film didn't have that same feel.

SPOILER ALERT:




I didn't even realize Jason isn't the killer in this film. The whole mother angle reminded me a lot of the dual identity Norman Bates has in Psycho. Jason does make an appearance though in the serene lake scene which has the exact same feel as the ending of Carrie. I thought these connections were pretty cool, even if they are coincidental.

END SPOILER


GRADE: C+

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Day 193 - Psycho

Psycho (1960) directed by Alfred Hitchcock


WARNING: FULL OF SPOILERS
So continuing with the Halloween theme, I decided to watch Psycho, a film I haven't seen in probably over eight years, so I figured it'd be okay for the project. It also gave me an excuse to watch it on the Blu-ray that's been sitting on my shelf for a year now, and indeed, it does look quite nice. In a way though, I kind of regret watching this film because it is so famous that I couldn't possibly add anything new or interesting to the conversation. Entire books have been written on this movie after all. So I might just ignore talking about the movie all together and just add a couple brief thoughts.

The shower scene is inarguably one of the most famous scenes in the history of cinema. It is so well known that people who haven't even seen the movie knows the scene. It is interesting to watch it 50 years later when you realize that the violence is rather artfully done rather than relying on blood and guts. You never see the knife penetrate the skin. There is a little bit of blood but it's not gratuitous or grotesque. Yet it is every bit as terrifying and believable as the modern day slasher flick that shows everything.

Also what is interesting about the scene is that up to that point we think the movie is about the woman Marion, but she doesn't even make it past an hour in the film. I love how Hitchcock toys with the audience, making us think the movie will go a certain direction, but inexplicably kills off the protagonist that we've spent so much time focusing on. Think about all the time we spend on Marion and her dilemma about the money and running away. You can make a whole movie just on that, but instead the movie is really about this psycho. We fully expect Marion to survive to the end, but as it turns out, Norman is the real star of the movie and Marion is sort of just an afterthought. I love how after she is dead and Norman is cleaning up, there is still the issue of the $40,000 that's hidden in plain view. The camera even takes time to notice it and pause there. We wonder if the money will play a further role in the movie, but just like Marion, it turns out to be a moot point when Norman just puts the newspaper holding the cash in the trunk along with the girl.

I suppose some viewers will be turned off at this moment thinking it was all a cheap trick that doesn't follow the rules, but I think it works fantastically. In a way it is like Hitchcock is telling the viewer, "You're not smarter than I am. Stop trying to guess what happens next and just enjoy the show." Everybody loves to be the smart ass that says, "That was so predictable. I knew such and such ten minutes into the film." Everybody wants to think they know what will happen, but Psycho has genuine surprises. I suppose since this film is so famous it loses some of its shock appeal, but that may not necessarily be true. I've seen this movie before and still remember most of it, but even then all the appropriate scenes were incredibly effective.

The closing shot of Norman Bate's knowing smirk is just perfect. This whole movie is perfect. I loved it. I think there are some movies that just demand to be watched again and I think Psycho is a movie I could imagine watching every year or so around Halloween.

Grade: A

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Day 192 - Carrie

Carrie (1976) directed by Brian DePalma




Seeing as how it is almost Halloween I figured I'd start watching movies from my least favorite genre, horror. I'll admit it, I'm a sissy. I don't like being scared. So fresh off of watching Blow Out, I figured I'd watch Brian DePalma's classic Carrie, which I had seen most of through bits and pieces over the years, but never in one sitting.

Carrie sort of opens like Blow Out with a generous dosage of seemingly unnecessary nudity in the introduction. Perhaps it is a commentary on the link between sexual excitement and violence, a theme that DePalma explores throughout the film. While showering in a kind of surreal dreamlike scene, Carrie experiences her first menstrual cycle discovering blood trickling down between her legs and promptly freaks out. She is quite old to be experiencing her first period, but perhaps even more shocking is that she has no idea what it's all about; her religiously fanatical mother has suppressed all this information from Carrie. The girls in the locker room respond by ridiculing and throwing tampons at her. At this point it has become clear to me that this isn't so much a horror film, but a film about social outcasts, bullies, and the anxieties of growing up.

It is kind of remarkable that the central conflict and outcome of the film, Carrie's torment at the hands of bullies, would be such a relevant issue with the likes of Columbine and the Virginia Tech massacre. Viewed now Carrie could almost be seen as a social commentary on this subject. The majority of the film revolves around the popular girls' planning of a mean prank during senior prom. Watching it, you just know that the nastier the prank, the nastier Carrie's reaction will be to it. Oh, I guess now would be a good time to mention that Carrie has telekinetic powers.

This is another example of DePalma's brilliant direction as he builds the story slowly but surely towards the frightening conclusion. He gives a little taste here and there of what Carrie is capable of doing, but never in our wildest dreams could we imagined she was capable of this. The prom sequence is done in typical DePalma fashion with an ever moving camera outlining the evil scheme in the midst of Carrie's happy moment.

IT'S SUCH A FAMOUS SCENE BUT SPOILER ALERT ANYWAYS:
The sequence where the pig's blood is dumped onto Carrie is expertly done; it is tense, dramatic and shocking. The aftermath is even more horrifying as Carrie uses her telekinesis to trap the students and teachers inside and set the gym on fire. The scene of death and terror in a burning room is eerily similar to the scene in Inglorious Basterds; I would not be at all surprised if that scene was inspired from Carrie, especially given Tarantino's professed love for DePalma.

The showdown between Carrie and her mother is also a really great scene. Carrie's mother is a really memorable villain. The way she floats in front of the camera brandishing the kitchen knife is a pretty creepy image and one of the several allusions to Psycho.

I mentioned earlier the link between sex and violence in the film. In the scene where Carrie gets the blood dumped on her, right before the girl pulls the rope she licks her lips in a clearly sexually excited manner. When Carrie's mother is being stabbed by the knives, she lets out what seems like moans of pleasure rather than screams of pain. It is interesting though how similar the two differing sensations sound. In a way, the viewer is excited too; we want to see these horrible bloody things too right? We get excited, even aroused, with violence.

Carrie isn't actually a hold me tightly while I cover my eyes type of horror movie. It doesn't rely on cheap scares, instead it haunts us with the visual imagery and characters. It may not be as scary, but nobody remembers the random killer popping out of the closet after the movie is done, everybody remembers Carrie's horrified look covered in blood.

Grade: A-

Friday, October 28, 2011

Day 191 - Le Cercle Rouge

Le Cercle Rouge (1970) directed by Jean-Pierre Melville




Anyone who's seen John Woo's old Hong Kong action films such as The Killer and A Better Tomorrow should be familiar with the notions of honor amongst thieves, friendship and loyalty. It is no surprise then that Woo was largely responsible for the revitalization of Melville's 1970 crime drama Le Cercle Rouge which was clearly a great influence on Woo's work.

In this film we see cool, calm and collected bad guys who do not reveal much to each other or the audience, but undeniably know and understand each other through their moral codes and expectations of them. Corey is a just released ex-convict. Vogel is an escaped prisoner who hides himself in the trunk of Corey's car. Corey sees this, even willingly keeps him concealed from the police at a checkpoint. He pulls the car over when the coast is clear and allows Vogel, who has found Corey's gun in the trunk, to get out. The two have never met each other. It would have been easy for Corey to let the police capture Vogel, it would be even easier for Vogel to shoot Corey here and take his car, but neither one screws the other over. They do not share many words in this scene, just long quiet expressions, an understanding and agreement that goes without saying. Corey simply says, "Paris is your best chance" and Vogel gets back in the trunk and they drive off forming their partnership. Corey has a big heist planned out; Vogel would make a perfect partner. They need a third member so Vogel suggest an old friend of his, an ex-cop Jansen who is an expert marksman. The three of them barely know each other but now share a bond that is unbreakable.

Le Cercle Rouge is all about the cool characters, the slick look and feel of the French underworld that Melville is so good at capturing in films such as Bob le Flambeur and Le Doulos. On its surface, the film may seem a tad slow and prolonged, but I thought it worked better this way, a sort of slow burner that grows stronger as it progresses. But the slowness can also be linked to the style; the camera doesn't move or cut as drastically as typical modern films and there are a lot of silent moments. In fact, the big heist which runs about twenty minutes long is done in almost complete silence, no dialogue or accompanying exciting heist music. It is filmed in a way that the criminals would like it. Imagine if a cat burglar brought his radio with him on the job to provide his personal soundtrack? Nevertheless, the scene is actually more tense and exciting this way and when the alarm finally rings it is just as jarring to the viewer as it is to the burglars.

The details of the story, whether they get away with it or not, whether they live or die, are imprisoned or wind up at the beach in the French Riviera is almost immaterial. It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. The characters in this movie are bound by their code and wouldn't have it any other way.

Grade: A-

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Day 190 - Cobra

Cobra (1986) directed by George P. Cosmatos




Not counting any double days I'm watching 365 movies for this challenge, which sounds like a lot, but is actually quite minuscule in the grand scheme of things, so you'd figure I'd choose my movies wisely. Well, I decided to waste a day today by purposely picking a movie I know has to be bad. Actually I always assumed Cobra was one of Sylvester Stallone's campy 80's action classics, not great but at least fun and entertaining, but nope, I was wrong; this movie is pretty dreadful in every way imaginable.

You know how there are some movies that are so bad they are good? This is not one of them. It just flat out sucks. It's shocking how an action picture can be so boring. As an action film, you only have one job and that is to show something exciting on screen, but there isn't a single scene in the whole thing that piqued my interest. Well, okay, I'm lying. The beginning of the film is actually really promising. A bad guy holds up a grocery store and it's too much for the normal cops to handle, so one of them goes, "It's time to bring in the Cobra." Awesome. So in walks Stallone. He assesses the situation, even has time to chug a beer and confronts the bad guy with this line, "You're the disease, and I'm the cure." Awesome.

I just wish the entire film was like this first scene, but suddenly the film decides to take itself seriously and pretend that it's an actual movie with a plot. Who the hell wants to see some half assed police procedural with some lame story? It goes without saying the acting and the story are horrible, but where are the elements of comedy? There's nothing to laugh at intentionally or not. Oh, and where are the big action sequences? There is a decent body count but when they're all killed in the same boring ways what does it matter? Where is the obscene violence? How can it be considered obscene when you don't even have any reaction at all to what's going on? They could have set of a nuclear bomb in a pre-school and make a baby BBQ and it wouldn't matter. Everything is so mundane and lazy. Cobra just isn't any fun to watch at all.

Grade: D-

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Day 189 - Blow Out

Blow Out (1981) directed by Brian DePalma




I think there's an saying out there that goes something like, "The job of a director is to simply get out of the way." Brian DePalma thinks otherwise. His directing style is so ostentatious it's almost as if he's daring people to question him. It's as if he's saying, "This is my goddamn film and I'll do whatever I damn well please." That is what I love about Brian DePalma films; they are so uniquely his, bold, daring, ambitious, flamboyant and uniquely cool. I haven't seen all of his films but if I had to pick any one film of his to show off his style, it would have to be Blow Out.

John Travolta plays Jack, a movie sounds effect guy who is out one night recording various sounds when he witnesses a car crash off the road into a lake. He jumps into the water and rescues a woman in the car. The person that he couldn't save just happens to be the front runner in the presidential election. After listening to the recording he made that night, Jack is convinced that the loud bang he heard wasn't a tire blow out, but rather a gun shot. This was no accident; it was murder. Someone wanted the presidential candidate dead and Jack has to figure things out before he and the woman he rescued become targets themselves.

I've never seen a camera make as many big movements as this film. DePalma weaves his camera up and down serval stories, left and right a couple blocks, arriving right on time to see a character do something mundane like walking down a corner into a building. It seems like such a painstakingly choreographed shot to show such a simple task, yet it is makes it feel incredibly cinematic and dramatic. In another scene the camera sits in the middle of a room and just rotates 360 degrees for several minutes in one continuous shot as it records Jack frantically go over his recordings in his office. (There is a similar circling shot in Le Doulos that immediately popped into my mind, though probably coincidental.) There are tons of these shots that showcases DePalma's style and it is a real treat to just sit back and watch. These types of shots are obviously DePalma having fun with his technique but are also critical in enhancing the suspense and drama of the film. I also love it when directors reference other movies in their movies. It's like a little easter egg for moviegoers and pays homage to the works that inspired them. An example is the chase sequence when Jack has the girl wired while walking and talking with the bad guy. Jack follows behind them carrying this conspicuously cumbersome device. This sequence seems to be a direct reference to Touch of Evil but done in a way only DePalma could imagine, making the scene uniquely his own.

I really enjoyed Blow Out. There is some recency bias but it might very well be DePalma's best work (that I've seen). At the very least, it is the movie that epitomizes him the most.

Grade: A

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Day 188 - Kiss Me Deadly

Kiss Me Deadly (1955) directed by Robert Aldrich




"What's in the box?"


The first ten minutes or so of Kiss Me Deadly are amazing. A woman wearing nothing but a trench coat runs on a highway from an unknown pursuer. She stops in the middle of the road to flag down a car. The man tells her to get in and they start driving. The then credits roll up the screen in reverse as they drive, kind of Star Wars like. Deadly Kiss Me. Robert Aldrich Directed by.

Who is this mysterious woman? Who is chasing her and why? These are all questions that the man asks her but she reveals very little other than her name Christina and these simple instructions: "Get me to that bus stop and forget you ever saw me. If we don't make it to the bus stop... remember me." The mysterious pursuers capture the two where Christina is tortured and killed and the man hospitalized after surviving his car being pushed over a cliff. The man wakes up in a hospital and must figure out what the hell is going on. And so Kiss Me Deadly begins with one of the best intros you can find in a film; unfortunately the rest of the film doesn't quite match the lofty expectations of the beginning. Nevertheless, it is still an intriguing and unique film noir.

The man turns out to be Mike Hammer, a private detective who specializes in divorce cases. Hammer is a fitting last name because he is as blunt and forceful as his name would suggest. He gets his way by grabbing them by the collar and slapping them around, whether they be thugs or old men working behind a counter. Mike realizes that he's stumbled upon something big with this mysterious woman's death and is determined to figure out who killed her and why. This process of uncovering the mystery however feels more like a wild, or rather slow, goose chase as we follow Mike from location to location, scene to scene, trying to piece everything together. It could be very possible I wasn't paying close enough attention but there were definitely moments where I wasn't sure what Mike was looking for or even doing in a scene.

SPOILER SORT OF
I actually had no idea when I put the film on that Kiss Me Deadly is actually a science fiction film noir. It all has to do with the secret that Christina was hiding. It wasn't money or jewels or incriminating photos of politicians, but rather a mysterious box whose contents aren't specified but we can have a pretty good guess at. It is hot to the touch and the contents within emit a bright glow. There is a very iconic looking screenshot from the film that I would have used at the beginning, but I was afraid it gave too much away. It is the picture of the girl opening the box with the glow reflecting off her face. It is very reminiscent of the briefcase from Pulp Fiction. In fact I would not be surprised at all if this film is where Tarantino got that from. It is also quite similar to the ark from Indiana Jones. The contents of the box is a play on the Cold War fears at the time of the atomic bomb. I was pretty surprised by the direction the film took in this regard, but I thought it was a really interesting concept.
END OF SPOILER SORT OF


The film definitely has a noir style. I noticed all the odd slanted angles of the camera and the play of shadows. Maybe it is the brightness setting of my new TV and the Blu-ray player, but this film isn't as dark or shadowy as other film noir I have seen. This film seemed strangely bright for its style in some instances.

Overall I thought the film started and ended excellently; it was the middle portions that sort of let me down, but even then it was still pretty decent.

Grade: B

Monday, October 24, 2011

Day 187 - Sweet Smell of Success

Sweet Smell of Success (1957) directed by Alexander Mackendrick




I really got into this movie about ten minutes in when Sidney Falco invites himself to sit with J.J. Hunsecker, who is entertaining a senator at dinner. Here we are introduced to the two main characters of the film, J.J., the top newspaper columnist in New York, and Sidney, the lowly press agent who must act as a human doormat for people like J.J. to make a buck. In this scene we get to watch J.J. just own the conversation and the people he talks to. He is brutally cold and harsh, telling people the hard truth to their face and expecting them to thank him for it. He is a man who is used to getting his way with his dominant personality. Sidney, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have an ounce of self respect, happily taking the abuse J.J. dishes out to get what he needs. I was fascinated by these two characters in how they are similar in their lack of morals and sleazy behavior, yet so different in everything else.

Sidney is struggling because J.J. has frozen Sidney's clients out of his columns as punishment for not delivering on a promise. J.J. wants Sidney to break up the relationship between J.J.'s sister Susan and a lowly musician Steve Dallas that he doesn't deem worthy enough. (There's a strange kind of brother-sister relationship between J.J. and Susan that reminded me of Tony and Gina's in Scarface.) Sidney devises a devious scheme to print a smear article on Steve Dallas by a rival columnist as to not trace it back to J.J..

A good question to ask is who is a worse human being, J.J. or Sidney? Both are pretty unscrupulous individuals but Sidney is pretty much the definition of a lowlife. He is the kind of guy that would steal from own mother and accuse his father for the crime if he thought it would help him get ahead. In order to  get the smear article printed, he convinces a cigarette girl, who originally thought she had to sleep with him for a favor, to instead sleep with the rival columnist. J.J. sums it up perfectly when he tells Sidney, "I'd hate to take a bite out of you. You're a cookie full of arsenic."

This is a really great film with stellar performances and top notch writing. The film is full of great memorable quotes. It seems like all the best written movies were during this time period because no modern film has the kind of sharp and cutting dialogue seen here.

Grade: A

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Day 186 - Bambi

Bambi (1942) directed by David Hand




Is there a more effeminate sounding name than Bambi? What percent of people out there would know Bambi's gender off the top of their head? It's kind of like the Johnny Cash song "A Boy Named Sue" where the boy is purposely given a girl's name so he could grow up to be tougher. It is kind of fitting sentiment actually in the world of Bambi as living in the wild is something that can't be taken for granted.

Deep in the forest is an animal paradise where Bambi and his friends can frolic peacefully singing kumbaya. That's basically the feeling you get from the first half of the film as we observe a cartoon version of the Animal Planet, minus the predators of course. It has a sort of magical feeling of innocence and purity. This age of innocence would end of course with the killing of Bambi's mother by the omnipresent man. Bambi is ultimately a film about the process of life as we watch Bambi from birth to adulthood and all the steps along the way.

I bet a lot of people don't remember that Bambi and his furry friends grow into adults in the latter part of the film which is surprisingly rich in sexual, errr, romantic energy. It is kind of unsettling to see the cute as a button Thumper with a baby's voice mature into a ladies man that just finished puberty. His trademark foot thumping as he kisses a female rabbit shows off his excitement. Bambi is quite the catch himself as he runs into childhood sweetheart Faline. Wasn't there supposed to be some sort of production code in Hollywood during this time? Faline is kind of a slut. She straight up licks Bambi in the face; if a girl did that to you in a bar, well, you know...

For as ominous man is in the film, he does not appear in Bambi at all and I think this was a really wise choice. It's kind of like how you don't see the shark in Jaws until really late into the movie. Man as the villain works better if he remains unseen but always looming.  I read an interesting tidbit that said Bambi was the first film to feature a bunch of anthropomorphic animals. So while Bambi may be seen as an anti-man film, it isn't really since all the characters have human like qualities. Perhaps the film is saying that in nature humans are good; it is when we step outside of nature, our nature, that we become corrupted.

As modern animation moves towards CGI, it is a film like Bambi that demonstrates why nothing can beat a good hand drawn picture. The backgrounds in this film look like Thomas Kinkade paintings. I don't know anything about animation but I'm assuming the animators just had a a bunch of pre-painted backgrounds and layered the animation on top of them. Disney has done a great job in transferring their films on Blu-ray as the picture looks pretty stunning. Blu-ray and high definition were pretty much made for animation.

Bambi is a classic Disney film with a timeless story. Who would have thunk a movie about deer would prove to be so magical? It shows that any subject matter can be made meaningful so long as it has a heart that anyone can relate to.

Grade: A-

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Day 185 - The Children Are Watching Us

The Children Are Watching Us (1944) directed by Vittorio De Sica




Often lost in marital problems are the children. One would think that since they are so young they won't realize what is going on, but it's quite the opposite. Young children are more astute then you'd think and easily impressionable. When they see their parents fighting they know what's going on. That is at the heart of The Children Are Watching Us, one of Vittorio De Sica's earlier Italian neorealist films. De Sica is most famous for his heralded classic, The Bicycle Thief, which upon further reflection is even better than I gave it credit for, particularly after watching this earlier work. While The Bicycle Thief deals with the crushing effects of poverty, it is also a story about the relationship a parent has with his child. The Children Are Watching Us takes out the poverty elements and focuses on the relationships a child has with his parents as he watches their marriage fall apart.

The conflict of the film revolves around the mother who runs off with her lover leaving behind her husband and son Prico. Realizing what effect this would have on Prico she decides to come back. The husband reluctantly takes her back for the sake of the child and for a moment we think things may actually work out. However the damage has already been done; the seeds of doubt have been implanted in Prico's mind regarding his mother. And when she strays yet again, this act is unforgivable.

The thing that really caught my attention is the pacing of the film. The film is only 85 minutes long yet it seems to drag because the story isn't filled with dramatic moments or key dialog but seemingly unimportant scenes that don't really advance the plot or mood of the film.  In my opinion, the film sputters and stalls in some places. However, the overall feel of the film is never lost. So while we watch a scene of them having a good time on the beach we know it is underlined by the rift that is still between the parents and also the growing moments of isolation Prico feels.

Much of the dramatics are saved for the last portions of the film. De Sica would structure The Bicycle Thief in a similar manner by having an emotionally powerful ending with an unforgettable closing shot. It would be difficult to describe the scene without spoiling the movie so I won't, but basically it involves Prico revealing his feelings towards his mother.

I thought this film was decent, definitely not as good as The Bicycle Thief. A lot of my problems had to do with the pacing and lack of drama throughout which kind of lessened the emotional impact of its powerful ending. It has this really important and poignant subject matter but doesn't effectively convey those ideas. It does have the great closing moments, but one scene does not a movie make. The one good thing I will say about this film though is that it got me to thinking about The Bicycle Thief again and made me realize I sort of undervalued it.

Grade: C+

Friday, October 21, 2011

Day 184 - The Boondock Saints

The Boondock Saints (1999) directed by Troy Duffy




While watching The Boondock Saints I suspected that the critics' response would be polarizing. As it turns out this movie was universally panned, yet somehow The Boondock Saints has garnered a cult following with over $50 million in rentals and DVD sales compared to the $30,471 it earned in the box office during its limited theatrical run. That has got to be one of the biggest box office/home video disparities ever. It is also interesting to note that while the movie has received largely negative reviews by the critics, user reviews have been generally favorable. Is this a case of the critics being snobby or the average moviegoer unrefined and tasteless? I'm kind of on the fence, but it would seem to me that the critics are on the right side of the argument here.

I love violent movies as much as the next guy, but The Boondock Saints is just too sloppy, too forceful in its style to really make it work. It just ends up being a bloody mess of a movie. It has an interesting premise and a strong start, but once I realized where it was heading it is was all downhill from there. There would be moments of "Oh, cool" mixed with "That was really stupid" making for an uneven experience.

Two Irish twins are suddenly inspired to take on the Boston underbelly Death Wish style. Vigilantism is always an interesting subject matter and once again, this movie proves why you can't just go on executing people whenever you feel like it. It becomes less and less about protecting the innocent and fighting for justice and more and more like Dexter-style serial killing. I never really got the impression that the two twins were good guys; they just seemed like two crazy dudes with an excuse to kill. And when you add in this religious undertone to it all, it becomes a very messy affair.

The highlight of the film is William Defoe as the FBI agent trying to catch the two brothers. He is funny and charismatic and way over the top. One of the distinguishing features of the film is that most of the violence isn't shown in real time; they are all shown in flashback via Defoe's reenactments after examining crime scenes. I thought that was kind of cool.

The Boondock Saints is all about style over substance except that the style is unrefined and all over the place. It also makes itself to sound important when it kind of just sounds ridiculous. The ending is just absurdly bad. That being said, I was never bored while watching. That in itself isn't necessarily a good thing of course, but there are enough good things, namely its energetic style, to keep you interested throughout. And I can see why the movie has a generally high user rating; it is loud, violent, cool, and also mildly retarded.

Grade: C+

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Day 183 - The Country Girl

The Country Girl (1954) directed by George Seaton



The Country Girl is a surprisingly complicated story with an underlining darkness that I did not expect. This comes from the troubled relationship between Frank and Georgie whose marriage has hit the rocks after their son dies in an accident. Frank, a once famous Broadway star, blames himself for their son's death and has taken to drinking, depression, and an unhealthy reliance on his wife's support. The backdrop to the story involves getting Frank's career back on track as the lead of a new musical, but the heart of matter is in repairing his damaged psyche and relieving Georgie of the immense pressure of holding him together.

Bernie Dodd is the director of a new play and suggests the long forgotten Frank Elgin as the lead. Frank has the reputation as an unreliable drunkard past his prime but Bernie insists that he is the right man for the part. Bernie visits Frank's' home after an audition and is introduced to his wife Georgie, who upon first impression seems too controlling and strong willed for Bernie's taste. Little does he know that she must be this way in order to keep Frank together. The main conflict revolves around Bernie and Georgie's opinion on what is best for Frank and Bernie badly misinterprets her motives and the true depths of Frank's despair. It is only until Bernie looks like a complete a-hole does he realize that Georgie has been helping Frank all along.

As I said before this film is surprisingly dark because of just how pitiful Frank's character is. He takes his wife for granted yet is utterly dependent on her, lies to everyone including himself about his problems, and is a complete mess and that is even before you consider the drinking problem. Georgie's problems are no easier; she must take care of her helpless husband, trapped in this life for years and is looked upon by others like Bernie as being the root of Frank's problems. Her one wish is to see Frank be able to stand on his own two feet again. It is only then that they will be able to return to a normal life again.

I thought The Country Girl was well acted by the three leads, Bing Crosby as Frank, William Holden as Bernie and Grace Kelly who won an Academy Award for best actress in her role as Georgie. I am a huge Grace Kelly fan and enjoyed watching her give a strong and emotional performance. The film is all about these three characters' interactions with each other and they work well together.

The film does take a surprising shift later on in the film that I did not agree with at all, but was happy that it corrected itself. A potential romance brews between Bernie and Georgie, which in real life you wouldn't really think twice about if you read about it in the news somewhere, but when you throw in Frank's personal crisis, I thought it would have been in really bad taste for Georgie to leave him for Bernie who was a total dick to her throughout the movie anyways. I liked that after ten years of suffering together, Frank and Georgie are given a chance to be happy together again.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Day 182 - Paths of Glory

Paths of Glory (1957) directed by Stanley Kubrick




Out of all the major film genres, the two that I have seen the least of are horror (because I'm a wuss) and war. While I like many war films, the genre in general doesn't really appeal to me because they all invariably have the same message; war is bad, men bonding together, with a little bit of heroism on top. They also tend to be really long, so I was pleased when I found out that Paths of Glory was only 88 minutes long. If I can knock out a classic in less than 90 minutes, I'm almost always going to give it a shot. Apparently Paths of Glory was the movie that put Stanley Kubrick on the map and it is easy to see why. It is a superbly made movie with important subject matter; many regard it as one of the best anti-war films ever.

The film is set during WWI. France and Germany have dug trenches across hundreds of miles on the Western Front without much advancement on either side. Two French generals are meeting and discuss plans to attack an important German position called the Anthill. Leading the attack is Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) who questions the wisdom of such a seemingly impossible attack but reluctantly agrees to lead the charge. The attack goes horribly wrong with many of his men dying and eventually retreating back to their trenches. The enemy fire is so intense that half of his men couldn't even leave the trenches to participate. General Mireau, the general in charge of the division, is furious by the seeming lack of effort by his men and demands that they be punished for their cowardice. Three men, one from each division, are to be court marshaled, tried and executed to set an example.

Obviously the charges brought upon the men are ludicrous and unusually cruel. Dax argues that trying to continue forward during the attack was impossible. The prosecutor responds, "If it was impossible, the only proof of that would be their dead bodies at the bottom of the trenches." In short, these three men are obviously cowards because they are still alive. You can't argue with that logic.

I kept wondering what impassioned speech Dax would deliver to save his men from the firing squad. When will the generals come to their senses and spare these men? They seem so eager to kill their own men; aren't the Germans doing a good enough job of that? But it doesn't happen. Dax's words fall upon deaf ears and the men are sentenced to death. I found this interesting since in just about any other film they would be spared, but this result is actually fitting for the tone of the film; war is harsh, the good guys don't always survive, killing is so pointless.

The signature moment of the film to me has got to be the attack. It is right up there with the opening of Saving Private Ryan in terms of battle scenes. Incredibly long action packed tracking shots in beautiful black and white. It shows the cold and brutal nature of war, there's nothing pretty or romantic about it, just death and chaos. These couple of minutes is actually all the the fighting there is in this movie but it is enough to get its point across. The rest of the film focuses on the aftermath and the rhetoric which is also quite compelling.

I don't know if it's the new TV I bought or the Paths of Glory Blu-ray (probably some combination of both), but this is one of the best looking black and white films I've ever seen. The images are super clear and well defined. It has a very clean and polished look yet retains a lot of the grit you'd expect from a war movie.

Also, I believe this is the first time I've seen Kirk Douglas in action. It is amazing how much he looks like his son Michael Douglas. The resemblance is uncanny.

Grade: A

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Day 181 - Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest

Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (2011) directed by Michael Rapaport




What is Tribe's best album? Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders? For the longest time, I didn't even realize there was another album in the discussion; their first album People's Instinctive Travels & the Paths of Rhythm is also a heralded classic. It's a pretty close call but I think I'd go with Low End Theory. My buddy thinks its Midnight Marauders and it's not particularly close. But the whole debate just goes to show how awesome A Tribe Called Quest was. How many other musical acts out there can claim two or three certified classics? How many other musical acts can claim have been so influential and important as to redefine their genre? ATCQ is arguably the most influential hip hop group of all time. The slick production, the smooth voice of Q-Tip, and the aggressive tone of Phife Dawg made for a perfect match to make music gold.

It is easy to assume that such a talented group with such great musical chemistry would have great chemistry in real life, yet often times this doesn't seem to be the case. ATCQ seemed to be perfect for each other, a couple of childhood friends get together to form their own little group and shake up the world. But as kids grow into men, other issues come into play; pride, ego, differences of opinion, whatever. In Michael Rapaport's documentary about ATCQ, he outlines the earnest beginnings, rise to fame and eventual falling out of one of hip-hop's most beloved groups.

This isn't a particularly outstanding documentary, but it does a good job in teaching the viewer about the group and its history through various interviews with the members and people in the music industry. It is interesting to note that other than concert footage, the members of the group are rarely seen together. It's been over 10 years since their last album and each of the members have gone on to do their own thing and they reflect back on the times with nostalgia and later resentment and regret. They are musicians but more importantly people first and I feel like the documentary does a good job in capturing their personalities and feelings.

It also does a good job in capturing the musical vibe of the group. I'm listening to ATCQ right now on my iTunes as I type this and I'm bobbing my head to the beats and slick verses. What I love most about the group's music is that it isn't what you'd typically expect out of rap these days; they don't talk about guns and drugs or use excessive profanity. Their music just makes you want to kick back with your feet up and just nod your head, maybe even get down and dance. I like all sorts of rap, but as someone says in the film, different groups can give you different things; there's enough room for everybody.

What the film also shows is that while Q-Tip and Phife Dawg have had their share of differences they still see themselves as family. They have this beautiful music that they've created together to always link them, but in the end that isn't what brings them together again. It is their friendship, love and experiences together that ultimately bring them together.

Grade: B

Monday, October 17, 2011

Day 180 - Secretariat

Secretariat (2010) directed by Randall Wallace




You don't really watch historical sports movies to see The Big Game because you know that they win in the end. That's why they made a movie about it. Obviously, this isn't always the case but you know what I mean. You watch these movies for everything that happens before The Big Game, the trials, the tribulations, the human drama. There are winners in sports every single year, but not every team or person gets a movie. There has to be a compelling story behind it, which is ultimately Secretariat's biggest failing as a film, the story behind the races don't quite match the importance of Secretariat's feats.

Now this isn't to say I didn't enjoy the film, but I definitely noticed a strong taste of vanilla to it, which I understand completely being a Disney feel good movie and all. But the film takes no risks, doesn't tackle any issues, is safe and squeaky clean, predictable and without any attempts to stir up the viewer on any real level. It is what it is, a safe family friendly movie that doesn't really speak out much, but doesn't have anything bad to say either.

A movie about a racehorse is kind of interesting in that the movie isn't really about the horse, it's about the people around the horse, the owner, the trainer, the jockey, whoever. This movie is about their story, not Secretariat's. Secretariat may very well be the greatest race horse that ever lived, but it doesn't matter at all if the people around him don't have anything to say.

This movie is really about Penny Chenery, Secretariat's owner, whose tenaciousness and belief in her horse drives the film. I think it is a general rule in these movies that the more they talk about you not being able to win, the more likely it is that you will. If they describe something as impossible, it is a near certainty that the impossible will be done. And that is basically the entire theme of Penny's and thus Secretariat's story. You know exactly what you get in the movie and it's not quite so bad really, just don't expect anything more. Oh, and while Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973, his biggest accomplishment in my mind is producing one of the best sports photographs ever.


Grade: C+

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Day 179 - Body Heat

Body Heat (1981) directed by Lawrence Kasdan





I'll just say it at the very start, I loved Body Heat. It is a neo-noir, which as far as I can tell is no different from film noir aside from the eras they are made. The film can almost be called a remake of Double Indemnity as the plot points are eerily similar. But it is important to note that they are two very different films despite their similarities. For instance, film noirs like Double Indemnity relied almost exclusively on its sharp dialogue to get its point across. In a way that makes a lot of sense because there were strict codes back then regarding sexuality. Think about the common elements in these types of movies. They almost always feature a sexy seductive woman, but the movies couldn't really show you any skin or obvious sex stuff, so they had to imply seduction, romance, love, and sex through dialogue. Modern films have no such restrictions and Body Heat is overflowing with sex. The first parts of the movie focuses almost exclusively on the carnal desire between Ned and Matty. The film flaunts its sexuality but not in a gratuitous way. It is important to see these scenes to set up just how intoxicated they have become with each other and how blinded by lust they are.

Ned (William Hurt) meets a wealthy woman Matty (Kathleen Turner) one day and instantly falls for her. She is married, but that does not deter him from pursuing her. They eventually go at it and begin a torrid affair. Life is all good for the two lovers if not for the pesky issue of Matty's husband... I suppose I don't have to say what they do next. The film has some great twists and turns and lots of tension as you wonder if they're going to get away with it.

The weather in the movie plays an important part of the movie. Florida is in the middle of brutal heat wave and everybody is sweating. In one of the sexiest scenes of the movie, Ned and Matty are both naked literally dripping with sweat but they can't keep their hands off each other. The hot weather is symbolic of their affair with each other, but as Ned's detective friend tells him, "When it gets this hot, people try to kill each other." While at first the heat represented their passion for each other, it changes to signify the sticky situation Ned and Matty have gotten into. Incorporating weather elements into stories have been done since forever as it is an effective tool for symbolism, emotions, themes, etc.

I really liked everything about the film. I loved the story, the hot steaming sex (not entirely in that perverted way, but in how it adds to the mood of the film), the twists, the turns, the music, the characters, everything. Really great film.

Grade: A

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Day 178 - Young Frankenstein

Young Frankenstein (1974) directed by Mel Brooks




It's kind of crazy that I haven't seen Young Frankenstein until today. It is easily one of Mel Brooks's best comedies right up there with The Producers and Blazing Saddles. It is also quite different from the typical Mel Brooks film, for instance Spaceballs, in that it doesn't totally rely on endless gags (many of which aren't even that funny). Young Frankenstein is perhaps his smartest, most balanced and artistically pleasing film that shows Brooks's competence not only as a comedian but as a film maker.

Gene Wilder plays Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, who views himself as a respectable scientist that tries to distance himself away from the legacy of his grandfather, the infamous Victor Frankenstein. He travels to his grandfather's estate, the obligatory dark castle atop the hill, and is joined by the voluptuous Inga and Igor, the grandson of, well, Igor. In an amusing scene, since Frederick insists on pronouncing his name Fronk-en-steen, Igor counters that his name should be pronounced Eye-gore. At the estate, Frederick discovers his grandfather's old notes and cannot help but to try to recreate his experiment.

The film is a departure from the obvious in your face comedy that Brooks is famous for. Although there are plenty of stupid laughs in this film, they are refreshingly few and far between. When contrasted with the ominous horror elements of the movie, it makes these moments much funnier. The funniest parts are in the subtler moments. In a perfectly normal looking scene, Gene Wilder may deliver a line in a certain way that had me cracking up. In one scene Inga makes an innocent one liner regarding a certain enlarged body part of the monster that is as funny as the wildest gesture from any other typical Mel Brooks scene.

The heart and soul of the film is of course Gene Wilder who is a brilliant comedic actor. The way he is able to raise his voice excitedly while remaining perfectly calm is one of his greatest assets and his deadpan humor and sarcasm are top notch. Watch Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory again and notice how sharp his delivery and wit is. He brings the same kind of brilliance to this film and he must of had a ton of fun playing this eccentric mad scientist. And I haven't even begun to talk about the great supporting roles.

I really liked that this film was filmed in black and white, an obvious choice for satirizing the classic monster pictures. It creates a genuinely dark atmosphere which is such a great contrast to the humor of the film. Brooks took great care in getting the details right; apparently he even used the same laboratory set they used in the original Frankenstein. Young Frankenstein may not be Brooks's funniest movie, I'd probably have to give that distinction to The Producers, but it is arguably his best made film.

Grade: A

Friday, October 14, 2011

Day 177 - The Getaway

The Getaway (1972) directed by Sam Peckinpath





Nicknamed the "King of Cool", Steve McQueen became famous for his anti-hero roles and icy cold demeanor, which made him such a huge hit in action and tough guy movies. One of his biggest hits was The Getaway, an action thriller where he tough-guys his way through the movie with cool confidence. The movie has pounding action and violence and most importantly, is done quite well. It isn't just an action picture though; the story is actually pretty engaging thanks mainly to the lead stars McQueen and Ali MacGraw who remind me a little of Bonnie and Clyde.

Doc McCoy (McQueen) is in the middle of a ten year sentence and is denied parole. The first couple minutes of the film are a montage of prison life and Doc's growing frustrations. The montage does a good job in capturing the monotonous and soul crushing nature of prison life. Not being able to take it any longer, he tells his wife Carol (MacGraw) to go talk to Jack Benyon, a big time businessman, to make a deal to get him out. Benyon gets Doc out on the condition that he do a bank job. Doc does the job but things go awry causing him and Carol to go on the run with the bad guys in hot pursuit.

What is interesting about the film isn't necessarily the plot but the characters. What happens to man and wife after years of separation? Can they ever go back to a normal loving relationship? When Carol goes to see Benyon there is a hint of you-know-what-you-got-to-do-to-get-your-husband-out-of-jail. It's an impossible situation for Carol. On one hand she's told by her husband to get him out by any means, but at what costs? If Doc knew what that really meant, would he still have told her to go to Benyon? And when Doc finally does go free, there is an uneasy tension between him and Carol. Four years is a long time apart. They may be two completely different people now. Does she still even love him? Does she still want him? Has she been faithful this entire time? These are questions that Doc didn't dare to ask while he was still in prison. Now that he is free and sitting next to her in bed, they awkwardly get down to it rather than passionately jump on each other. This uneasiness remains with them throughout the film  as they are unsure about their future with each other. But after the robbery they are bound together on the run and forced to stick it out, but will they ever truly be on the same page again? Another interesting relationship in the film is between Rudy, the bad guy chasing Doc in the film, and a woman named Sally, who is drawn to the bad man first out of fear then out of some sort of Stockholm syndrome. They are an interesting pair to contrast with Doc and Carol. I really enjoyed watching the characters interact with each other and that the film dealt with these issues rather than go for the easy lovey-dovey Bonnie and Clyde relationship.

The majority of the film deals with Doc and Carol on the run from both the cops and the bad guys and features nice action sequences throughout. Living on the run, you have to be ready at a minute's notice; one moment you're eating a hamburger, the next you're blasting a shotgun through your window in a high speed pursuit with the cops. The final showdown is particularly satisfying as it is explosive and exciting. The entire film builds up to this moment and it's well worth it.

I've noticed lately that I've strayed away from talking about stuff like direction, cinematography, specific shots and camera angles and such. I feel like the past couple movies haven't been really artsy or noticeable in those regards. It is very possible that I've gotten lazier as those are the hardest things to write about, so I'll try to be more observant so that everything that I write isn't entirely plot related.

Grade: B+

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Day 176 - Slap Shot

Slap Shot (1977) directed by George Roy Hill



I never realized that Slap Shot would be such a foul mouthed and vulgar laugh fest. Imagine Animal House crossed with Major League and you get this hilarious cult classic. Paul Newman plays Reggie Dunlop, the player-coach of the of the Charlestown Chiefs, a crappy minor league hockey team that is on the verge of folding. Reggie is one of those guys that was never good enough to make it to the big time but doesn't know how to do anything else, so he decides to make his potentially last season worthwhile.  He motivates his team to play harder by placing a story in the newspaper saying that there is a potential buyer of the team. After the Hanson brothers, a trio of roughhousing goons, joins the team, the Chiefs suddenly reinvent themselves into a dirty hard hitting team and starts winning.

The plot in itself isn't spectacular; it's just a variation of the lovable losers underdog story, but as with most comedies the plot is just there as a vehicle to tell the jokes. I actually can't remember seeing a movie where Paul Newman curses, but he swears up a storm here. It is the kind of comedy that has aged well given the modern audience's growing tastes in distastefulness. My favorite line of the film is when Reggie is trying to antagonize the opposing goalie by skating around him calling his wife a lesbian. "Suzanne sucks pussy! Hey Hanrahan she's a dyke! I know, I know! She's a lesbian, a lesbian!" It is the kind of childish humor I always thought Newman was above but I was really pleasantly surprised to see him in this kind of role.

Slap Shot is as crude and vulgar as the style of play of the Chiefs which is sort of the point. It's really the ultimate guy's film; it stars the awesome Paul Newman, is about sports, is deliciously dirty and funny.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Day 175 - Presumed Innocent

Presumed Innocent (1990) directed by Alan J. Pakula




Today on the radio I was listening to an interview featuring 52 year old Dewey Bozella, who after 26 years of serving time in prison for a murder he did not commit, will finally get his chance at his lifelong dream, to fight a professional boxing match. It is a pretty remarkable story that will undoubtedly be made into a movie. It is also the story of everybody's fear of the justice system, being wrongly accused, tried, and imprisoned.

Presumed Innocent is a smart and suspenseful courtroom drama that examines this idea. A young woman lawyer is brutally murdered at her home. Her co-worker Rusty Sabich (Harrison Ford), the office's leading prosecutor, leads the investigation to find the culprit, only all the evidence seems to point to himself. His fingerprints are inexplicably found on a glass in her apartment, fibers from his home at hers, and his same blood type and semen all there. Phone records show his house calling hers that very night and, oh by the way, he had an affair with her that he hasn't gotten over with after she ended it. Open and shut case, right? Except that we don't know if he has actually done it. The story is told entirely through Rusty's perspective and he is awfully convincing as a man who swears he didn't do it.

The irony of the fact that Rusty, who has prosecuted criminals his whole life, is now the accused shouldn't be lost on anybody. He dryly comments, "I'll need a lawyer." But he makes a good defendant because he knows how the other side will play it. I particularly enjoyed the scene where Rusty practices with his lawyer by presenting the arguments against himself as if he were prosecuting the case. He is equally as convincing in that scene as he is in proclaiming his innocence.

The film is a surprisingly emotionally complex one. Despite the affair ending ages ago, Rusty has not been able to get over with it. He weeps openly in front of his wife while working on the case. It is particularly painful for his wife, who knows about the affair, and must hear about it again during the trial. But she does her best Hilary Clinton impression and sticks by Rusty's side through thick and thin.

The last half of the film plays out as a courtroom procedural and as someone who used to watch Law and Order quite frequently, I enjoyed watching the proceedings.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Day 174 - The Woman in the Window

The Woman in the Window (1944) directed by Fritz Lang




Lately I've been having severe writer's block. I still enjoy watching the movies but writing has been a huge drag. I'm almost certain that it's because I've been watching movies before I go to bed super late rather than in the middle of the day. It makes me anxious to get through the write-up so I can finally go to sleep. I've been sort of busy lately but as soon as I have things settled down hopefully I'll get back into my groove.

So today I watched The Woman in the Window, a good old fashioned film noir directed by Fritz Lang. I can always count on these movies to be entertaining even if a bit formulaic. This follows the recipe of the guy and the girl who just meet and end up going into cahoots with each other in some nefarious scheme. Then they spend the rest of the movie trying to not get caught. I've probably described half of all film noir films ever made right there, but who cares? They're always so fun to watch.

So one night Joan and Richard meet each other and apparently they hit it off because she invites him up to her place for drinks. I only mention this with a little bit of bitterness because I don't think I've ever been invited up after the first meeting. Anyways, they're up there chilling out when suddenly Joan's lover comes storming in drunk as a mutha. Richard and this guy get into a fight and oops! The lover gets shanked with a pair of scissors. Joan and Richard are surprisingly calm in the aftermath and quickly devise a plan to cover it all up and dump the body. Richard isn't exactly Dexter Morgan nor has he seen an episode of CSI, so I guess we can excuse him for being a little sloppy. Too bad the cops aren't as forgiving. It is only a matter of time before the killers get caught... Or is it? Watch to find out!

The film starts off a little slow but once the dude gets killed, it becomes a pretty suspenseful thriller pretty much till the very end. I don't want to ruin the ending as there is a twist but I thought the ending was a little bit of a cop out. Apparently Lang had to film this over the original ending because it didn't align with the Production Code of the time. I don't necessarily mind though since it doesn't necessarily change the mood or tone of the film.

Can't think of much else. Solid film noir.

Grade: B

Monday, October 10, 2011

Day 173 - Tron Legacy

Tron Legacy (2010) directed by Joseph Kosinski




I don't remember that much from the original Tron, but do you think they had Tron Legacy in mind as a sequel three decades later? Like many modern sequels of old time classics, Tron Legacy is bigger, louder and more convoluted than the original ever dreamt of being. Let's just start with the basics. Kevin Flynn disappears sometime after the events of Tron never to be seen again. Twenty plus years later, his son Sam investigates a mysterious page coming from his father's old office and is transported to The Grid. What happens next is an asinine plot involving virtual world domination, a Star Wars level style mythology and Jeff Bridges channeling his inner hippie. I like Jeff Bridges as much as the next guy, but how are you supposed to take him seriously when he's dressed like a Jedi knight spouting off lines like, "You're messing with my Zen thing, man."

One of my pet peeves are movies that go for the epic look and feel but fail badly and that is what Tron Legacy does. I couldn't be less interested in the story of the characters. I didn't care much at all for Garrett Hedlund who plays Sam, nor anyone else in the the film. Even the usually awesome Bridges mails it in here. Visually the film looks promising but after a while the neon look grows stale and fails to impress. I remember this movie being highly pushed for its 3D when it came out and I'm sure the effects were gnarly in IMAX, but its kind of ho hum here at home.

Just a really bland boring movie thats trying to milk the Tron name for all its worth.

Grade: D

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Day 172 - The Ides of March

The Ides of March (2011) directed by George Clooney




The world of politics is a dirty messy game where virtually nobody comes out unscathed. At least this is what I learn from the news and the movies. Scandals, backstabbing, and intrigue are all part of the process. The Ides of March focuses on the days before the important Ohio Democratic primary where idealistic press secretary Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) tries to get stuff done for his candidate Mike Morris (George Clooney). Stephen says all the right things to people, that he believes in his guy, that he can make a difference, that he is different from everyone else, but by the end of the film you wonder if Stephen ever believed that. Does he only believe in Morris because he thinks he can win and thus further his own ambitious career or did he ever really believe all those things?

Things get complicated for Stephen when the opposing side's campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) tries to get him to join their team. But does Duffy really want Stephen or is he just using him to screw with Morris's campaign? Everybody has their own agenda in the film. Stephen goes through some growing pains in this campaign, which is only in the primaries. By the time the film ends, he has graduated the the big leagues and is ready for the the presidential election. The closing shot of an extended close-up of Gosling's face is a perfect and chilling ending to the movie.

The film is superbly acted by everyone throughout. Gosling has the lead role and as in Drive, he excels in shots of reflective silence. He is surrounded by a superb supporting cast which includes Clooney, Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood. I wish Giamatti and Hoffman were given more screen time though because they were captivating every time they were on screen.

Anyways, I don't really have much to say about the movie. It is well acted and while the story isn't the most earth shattering, it is enough to hold my attention until election time rolls around next year when the real drama starts to happen.

Grade: B+

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Day 171 - Monsoon Wedding

Monsoon Wedding (2001) directed by Mira Nair




In honor of my friend who just got married today, I decided to go ahead and continue the wedding theme by picking a foreign wedding movie. But first I want to comment on the difference between the typical American wedding everyone's been to and weddings from other other cultures. Today I attended my first ever Arabic wedding and it's easily the funnest wedding I've ever been to. American weddings are subdued proper affairs, perhaps even boring, while Arabic weddings are literally a celebration. They dance, cheer, sing and party all night long. It's kind of funny because I was one of three or four Asians in a room of 600 Arabic people and they made me feel like a part of the celebration, like I belonged with them. It was a really cool experience, something I won't forget.

It was a pleasant surprise to watch Monsoon Wedding, which is about an Indian wedding and seems equally festive and fun. The wedding isn't until the very end, but I found myself smiling at the sheer joy everyone seems to be having. The dances in the film reminded me a lot of the dances I did today.

The story begins a couple days before the big day when everything is being put together. Nothing seems to be ready yet and it's causing the father of the bride a lot of stress. The pure chaos and dysfunction going on throughout these scenes are a perfect set up for the film's comedy. The film has an infectious energy to it and keeps things bouncing along, juggling from story to story, romance to romance. Orbiting around the bride and groom's love story are satellite romances. My favorite one is the obnoxious wedding planner falling for the hired help. There is a tenderness to those scenes that is so sweet.

There are serious issues in the film interspaced between the comedy. A couple things threaten the wedding all together. One is the bride's self doubts and the other is the climax of the film that I won't reveal here. Once that is resolved, as it obviously will, the party is able to get started and all the hard labor and tension built up throughout the film can finally be released in the joyous party, even if it is pouring rain outside. The monsoon isn't enough to ruin their day.

I really liked this film. Maybe I'm just in a good mood after going to my friend's wedding, but I was really into it. All I know is if I get married, I'd want it to resemble a party like the end of this film rather than a exchanging corsages at Jr. Prom.

Grade: A-

Friday, October 7, 2011

Day 170 - Late Spring

Late Spring (1949) directed Yasujiro Ozu




I read an article a couple weeks ago about the declining marriage rates in Asia as women are getting married at a much older age and sometimes not at all. There are many factors that contribute to this including higher education, better career opportunities and a shift away from traditional family values. It is strange then to watch Late Spring which seems like such a forward thinking film yet is mired in traditional values.

Late Spring tells the story of the relationship between a widowed father and his 27 year old daughter Noriko. They live a quiet life together with Noriko essentially taking care of her father's daily needs, playing the role of the dutiful daughter. Both are content with this arrangement until the father's sister, Noriko's aunt Masa, voices her concern of Noriko's single status. At 27, time is running out for Noriko; she must find a husband soon or risk being alone forever. The father agrees, but Noriko does not. She has no desire to marry. She is perfectly content staying by her father's side. The majority of the film focuses on the constant pressure Noriko receives from everyone around her to marry until she finally gives in.

It is a simple story, but one with extreme emotion and turmoil. It is written on Noriko's face. In the beginning she is always politely smiling but you can sense her discomfort anytime marriage is brought up. She nervously giggles and changes the subject or refuses to talk about it. She does not want to get married at all. I feel like this would have been a great spot for her to be presented as an independent modern woman, but her reasons for remaining single are puzzling to me. It is not for her career (she has none) or her personal ambition, or even a case of only marrying a man she really loves (heaven forbid!), but because she wants to take care of her father.

My problem is that this rationale makes her seem unrealistic, like a character archetype rather than a real person. It is much too self sacrificing and sentimental for my taste, yet it got me to wondering if that is really the reason. It is possible that Noriko is only using her father as an excuse to not get married. Nobody would question her loyalty to her father; it is noble and fits in with traditional family values, but perhaps it hides the fact that she has other plans in her life than to be someone's wife. Maybe she wants to get married, but only on her own terms, not because of societal pressures. She tells her friend that she dislikes the idea of arranged marriages. There is a hint of a romance between her and a man who is already engaged. Perhaps she would want to be with him, but alas she cannot go down that route. Unfortunately none of this is explicitly mentioned. She does not reveal much about her thoughts other than her silent expressions and her proclamations of devotion to her father. I so desperately wanted her to scream out loud, "No, I don't want to get married! I will not be defined by anyone else but myself!" but all she can manage is a sullen expression with layers of anxiety and resentment hidden underneath.

I was extremely annoyed with the constant pestering Masa does throughout the film. She represents the old way of thinking and comes across as pushy and inconsiderate of Noriko's feelings regarding the matter. To her, and by extension traditional values, it is not a matter of love or compatibility with her potential husband, but that there is nothing wrong with him, so why not? Arranged marriages kind of suck.

And Noriko's father doesn't help matters much either. He does seem concerned with her daughter's future and wants to make this marriage happen, but realizes how incredibly unhappy it makes her. What if marriage really isn't the answer and things were okay the way they were? I don't think she should devote the rest of her good years to taking care of her father, but on the other hand, she shouldn't get married if she doesn't want to. His pep talk to her before the wedding doesn't bode much confidence. It may take two years, three, maybe five or ten, to find happiness with this man. "Your mother wasn't happy at first. I found her weeping in the kitchen many times." Good luck, Noriko!

It is interesting to note that we don't actually get to see Noriko's future husband or see the actual wedding which is actually quite fitting. It doesn't really matter who she marries anyway. She doesn't even know him so neither should we. The film is really about the relationship between father and daughter. The last time we see Noriko she is beautifully dressed in her ceremonial wedding dress, though with a hint of sadness to her face. The last we see of the father, he is alone in his empty house peeling an orange aimlessly. They acquiesced to society's expectations of them, but none seem to be better off.

Late Spring is a heralded classic from who some consider one of the greatest directors of all time in Yasujiro Ozu. Unfortunately I'm too much of a newbie to really appreciate it I suppose. Typically with unfamiliar films or directors I just try to focus on the story first and take in anything else if I can. There were some little things I saw which is similar to stuff I noticed watching Still Walking, whose director Hirokazu Kore-eda is said to be heavily influenced by Ozu. For instance there are the low angled shots that sit on the floor and the "pillow shot" where a scene begins or ends with an inanimate object or empty area in a room which doesn't sound like anything special, but is pretty cool. I also don't think I saw the camera move once in Late Spring. I think it was Ozu's style to make the film as simple looking as possible as to not distract the audience.

I thought Late Spring was frustrating to watch, but in a good way if that makes any sense. If it makes you feel something, then it's probably doing its job. I thought it was a good film, though I don't know enough about anything to give it any more thought than that. I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt though as it seems like there are a bunch of unsaid goodness laying underneath.

Grade: B

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Day 169 - Sin Nombre

Sin Nombre (2009) directed by Cary Fukunaga




It really is amazing what our neighbors down south must go through just to get to America to live the American Dream (not to mention the hardships they have to face once they are actually here). In Sin Nombre, Sayra joins her father and uncle on the journey north starting from Honduras and through Mexico via train top. There is a lot of attention given to the hardships of the US-Mexico crossing, but traveling through Mexico is no picnic either. The train ride from southern Mexico to the US border is a two to three week journey sitting atop a train exposed to the elements, border patrol and gangs looking to make a quick buck by robbing immigrants.

That is where Willy aka Casper comes in, who is part of the fearsome Mara Salvatrucha gang. You get into this gang by a hazing ritual where you get the shit beat out of you for 13 seconds and then by killing a rival gang member. The leader of Casper's faction is Lil Mago whose tattooed face resembles that of Mel Gibson's in Braveheart before going into battle. Lil Mago attempts to rape Willy's girlfriend and accidentally kills her and Willy must take it in anguished silence. They go on a mission together to rob some immigrants on the train Sayra and her family is on. When Willy meets Sayra, their fates will be interlocked. They will be making the trip north together with the Mara Salvatrucha hot on Willy's trail.

Sin Nombre paints a terrifying picture of gang life in Mexico and the hardship of the journey north, blending them together to tell a powerful and gripping story. It is a story of two different people who are trapped in their lives looking for something on the other side and finding it in each other. It isn't really a romance; it is more of a connection between two lost souls which can be just as powerful or moving.

The story is harsh, but the images are quite beautiful. There is a serene feeling of peacefulness when the immigrants sit atop of the train rolling through the countryside. There is genuine joy in a scene where onlookers throw fruit to the immigrants on the train, wishing them luck on their journey. I thought this film was great and also a harsh reminder of just how messed up the world around us is. I know illegal immigration is a touchy subject in the U.S. and I'm sort of ambivalent towards the issue but this film is definitely an eye opener. It would seem wrong for these characters to make it to the U.S. only to be deported back after seeing what they must go through.

Grade: A

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Day 168 - Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009) directed by Lee Daniels




My first thoughts while watching Precious was, "Man, that is harsh." I repeated this line to myself over and over throughout the movie. This is a brutal, ugly, and heart breaking film, yet manages to squeeze in redemption and hope amidst scenes of gut wrenching pain. Precious is sixteen years old with a kid and another one on the way. The father of these kids? Her own father who rapes her. And where does Precious's mother fit in? She blames Precious for everything wrong in her life, accusing her of stealing her man. When you think domestic abuse, you think a slap or a shove, maybe the belt. Well, Precious's mother throws glass cups, hits her with a frying pan and at one point attempts to drop a television set on her from over two stories high. This is the life Precious must survive through, what she must inevitably try to escape from.

The film is dominated by powerhouse performances by Gabourey Sidibe, who plays Precious, and Mo'Nique, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as her mother Mary. The thing that struck me about the performances are how real they feel. Sidibe is utterly convincing as a shy, quiet girl with low self esteem. Her tears seem genuine, the pain on her face real. She handles herself very well, providing many powerful scenes varying from quiet sadness to frustrated rage.

Mo'Nique's performance deserves a paragraph of its own. Her character may very well be an all time best villain in a film, certainly one of the most villainous characters I've seen in the past decade. She is so vile and hateful it is almost sickening to watch and I'm not even necessarily talking about the scenes of physical abuse; the verbal and mental abuse she dishes out is absolutely soul crushing. There is a scene in the beginning of the film where she just rips into Precious with such vitriol that I just shook my head, mouth open in shock. Somehow this is the same actress that starred in those corny sit-coms on UPN.

I thought this was a well made film. I liked the fact that the film takes some risks in its style too. Whenever Precious is confronted with bad situations she escapes to her happy place and lets her imagination run wild providing a fresh of breath air in such an intensely serious movie.

Powerful movie with powerful performances.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Day 167 - Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa (1986) directed Neil Jordan




About a week ago I watched Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday, solid film where he plays a London mob boss. In Mona Lisa, he plays George, a character on the bottom of the rung just released from prison. His old boss sets him up as a driver for a high end prostitute Simone. Immediately they hate each other and bicker to no end. Naturally, they grow to care for each other.

This isn't the type of story you think it is though. It's not as simple as two opposites falling for each other, the prostitute with a gold of heart story, or the princess and the frog. It's a story about two characters trapped in their lives, longing for something in their lonely existence. Simone often asks George to drive around the seedy streets of London where she once worked. She is looking for someone she once knew, an old friend that she left behind on her way to high end escorting. Compelled to help the girl that he is falling for, he agrees to help Simone find her friend. What begins as an unlikely romance turns into a thrilling crime story set in the seedy underground of London occupied by pimps, prostitutes, drugs and blackmail. George risks his life to find the girl for Simone with the hopes that she will fall for him because of his faithfulness.

I really liked Mona Lisa. I like the tone it sets, you can practically feel the slime of the streets. But also George's lonely romance is beautifully sad and tragic. Bob Hoskins is really good here. He has the intensity of a pit bull but also the tenderness of a helpless romantic. The actress who plays Simone is also quite good, as is Michael Caine in a rare true villain role.

Grade: A-