Saturday, December 31, 2011

Day 255 - Manhattan Murder Mystery

Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) directed by Woody Allen

"Too much Double Indemnity."

Manhattan Murder Mystery borrows a bit from Rear Window in that the protagonist doesn't see the suspect actually commit a murder but is convinced that he is guilty nonetheless. Carol (Diane Keaton) is a bored housewife with an active imagination. When the neighbor's wife suddenly dies of a heart attack she grows suspicious of the husband, Mr. House. What does she base her suspicions on? He seems in too good spirits. He has an urn full of ashes in his kitchen. He leaves his apartment at 1:00 in the morning. None of these alone would seem strange at all except after you've seen one too many viewings of Double Indemnity.

Carol becomes obsessed with this supposed case and it appears to her husband Larry (Woody Allen) and the viewer that she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I was actually kind of bothered by Carol's behavior because she is so irrational and paranoid in these scenes. I would have loved nothing better than for her to be completely wrong and that there be a perfectly good explanation for everything as would be the case 999 times out of 1000 in real life. I actually even thought the film might go in this direction because the first half doesn't actually seem to be about uncovering a mystery at all but in taking a look at the struggling relationship between Carol and Larry. Much of the film deals with Carol and Larry operating at different wavelengths; she is adventurous and energetic while he is neurotic and mild mannered. It is obvious that if Carol were completely happy she would never bother looking for a murder that isn't there. But of course there really is more to Mr. House than meets the eye (or is there?) and Carol uncovers more and more. One thing is certain, either she will come out of this looking like Sherlock Holmes or laying in a psychiatrist's chair.

The film picks up steam and becomes a full blown mystery thriller and we never really know how everything will be explained till the very end. But even with the murder mystery going on, Allen still maintains the light hearted comedic elements and observations. Carol and Larry, despite being knee deep in a potential murder, are still struggling to answer their midlife marriage funk. Allan plays his typical nervous neurotic self and Diane Keaton has the manic energy she displayed in Annie Hall. The couple involve their friends in the matter and in one of the better scenes they try to figure out how and why Mr. House might have murdered his wife over dinner with other patrons and waiters eavesdropping on their conversation. In a moment of irony, when the other woman whom Carol is jealous of comes up with a compelling idea, Carol shoots it down citing how many fallacies her theory has.

There were a couple scenes I particularly liked. One is when Carol and Larry are walking around the fountain in the park discussing the case. The camera slowly follows the couple as they circle the fountain. I thought that was pretty cool looking shot. The climax, while being kind of cliche, is a perfect fit precisely because it is sort of cliche.

I hope everyone had a good 2011; hopefully 2012 will be even better.

Grade: B

Friday, December 30, 2011

Day 254 - Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) directed by Brad Bird

I think lost somewhere along way is the fact that Tom Cruise was and is a huge movie star. Take a look at his filmography and you'll see hit after hit. I've always found it interesting how people's public personas affect their careers. I still cite Braveheart as my favorite movie of all time, but Mel Gibson has never been the same though I strongly suspect if he made another Lethal Weapon he'd regain some of his cool points. I basically can't listen to a R. Kelly song anymore. Tom Cruise on the other hand seems immune to all the negative press he gets and just keeps on smashing the box office.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is the best Mission Impossible since the first one and one of the best action flicks to come out in a while. You know what kind of film it's going to be from the very opening scenes when an IMF agent jumps from the top of a roof, spins around in midair and fires his gun at his pursuers. There is action abound and unlike mindless CGI-fests like Transformers, the stunts and set pieces are well thought out, innovative and exciting. The much ballyhooed scene of Tom Cruise atop the Burj Khalifa is every bit as impressive as it is made out to be. Not just content to have an ordinary chase scene through the streets of Dubai, the film adds a swirling sandstorm to the mix. What is the best way to go down ten stories? Drive a car off the ledge, using the airbags as cushioning.

I suppose it is worth mentioning that there is a story that holds the action together. I won't bore you with the details, but it is your typical spy thriller fare that gets the job done. It has something to do with stopping a madman from launching nuclear missiles. There are exotic locations such as Moscow, Dubai and Mumbai. There is the hot female agent who kicks ass in Paula Patton, the mysterious newcomer Jeremy Renner, the comedic sidekick Simon Pegg and of course megastar Tom Cruise. Oh and did I mention some of the best action scenes to come out in a while?

Grade: B+

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Day 253 - Zelig

Zelig (1983) directed by Woody Allen

Hidden inside Woody Allen's little mockumentary is a film full of the self depreciating humor that would be his trademark. It also epitomizes the central theme in Allen's life and work, his inability to fit in.

Leonard Zelig is a man who can change his appearance to fit his surroundings and I don't mean that he is a master of disguise; he literally changes his physical appearance. For instance, when talking with a couple overweight men he suddenly gains over a hundred pounds. When standing next to a black man, or Negro as the film likes to say, his skin turns black. When standing next to a Chinese man his skin turns pale, his eyes slant and can speak passable Chinese. This remarkable ability, or condition, earns him the nickname the Human Chameleon and baffle psychiatrists for years. It is determined that Zelig's ability to change his appearance is due to his deep rooted desire to want to be liked and to fit in.

Zelig is a quirky little mockumentary shot in 20's style black and white footage, intercut with present day (1983) interviews. It plays like a convincing History Channel documentary and if not for the obvious humor, it seems quite real. From what I understand, Allen used old newsreel footage and inserted himself and other actors by using bluescreen, similar to the scenes in Forrest Gump.

I appreciated the film for its uniqueness and cleverness and enjoyed it for often hilarious humor. Leonard Zelig is the original Dos Equis man aka The Most Interesting Man Alive. For instance, as a kid his family lived in an apartment above a bowling alley; it was the bowling alley that would complain about the noise. Later in his life, he would set the record for longest continuous fight over the Atlantic, while flying upside down. Woody Allen is one of the great comedians.

The film isn't actually really that funny. It's not that the jokes strike out a lot, it's that they are used rather sparingly. (But when the humor does comes in, it is very funny.) Instead of making this a straight up farcical joke a minute comedy, Woody Allen goes for the serious History Channel vibe. At times I felt it a little tedious because while the concept is interesting, we obviously know it is not real, so I don't really need to know the exact details like I would in a real documentary. You know how some actors get criticized for playing the same role over and over? Well that is literally the case for Woody Allen. He basically just plays himself and Leonard Zelig may be the quintessential Allen character, an outsider who struggles to fit in.

Grade: B

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Day 252 - Assault on Precinct 13

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) directed by John Carpenter

John Carpenter knows how to make the no nonsense suspense thriller. Like Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13 explores an age old nightmare, the relentless bad guy(s) out to get you. Assault is a stripped down genre film at its most basic. You got your good guys on one end and the bad guys trying to get them on the other. You learn basically nothing about who these guys are or why they want to kill everyone in Precinct 13, but there they are like the zombies in Night of the Living Dead. In fact, if I had to compare this film to any other it would be George A. Romero's zombie classic. Just replace the zombies with gang members and the house for the police station and the stories are almost identical. A mismatched ragtag group of survivors must defend their fort against the wave of faceless nameless invaders.

It really is remarkable just how quickly things move along in this film. The violence starts suddenly and out of nowhere with no rhyme or reason, but just know that when it starts it will not stop till the very end. It all starts with a really shocking scene where gang members are holding up an ice cream truck. A little girl comes by to complain about the ice cream she just bought where she is unceremoniously and nonchalantly shot. It is a really shocking scene that breaks all the rules; since when was it okay to shoot little girls? The scene achieves its desired effects by painting a cold violent world.

The film is so short and compact that there really isn't a single wasted scene which is a good example of effective and efficient editing but can also be a pitfall as well. You know how people are always complaining about how some films are just too slow? Well Assault is the complete opposite, it goes by way too quickly. We are simply presented with the situation (the good guys holed up in the police station) and must find a way for them to survive the ordeal without knowing anything about it. Who are these guys trying to kill them? Why are they trying to kill them? With nothing to work with it's kind of tough to care about what happens.

The premise is a generic one that's been done countless times and there isn't much of a story to fill in any blanks. It is simply about these guys fighting off the bad guys' invasion. For that, Assault is a pretty enjoyable film, though I am pretty surprised by its cult classic status and high praise on Rotten Tomatoes. It is no Halloween or Night of the Living Dead.

Oh, also the musical score kicks ass.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Day 251 - Hot Tub Time Machine

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) directed Steve Pink

I've been having super long days lately so I always come home dead tired. Sometimes you just need to throw on a mindless comedy to unwind and not think too hard. It goes without saying that Hot Tub Time Machine is not a great movie. It is not even a good movie, but it is good for a few laughs and having something on in the background. It probably isn't worth much more than that.

Just from the film's title, you know it's not going to be taking itself too seriously. A couple of old buddies disappointed with the way things have turned out in life decide to get together to the ski resort where they had all their fun as youths. They get into a hot tub and low and behold they are transported back to 1986. As with all time traveling movies there are obvious logical pitfalls but I'm not going to be too harsh on a movie like this. The buddies must relive these moments and soon realize it is a good way to try to change or do things they wished they have done.

I don't know when it started but some time ago people thought it was funny to just be as vulgar and obnoxious as possible. This film suffers a lot from crude behavior and general unpleasantries. I don't want to make it sound like I'm some old prude because I actually enjoy a good raunchy comedy like Bridesmaids and Horrible Bosses but sometimes I think some movies are crass just for the sake of being crass (Hangover Part 2). Take for instance the character of Lou, who is just a complete ass. Excuse me for not caring at all for a thing he does, funny or not (and more often not). It's strange seeing John Cusack in this movie. I don't recall ever seeing him in a straight up B rate comedy, but here he is rubbing shoulders with actors clearly below him (even though I like Craig Robinson, but I'm just saying it how it is).

There are several good funny moments sprinkled throughout, which there almost has to by the sheer volume of jokes, but there are few genuine side splitters. My favorite scene is probably when Craig Robinson calls his wife as a 9 year old to let loose on her. Absurd moments like these are funny, but they are few and far between.

Grade: C-

Monday, December 26, 2011

Day 250 - Dead End

Dead End (1937) directed by William Wyler

"Stop snitchin'."

I've never heard of this film before but how could you go wrong with a Bogart gangster film? Bogart actually plays more of a supporting role in this film but is pretty slick in his scenes as Baby Face Martin, a notorious criminal who has just returned to his old stomping grounds in a neighborhood of New York City. The way the city is presented in this film is interesting because it reminds me of a lot of major cities today but more pronounced. During this time developers started to build fancy apartment buildings on the waterfront for rich folks right in the middle of the slum. The contrast between rich and poor couldn't be more pronounced as the residents of the fancy apartments step down out from Mt. Olympus into the real world. It is a stark reminder of the dichotomy that exists in our society. You won't really see this anymore because the poor people will eventually be squeezed out or the rich people will flee, but in many cities all you need to do is walk a couple blocks or take one subway stop over and you could go from a quiet upscale neighborhood and arrive in the ghettos.

In Dead End, the focus is on a young gang of kids who are well on their way to becoming good for nothing criminals. They are led by Tommy, a troubled youth who if movies have taught me anything is really a good kid at heart but lacks direction (unless you are from the City of God of course). There are a multitude of supporting characters in this film, including Tommy's sister Drina who looks after him, Dave, an honest but poor man and Baby Face Martin back in town to catch up on old times.

The performances are strong and watching a younger Bogart do his thing is pretty cool. The story has a surprising amount of depth to it as it deals with the issues of class and wealth, the troubled youth, Baby Face Martin's side story and elements of romance.

I really like how these old small neighborhoods look. There is a level of intimacy you get from this setting as opposed to a bigger picture. New York may be all of the lights, but it is also the corner where kids hang out and guys try to make an honest buck. It's no surprise that this film is an adaptation of a Broadway play; it is basically the same set throughout the film which goes to show that you don't need elaborate set pieces and exotic locations to tell a good story.

Grade: B+

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Day 249 - A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story (1983) directed by Bob Clark

Over the years I must have seen A Christmas Story half a dozen times in full but in bits and pieces and out of sequence during the 24 hour marathon on TNT or TBS. It is one of those rare films that you can just pick up in the middle and not miss a single beat, partly because you've already seen it a billion times, but also because the movie is more about capturing childhood memories than telling an actual story. Everybody remembers that one bully that terrorized everyone, the dorky love that mothers have for their children, the father who thinks he can do it all, what would happen if you were caught swearing, and that one present that you really really wanted, even if it would poke your eye out. Not only does A Christmas Story have undeniable charm and is outrageously funny, but it also remembers what it is like to be a kid. No, this movie isn't a shining example of cinema, you don't watch this for the cinematography or powerful performances, but it is perfect in its own ways. You watch it for the memories, for tradition, as part of a ritual, which is what the holidays are all about.

Merry Christmas!

Grade: A

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Day 248 - The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) directed by Henry Selick

Being the holiday season and all I decided to revisit an old classic that I haven't seen in a while. Quick question: is this a Halloween or Christmas movie? It is undoubtedly very dark and creepy whose protagonist is the King of Halloween, but it also does feature the earnest Christmas cheer and festivities, however misguided they may be. However you may view it, there hasn't been a movie quite like The Nightmare Before Christmas before or since its release in 1993.

The film makes perfect use of stop animation that gives the picture a sense of depth and visual texture that is so different from traditional animation. It kind of reminds me of those old shoebox dioramas we used to do in school. Each scene is carefully crafted and seemingly constructed from scratch. The world in which the movie inhabits is completely original and different from anything outside of a Tim Burton project. His greatest appeal as an artist, storyteller, and director is in his unique artistic vision. His worlds are dark and quirky, creepy and delightful. There is a playful mischievousness in his films that is both scary and wonderful. Just watching this art in motion is a treat in itself.

The story itself is fantastic. The idea that every holiday has its own special town isn't entirely original. After all, isn't that what the concept of the North Pole is? But the idea that another holiday would want to hijack another one is fresh, funny and because it's Halloween, a little scary. Who would have ever thought of mixing Halloween and Christmas together? Certainly not the kids who receive special presents this particular Christmas in the movie.

I seem to make this comment all the time now, but Blu-ray was meant for animated movies. In fact, I'd say you really haven't experienced The Nightmare Before Christmas until you've seen it in Blu-ray because the level of detail and picture quality are just amazing. I'm far from an expert in the matter, but it is hard to imagine this movie looking any better.

Grade: A

Friday, December 23, 2011

Day 247 - Howl's Moving Castle

Howl's Moving Castle (2004) directed by Hayao Miyazaki

One thing you can count on with a Hayao Miyazaki film is a unique fantasy driven story with great visual flair and artistry. His films, like Ponyo and Spirited Away, have a magical quality that transcends the stories which are typically free floating to begin with. His films are more about the path than the destination, not confined by the rules of conventional cinema or storytelling.

In Howl's Moving Castle, we see Miyazaki's vision at work in the form of the castle itself, a building that can walk, fly and shift in shape. We are introduced to the world of wizards and witches and moving castles through the heroine of the film Sophie. She is a sweet young girl who falls victim to a curse cast upon her by the wicked Witch of the Waste and is turned into a 90 year old woman. She finds refuge in this moving castle whose master is the enchanting wizard Howl. Howl is embroiled in a testy war between two nations where wizards and witches are the key.

The film's narrative is rather complex as it involves the war, Howl's backstory, and breaking Sophie's curse amongst other things. The story feels bogged down by its weight sometimes and unable to flow as freely as the magical castle, or more specifically like Miyazaki's other films. Much of the film's initial charm gets lost in the mix. Regardless, the film is still intriguing to watch if not for anything other than its visual storytelling. Sometimes Japanese animation may not make a whole lot of sense, but they undoubtedly create interesting and unique images on screen.

Oh, and big kudos to Billy Crystal's voice acting as Calcifer, who gives the character a lot of life. One minor issue I might have though on using really famous distinct voices is that all you see is the actor rather than the character on screen. Christian Bale plays the voice of Howl and there a couple scenes where he must speak in a whisper and I can't help but think that is Batman's growling voice!  But overall the voice acting here is pretty good and Billy Crystal is the man.

Grade: B-

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Day 246 - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) directed by David Fincher

I read the book and saw the original Swedish movie so this is actually the third time around for me with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Fincher's version doesn't deviate too much from the book and original film, capturing the story's look and feel to a tee, perhaps even better so. It is a well made movie (as Fincher's films almost always are) and is a captivating thriller full of sex, violence and intrigue.

Incidentally I actually think the book is wildly overrated. The story is cool and all but it's pretty poorly written in my opinion (though it may have something to do with the English translation). There is also a problem with the pacing of the book which wavers from tedious to exhilarating and this was one of my complaints with the original Swedish movie as well. I don't remember that much about it but I remember not being all that pleased with it. But there is an undeniable appeal to the story that is worth watching (or reading) and that is in one of the most interesting and unique characters you'll ever see in Lisbeth Salander.

The story revolves around Mikael Blomkvist's investigation of a mysterious murder forty years ago. He is helped by the girl who investigated him for this very job, Lisbeth Salander, whose very presence is as captivating as the story itself. She is a girl who undoubtedly kicks ass. She is incredibly intelligent and strong willed, but also has a whole slew of problems. She is violent, socially awkward and is the very definition of "doesn't fit in." The film is as much about her than the actual case itself and, indeed, a lot of time is given to her own personal twisted story. What happens to her is awful, but I think her response would give any feminist reason to cheer; she is a true badass.

The whole appeal to the book, and ultimately this film, is in the character of Lisbeth so it is important to interpret her in a way that is both faithful to the book and appealing for the screen. When Rooney Mara first appears on screen she looks odd with her jet black hair and faint blonde eyebrows, the weird haircut, the piercings, the constant deadpan expression, but then again Lisbeth is supposed to look odd. Yet the more I got to see her on screen the more I realized this look works. You are drawn to her unique qualities rather than her beauty alone.

The story is dark and twisted and the look matches the feel. It sort of reminded me of Fincher's other killer thrillers Se7en (my all time favorite serial killer movie) and Zodiac. Even when making pedestrian genre pictures like Panic Room or horribly conceived films like The Game, Fincher always manages to make his films look as good as possible. The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo is a very well made movie but there are some weaknesses in the film that lies in the source material itself. Part of the appeal of the book is in the detailed investigation of the mystery. As we read along it feels like we're side by side with Mikael trying to solve the case. However the film doesn't necessarily capture this feeling. It's almost impossible to anyways without making this movie four hours long explaining every single detail verbatim. We see Mikael and Lisbeth trying to piece things together but they don't bother explaining things to the viewer. There are a myriad of characters and clues to sift through and the film sort of gives a perfunctory look at their thought process in the case. (At least this is what my sister, who's never read the book, complained about.) I also generally dislike stories with extended scenes after the climax. There is a separate side story that I didn't really care that much about to begin with (partly because the film itself sort of glosses over it) that takes an additional ten to fifteen minutes in an already lengthy movie. In the book, it feels even longer. Despite those minor complaints, I really enjoyed the film. It is a great thriller that is well made and obviously has the ever interesting Lisbeth Salander as its highlight.

Grade: B

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Day 245 - Young Adult

Young Adult (2011) directed by Jason Reitman

So he moves with his peers, different blocks, different years/
Sitting on, different benches like it's musical chairs/
All his peoples moved on in life, he's on the corners at night/
with young dudes it's them he wanna be like/
It's sad but it's fun to him right? He never grew up/
31 and can't give his youth up, he's in his second childhood.
                               - Nas, 2nd Childhood

In Young Adult, Charlize Theron's character Mavis has escaped the small town of Mercury and moved to the big city Minneapolis where she's living the life, sort of. In the beginning portions of the film we see scenes of her lonely life in her apartment, clearly unhappy, or at the very least, bored. It just goes to show that home and happiness is whatever you make of it. Just because you move to a big city it doesn't mean your life will magically become better. I know this personally because I've recently moved from a suburb to an apartment in a big city and I've found that my life is pretty much exactly the same.

Mavis is particularly perturbed to receive an e-mail from her old high school sweetheart Buddy announcing the birth of his daughter with his wife. Determined to change something in her life, Mavis has the great idea of returning back to Mercury to rekindle her relationship with Buddy, wife and baby be damned. Clearly she has problems. Young Adult isn't quite like Sweet Home Alabama where Reece Witherspoon gets in touch with her past and finds happiness was in Alabama all along. Here, Mavis couldn't really give a damn. She is immature, cynical and selfish and just when you think she might turn the corner, she makes you dislike her even more.

Given the premise and the way the film progresses, you know this cannot end well for Mavis. She thinks she will find happiness in her past and is desperate to recapture something, anything, but she must first realize the problem is with herself. She is a alcoholic train wreck and it is just a matter of how big the explosion is going to be. What is so strange, and perhaps great, about the film is that it doesn't lead you anywhere you'd expect normal films to go, but is exactly what you'd expect if this happened in real life. Mavis's lunacy and horrible personality may be somewhat of a stretch, but there is something about her that has a ring of painful reality to it. She is a bitter lonely thirty-something year old woman on the verge of an emotional, perhaps mental breakdown, how else would you expect this go for her?

In the wake of her derailment there is a crucial moment of vulnerability where we can finally feel for her and think, "Finally, she is ready to change." Unfortunately she finds the wrong shoulder to cry on and pretty much gets the worst pep talk ever. I won't go into what is said and how she responds to it, only that it is unexpected yet so fitting.

This is really a wonderfully morose film that at times can be frustrating to watch. There are some scenes where I was physically uncomfortable, even shielding my eyes, because I was so deeply embarrassed and sorry for Mavis. The key to the film is in Charlize Theron's performance. She has given some great performances over the years and this is no exception. She works hard at making us dislike her, yet we so desperately want her to change for the better. One thing I will say is that this film is listed as a comedy, and there are some funny moments, but this is definitely not Juno, Jason Reitman's and Diablo Cody's last project together. Young Adult isn't a coming of age story, it's about how some people cling onto their pasts as a means of hope for their future.

Grade: B

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Day 244 - Iron Monkey

Iron Monkey (1993) directed by Yuen Woo-ping

I have a special place in my heart for martial arts pictures. These are the kind of movies I grew up watching as a kid. Even when I could barely keep up with the subtitles I could still take delight in the high flying acrobatics and kick ass heroes and heroines on screen. And let's be honest, that is really the only reason why you watch these movies in the first place, to watch the fighting and crazy stunts.

Iron Monkey is a great example of this formula. It is an action comedy that doesn't take itself too seriously whose foundation is in its amazing fight sequences. Kung fu pictures are a lot like musicals in a way; there is a certain rhythm and pace to the story which sets up the inevitable fight scenes. This movie is loaded wall to wall with action scenes with enough story to hold it all together and to make you actually care.

The Iron Monkey is a Robin Hood type figure who terrorizes the local government and helps out poor peasants. By day he is Dr. Yang, a doctor at a clinic who helps the needy, by night he runs across rooftops in black like Zorro. He runs into a problem in the form of the other hero of the film, a passerby named Wong Kei-ying (the father of the legendary Wong Fei-hung), who is forced to try to capture the Iron Monkey. Naturally Wong befriends Yang, but if only he knew who he really was! Dun dun dun. All is well though when Wong and the Iron Monkey realize they have a common enemy in the corrupt government and an evil ex-Shaolin monk.

Something that may put some people off is the sort of campiness of the film. There are some definite cornball moments, but Iron Monkey is meant to be more Rush Hour than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The story is kind of generic, but it is a good combination of fun and breezy with enough seriousness and sentiment to it to make you care. But all that is sort of secondary anyways to the fighting sequences which are quite fantastic. Yuen Woo-ping, the fight choreographer of The Matrix, Crouching Tiger and Kill Bill, is renowned for good reason. There is a delicate grace and excitement to his choreography that is as artful as any ballet. The climatic finale is as innovative and thrilling to watch as any. In it, the Iron Monkey and Wong face off against the evil monk on top of a series of wooden poles rising above a pit of fire. Great stuff.

Grade: B

Monday, December 19, 2011

Day 243 - Nobody Knows

Nobody Knows (2004) directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

A mother and son move into a new apartment carefully carrying heavy suitcases. When the coast is clear they open up the suitcases to reveal two younger children who take delight in their stealth. An older girl who cannot fit in a suitcase waits outside. There is a playful carefree attitude about this odd family, but something is clearly not right. What kind of mother would even think of sneaking two of her kids around in suitcases in the first place? Tragically, the type of mother to leave her children alone for weeks at a time until finally one trip, she doesn't come back at all. The four children are abandoned and left on their own for months without notice from anyone else. Sadly, this is based on a true story.

Nobody Knows is an achingly painful story of neglect, yet is also beautiful in the power and will of the children left behind. Akira, at just 12 years old, is now the head of the house and must take care of his three siblings, brother Shigeru, 7, and sisters Kyoko, 10, and Yuki, 5. Yuki is as cute as a button. Fearful of being split apart by child services and in the hope that their mother may one day return, the four of them live their secret lives in the apartment, shockingly without notice. When they run out of money and the rent is overdue and the gas and lights have been shut off, they still manage.

Much of the film is watching their idle lives. While other kids go to school, the kids spend their days locked up in the apartment like Anne Frank. The majority of the film takes place in the increasingly squalid apartment. Only Akira really goes outside as he tries to scrounge up food and money to survive. The moment that the four of them can all go outside to to the park is such a relief, perhaps more so to the viewer than the kids. At times the film is suffocating in its somberness.

They pick up a friend, a young girl around Akira's age. She hangs out with them and in these moments kids are allowed to be kids. But when she wants to help them out with money, she resorts to picking up an older man at a bar and then leaves with a handful of money. I am reminded of the heartbreaking scene in Chop Shop and we realize these are just kids living in a grown up world. There is only so much kids can do and you know it cannot end well, but you pray to find any glimmer of hope so that when the movie ends you know they will be okay. The ending is so brutally sad, but the kids are not broken; they continue to survive showing the power of the human spirit. Hirokazu Kore-eda, who directed one of my favorite films I've seen in this project, Still Walking, is wonderful at showing understated emotion and beautifully quiet filmmaking.

Grade: A

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Day 242 - The Naked City

The Naked City (1948) directed by Jules Dassin

Back in the day I used to watch Law and Order reruns on TNT basically every day during that lull in TV programming right before NBA action. Everybody likes a good police procedural as evidenced by all the Law and Order, CSI, NCIS, Criminal Mind type shows out there. The Naked City is labeled as a film noir but it is basically a 90 minute episode of one of these shows.

A woman is killed by two men in her apartment. We must figure out who it is and take the step by step process in uncovering the crime. There is minimal side story or extraneous action; it is all about the investigation which feels like how they might have done it back in the day.

The investigation is interesting but nothing out of the ordinary; it's all about exhausting leads and questioning witnesses. It's a slow moving case that picks up steam as more secrets and clues are revealed until the explosive finale where they finally get their man. This final chase is actually quite fantastic and feels almost like a Hitchcock film, a nice reward for the viewer for helping solve the crime. And that is really why these stories are so popular; everyone likes to play cops and killers, thinking they are smart or tough enough to solve the case.

The Naked City is set in New York City and the setting is almost a character in itself. This is thanks to the award winning cinematography of the film which captures the feel of the city. There is also a strange narration to the film which is at times a little off putting. The problem is that the narrator doesn't really have anything insightful to say to add to the film; if anything it detracts from it. Other than that though, I'd have to say that this film is an enjoyable watch and a solid early example of the police procedural that we've all grown accustomed to.

Grade: B-

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Day 241 - Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1

Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 (2011) directed by Bill Condon

Within the first five minutes of Breaking Dawn I laughed harder in a theater than I could remember in a long time. I've learned a while ago that if you treat certain movies as comedies, it'll make your movie watching experience much better. This is particularly true for movies you know are going to suck.

The scene in question? Lovebirds Edward and Bella gazing intently into each others eyes professing their devotion to each other the night before their wedding with cheesy sentimental music playing in the background. The Twilight series has produced some of the cheesiest dialogue and melodrama I've ever seen. I'm sure it all sounds nice when you're reading it in a book, but certain things should never be said aloud.

It also doesn't help that the series has been horribly acted. To be fair, you can't really blame the actors because of the inane material they have to work with but still... Why does Edward always look like someone just stole his lunch money? Why does he always come across as a whiny little girl? Can he raise his voice above a seductive whisper? Taylor Lautner only takes his shirt off once in the entire film. WTF is up with that? When he's given a shirt and some meatier lines, he fails big time. Kristen Stewart has actually gotten a lot better over the course of the series and is the best actor of the three leads (after easily being the worst) but that's like saying she's really tall for a midget.

Ironically my real complaint with the film is that it's not bad enough which makes the film kind of boring. One thing I could count on from the other movies was to be mildly entertaining, but here they slow the pace waaaaaaay down to a painful halt. The beginning wedding scene is meant to be dreamy, and it is, when it puts you to sleep (I can write bad as well). The middle honeymoon scenes are meant to be romantic, but it focuses so much on this teenage sex angle that it sort of detracts from the overall film. I know it is Bella's first time and all and is supposed to resonate with the franchise's primary demographic, but let's try to focus a little more on vampires and werewolves and demon babies okay? The last third of the film is when the action sort of picks up but not really. Also I don't remember the werewolves looking so bad in previous films, but in this film the CGI looks particularly bad. At least I got to laugh at the growling psychic conversations between the wolves.

Unfortunately Breaking Dawn Part 1 is probably the least funny of the four films so far which also makes it the most disappointing. Hopefully Part 2 will be both funnier and livelier once all the tedious set up has gotten out of the way.

Grade: C-

Friday, December 16, 2011

Day 240 - Y Tu Mama Tambien

Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) directed by Alfonso Cuaron

I'm finding a really hard time coming up with something to write about so I'll just make a couple observations and random thoughts rather than some kind of long winded essay. Hopefully these observations will amount to something meaningful and I would have done this film some justice.

Y Tu Mama Tambien is a road trip coming of age story with super heightened eroticism and sexuality. While I'm still trying to grasp the meaning of it all, I'll just say that I enjoyed the film but didn't really love it as I hoped I would. It seems strange to say that you were disappointed in a film that you really liked; I just guess my expectations were absurdly high after all the good things I've heard. My main concern was that I didn't really understand or couldn't identify that unique quality that puts this film over the top, so I'm not going to try to pretend by commenting on something I really don't understand. But by that same token, there is undoubtedly something special going on in the film. Maybe it is the natural chemistry of the three characters or the adventure together that hooked me in, but I was intrigued all the way through. Maybe I'm just like Tenoch and Julio at heart, overzealous kids preoccupied with sex.

One thing that kind of bugged me was just how obnoxious Tenoch and Julio are. They're not massive douchebags or anything, but just annoying enough to get under my skin. I can only imagine how I was at their age, basically an immature kid (I still am one, but that's a different matter all together). That's why the whole cougar angle seemed so bizarre to me. What does this sophisticated older woman Luisa see in these two kids? They are so beneath her, intellectually, emotionally and sexually, as I would imagine it is in the majority of these scenarios. I think it typically boils down to some women like the eagerness and exuberance (read horniness) of young men and like to teach.

Isn't it kind of hypocritical of Luisa to be so upset at her cheating husband yet seduce these two young kids who have girlfriends of their own? Yet when you look back on key scenes you realize this is not what she is really upset about. Knowing what you know at the end it reveals a lot of her motivations and action throughout the film. The same can be said of the relationship between Tenoch and Julio after you see the key scene at the end.

Since Tenoch always wanted to be a writer I just assumed that he was the narrator of film telling this road story sometime in the future. I wonder if that is how others saw it as well.

I know this feels incomplete and all but I'm sad to admit that all of this took me over 90 minutes to think of and write. I've been feeling the drag of this project the past month or so. Hopefully I can come out of this funk.

Grade: B+

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Day 239 - Trainspotting

Trainspotting (1996) directed by Danny Boyle

Trainspotting hits the ground running as we see Ewan McGregor's character Renton being pursued by security guards on foot. This is how we are introduced to film's crazy world of addiction, mayhem and mischef. We are in for a wild ride.

What is the worst part about addiction? In my opinion it isn't the actual thing you're addicted to, whether it be drinking, gambling, drugs, porn, whatever, but everything else around it. Your addiction becomes a problem when it affects your every day life, consumes your thoughts, becomes the only thing you truly enjoy. When people quit drugs, it isn't necessarily the high that they miss that makes it so tough, it is tough because regular life is so unbearable. When Renton attempts to stay clean he finds that "once the pain goes away, that's when the real battles starts. Depression, boredom... You feel so fucking low, you want to fucking top yourself."

This film is a highly energetic mess and I mean that in a good way. The chaotic and hectic pace of the film fits perfectly well with the lives that the characters are leading. Perhaps the most memorable scene of the film is when Renton goes to literally the worst bathroom in all of Scotland and reaches into a toilet to find drugs. He reaches so deep that he dives right into it and suddenly he is swimming in a wide open ocean. Great stuff. There is no real singular plot to the story other than these friends' drugged out adventures and Renton's on and off attempts to stay clean.

There are the depressing aspects of addiction, the dilapidated and squalid crack houses, the painful bouts of withdrawal, the soul sucking depression and isolation. In one scene, a baby is found dead in her crib due to neglect. Yet, this film isn't quite Requiem for a Dream, there are the good times as well. The film's energy and humor give the film a certain bounce and pep to it as to not drag the viewer down in all its despair.

Trainspotting is about addiction but it is also about the friendship formed around it. Think about all the friends you have and ask yourself why you are friends with them. Is it because they are nice? Are they funny? You guys both like the same team? Somewhere near the bottom of the list should be because you like to share needles. As Renton tries to get clean he slowly begins to realize this about the people he hangs out with. Would he really be friends with the raging psychopath Begbie if they weren't in the same grimy underworld?

SPOILER: It makes the ending somewhat heartbreaking but fitting when Renton takes the money. He realizes that their friendship has run its course. It is uplifting though that he left money behind for Spud, who Renton genuinely likes and recognizes as a nice guy that hasn't hurt anybody. END SPOILER

Grade: B+

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Day 238 - Dirty Harry

Dirty Harry (1971) directed by Don Siegel

"I know what you're thinking. "Did he fire six shots or only five?" Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"

I've always wanted to see Clint (we're on a first name basis) say this line in context and I got to say, it is every bit as badass as I'd imagined it'd be. As far as I'm concerned, Dirty Harry is one of the pillars of the cop and killer genre and even at 40 years old, it doesn't feel dated at all. It has a perfect combination of action, suspense and pure bad-assery. It also features a worthy villain who is every bit as psychotic as the hero is awesome which is so rare in films.

The main star is obviously Clint, who plays Harry Callahan, the prototypical tough cop that plays by his own rules. He must catch a sadistic killer who calls himself Scorpio. Scorpio tests the bounds of Callahan's morality and duty as a police officer. In the battle between good and evil, evil has an advantage because they are not bound by any rules. Callahan must play by Scorpio's rules in order to beat him. This doesn't mean that evil prevails or is the best way, just that things are rarely ever black and white. I absolutely believe that the criminals deserves certain rights, but at the same time some scum simply have to be punished. It is the eternal gray area in the fight between the good guys and bad guys. Never mind all of that though, this film is simply a pleasure to watch, a superb action drama and one of Clint's memorable performances.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Day 237 - The Descendants

The Descendants (2011) directed by Alexander Payne

It's never easy to say goodbye especially when there are still unresolved issues in the air. That is why you often hear the expression "They took the easy way out" when someone dies because the departed doesn't have to deal with all the mess left behind. In The Descendants, Matt King is left alone to raise his two daughters when his wife is put in a coma after a boating accident. When there is no hope left for her, the doctors must eventually pull the plug as dictated by her will.

But Matt is not able to grieve for his loss. He has too much on his plate at the moment. His family and his relatives are the descendants of one of the original white land owners in Hawaii and he is the sole trustee of the estate. He must soon decide what to with the land before the trust dissolves in seven years. But on a personal level, there are still unresolved issues between Matt and his wife. He discovers that she has been cheating on him, but only after the news that she will die.

Matt is devastated and angry. In a particularly scathing scene, he lets loose on her knowing she cannot hear him, venting all the ill will he was never able to express to her before. It is cold and vindictive, but he feels cheated not just by her but by the situation. She got off easy. But when his angry daughter Alexandra attempts to do the same, he will not let her last words to her mother be so callous. Matt is also the sole trustee of his daughters now as well and for the first time must be a real father. The film is partly about how to deal with loss, but at the same time it is about moving on.

The Descendants falls under the category of comedic drama, or dramady, and there is a fine balance between light hearted humor and the serious emotion and intelligence the film shows. It deals with the disruptive nature of adultery and the sadness of death, but it isn't overly morose as to feel suffocating. There is the quest to seek out his wife's lover that feels almost like a comedy adventure, though the pain and anguish Matt feels is all too real. It is a fine balance. George Clooney is excellent as Matt as he shows a wide range of conflicted emotion and subtle humor. This is one of his better performances in one of his better films.

Grade: A-

Monday, December 12, 2011

Day 236 - The Gold Rush

The Gold Rush (1925) directed by Charlie Chaplin

The version of The Gold Rush that I watched is actually a 1942 re-release where Chaplin composed an original score and added a voice narration, so this isn't actually a silent film per say. It is a sort of in-between film that adds a more modern approach to one of his old classics. I think I would have preferred to see the original silent version because of how universally acclaimed it was but this narrated version is very well done so it is hard to complain. Whether there is a voice or not in the film, the main focal point is in Chaplin's penchant for visual comedy and heart felt storytelling which The Gold Rush oozes with.

Here we follow the familiar Tramp on his exploits to the Alaskan frontier where he tries his hand at prospecting for gold. The first twenty-five minutes of the film are pretty interesting because they don't necessarily relate to the main story and plays out like a situational comedy. In these moments The Tramp is trapped in a cabin with two other people in the middle of a severe snow storm. These moments have classic moments of silent film style comedy but is also surprisingly quite morbid. So stricken with hunger The Tramp and Big Jim must resort to eating a shoe. Big Jim becomes so hungry that The Tramp starts to look tasty himself as he visualizes him as a giant chicken. It is meant to be funny, and it is, but I couldn't help but think of the movie Alive where plane crash survivors had to resort to cannibalism to survive the winter. Nevertheless these early moments are classic Chaplin that you can't help but smile at.

Once The Tramp survives that ordeal there is the familiar romance of the lovable loser and the girl, this time the lonely saloon dancer Georgia. One of the criticisms I've read of Chaplin was his excessive sentimentality but why does that have to be a bad thing? True, in his movies The Tramp can do no wrong, he is utterly faithful and chivalrous, but is it so wrong to aspire to this ideal? The Gold Rush isn't nearly as sentimental as City Lights, but it is charming and heart warming nonetheless.

This film also features some great set pieces, including a house hanging precariously over a cliff. It looks obviously fake 85 years later (it's obviously a miniature model) but I always get a kick out these old time effects. Even knowing how silly it looks, there is still a sense of danger and excitement to the scene as The Tramp narrowly avoids plummeting to his death.

The Gold Rush is considered one of Chaplin's classics but to me it is clearly a level below City Lights and Modern Times, but only because those are all time greats. To me, this is more on the level of The Circus, which isn't a bad thing at all.

Grade: A-

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Day 235 - Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) directed by Charles Reisner and Buster Keaton

If there is one iconic shot from Buster Keaton's career and perhaps all of silent cinema it may be this one. Keaton is standing in front of a rickety old house and suddenly the face of house falls forward on top of him with only the open attic window preventing him from becoming a human pancake. Without even flinching, the window fits neatly around Keaton as the house falls down. It is a simple yet remarkable stunt and showed the courage of technical know-how of the early pioneers.

In Steamboat Bill, Jr., Keaton plays Willie Canfield returning home to see his father Steamboat Bill, captain of an old riverboat on its last legs. Bill Sr. is in the middle of a feud with John James King who's just completed a brand new luxurious riverboat meant to drive him out of business. King has a daughter, Kitty, who is also returning home. As luck would have it, Willie and Kitty have a Romeo and Juliet style romance going on much to the chagrin of their parents. Willie must work hard to prove himself to his disapproving father and to prove his love to Kitty.

There are classic bits of silent comedy and sight gags you would expect from a silent film and it moves along nicely, but it is not until a violent storm comes through that the fireworks really begin. The stunt work in the latter parts of this movie are quite spectacular including the aforementioned falling house scene.

I know I am working from a limited sample size of two, this and The General, but at this point I think it's safe to say that I prefer Chaplin over Keaton. While I think Keaton is by far the better stuntman, I think Chaplin is actually a better physical comedian and his films are just funnier. But not only that, they are also more heartfelt and leave a lasting impression. Though Steamboat Bill, Jr. has a richer plot than Modern Times, City Lights or The Circus, I didn't connect with it like I did in Chaplin's films. Even though there is a romance and a father-son dynamic in the film, I didn't really feel it. That isn't to say Keaton is an unconvincing actor or his films lack sentiment or emotion, I just wasn't into it like that. It is like when you hear a singer's voice. Many people can sing well, but often times your personal favorite isn't going to be the one with the best voice but the one with the unique quality that connects personally to you. All that being said, I think Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a fine movie and probably better than The General in my opinion.

Grade: B+

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Day 234 - The Game

The Game (1997) directed by David Fincher

I'm typically pretty forgiving when it comes to whether or not something is believable or even possible in a movie, it is a movie after all, but sometimes something is just so absurd it cannot be ignored. The Game is such a film. The premise is promising in its tense mystery but soon you begin to realize, "There's just no frigging way." This is one of the most ridiculous and contrived movies I have ever seen in my life.

Michael Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orton, a powerful business man in complete control of his life and the world around him. He is talked into participating in a mysterious game run by an equally mysterious company named Consumer Recreation Services. We have no idea what this game is other than it will teach Van Orton a valuable lesson. "I once was blind and now I can see," someone tells him. Soon everything starts to go wrong for him as his world starts to fall apart. The stakes of this game are much more than Nicholas bargained for. As the movie progresses, Nicholas finds himself in increasingly ridiculous situations that you just have to pause for a second and ask yourself, "What is going on?"

The problem is that I sort of guessed what was going on, but I refused to believe that the film would be so stupid as to actually try to pull it off. The whole point of the game is to try to teach Nicholas about what is really important to him, but the whole concept of the game being played is just so grandiose and absurd. Did I mention that it is absurd? The last fifteen minutes of the movie is typical movie BS that seems like a test to see how stupid they think the viewer is.

SPOILER: The fact that the game is actually real is predictable Hollywood nonsense that you can see a mile away but that is not even what really bothers me. (The whole rooftop confrontation has been done so many times and they almost always suck.) That the game is made to be some huge life affirming reality check for Nicholas is beyond retarded. That is the problem with these types of movies with such grand ideas; the pay off almost never lives up to the expectations set by the premise. Oh, so you mean to tell me that Nicholas's first reaction when the ordeal is all over is to thank his brother and not be super pissed? Please. END SPOILER

David Fincher is a great director, there is no question about it, but the material he works with here is just so weak. Yes, there are tense suspenseful moments, but when these scenes are so wildly unbelievable to begin with, they no longer become suspenseful and only add on to your incredulity. End rant.

Grade: D

Friday, December 9, 2011

Day 233 - Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) directed by Werner Herzog

I like documentaries that inform, interest and entertain me on subjects that I know very little about. A really good documentary can make any subject matter seem important and made interesting. What surprised me then about the critically acclaimed Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which has a very interesting subject matter, was how tedious and dare I say boring it felt. I felt like the film didn't really capture the power of the paintings of the Chauvet Cave. These paintings, the oldest known in the world at over 30,000 years old, are incredible to think about and quite remarkable to look at but I didn't get that "wow" feeling that Herzog was going for. The narration felt long winded and overly preachy. I feel like this would have been much better as a 1 hour TV special rather than a full length 90 minute film. But I will give the film the benefit of the doubt for a couple reasons.

The first is that a film like this simply had to be made. People should know about these cave paintings. It is a historically significant site that helps us understand what it means to be human. Even in our earliest days when we were struggling for survival amongst fearsome creatures and Neanderthals that threatened our very existence, we took time to paint. We loved art and music just as we do now. It has always been a part of who we are, what makes us special. This is a truly powerful idea whether you feel the film conveys it or not.

If you study the cave paintings closely, you would be astonished just how detailed they are. These weren't just some simple stick figure drawings etched out in the rock. They could easily be mistaken for sketches that Picasso drew.

This film was actually shot and filmed in 3-D. Herzog wanted the viewer to see the dimensions and curvatures of the cave and how the paintings sat on the dynamic surfaces. I could definitely see this being amazing, but unfortunately I could only watch it in 2D so I didn't that extra oomph that moviegoers got in theatre.

Overall I wasn't really feeling Cave of Forgotten Dreams because I don't think the film really captured the power of the caves, though I could appreciate it. I can't say I wholly recommend it but it is at least worth skimming through to sort of experience it.

Grade: C+

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Day 232 - Waiting for Superman

Waiting for Superman (2010) directed by Davis Guggenheim

Imagine your kid's future being decided by random luck. If your kid gets chosen he or she will be able to attend a charter school that does better than even the glitziest private school. He or she will graduate high school, likely go to college and get a good job and exceed in life. If your kid doesn't get picked he or she will have to go to the local public school where, in some schools in America, have an astronomical 80% drop out rate. He or she will be exponentially more likely to wind up in prison, die at an early age, or live at or below the poverty line his or her entire life. Your chances of winning this lottery? About 1 in 20. That means 19 in 20 will wind up at the mercy of a public school where the odds are stacked against them to succeed before they even set foot inside. The fact that we even need these lotteries just for our kids to have a chance at a decent education is indicative of just how far America's education system has fallen. In Waiting for Superman we follow five kids who enter the lottery in hopes of getting into a better school. I won't say who gets in and who does or if any do at all. That is sort of besides the point, their stories are just one of many all across the country. The ridiculousness of the lottery, despite being fair and unbiased, just goes to show that our school system does not work.

If there is one thing to take away from this film, I would say it is the power of teachers. There is no greater impact on a kid's education than a teacher. A really good one can improve a kid's proficiency by several grades in one year. A really bad one can actually lower it. This is partly why charter, private and prep schools are so successful, they can handpick their own teachers, whereas public schools are stuck with their teachers basically forever. For as much as people talk about how little teachers get paid, they actually have it pretty good in another way. They are virtually impossible to fire once they've gotten tenure, whose only requirement is to teach for a certain amount of years regardless of how good they are at their job. It takes nothing short of being a serial killer to get fired once you've gotten tenure. There have even been instances of child molesters who could not be fired. (A teacher at my elementary school was still teaching while he was under investigation for child molestation.) The teachers' union as a whole would like to keep it this way to protect the bad and ineffective teachers, but at the same time it actually hurts the good ones. Everything in the union is based on seniority rather than performance. Teachers would be wise in the long run to abandon this tenure system and actually reward their good teachers and cut off some dead weight.

If I ever have kids I think I would like them to go to a private school. Taking a vested interest in their education is the best thing you could for your kids. For more on the subject of America's education, I'd suggest That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, which has a very informative and logical section on why education is so important to our future.

Grade: B

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Day 231 - Days of Heaven

Days of Heaven (1978) directed by Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick is described as an artist first, film maker second and it shows in his films. Days of Heaven is one of the best looking films I've ever seen. Every scene is like one of those classic paintings of the rustic countryside with sunsets, red skies and vast sweeping fields. At times the movie almost feels like a series of paintings rather than a film. Days of Heaven is a strange movie because it places so much emphasis on the look and feel of the film and purposely downplays the story by keeping it a distance.

The story is about two lovers, Bill and Abby, who go to Texas after Bill kills a boss in a dispute. The two of them, along with Bill's sister Linda, work as farmhands for a wealthy but dying farmer. Bill and Abby devise a scheme for Abby to marry the farmer so that when he dies she will get the money and they can live happily ever after. Enter love triangle, welcome typical drama. It would seem like a pretty complex and rich story filled with human drama but it doesn't really play out that way. The story is observed rather than experienced. Heated arguments are seen from a distance but never heard. We never really see the moments of tenderness between the adults. This is because the film is told from the perspective of the little sister Linda rather than any of the three principle characters. She narrates the film with a profound sadness perhaps out of longing or the inevitable failure of the love triangle. We don't feel the emotion in the film because she doesn't feel them. Yet I wouldn't say this film isn't emotional. There is true beauty in the images on screen which can be just as moving as a well defined story. The setting captures this moment, these days of heaven, with such beauty yet also reflects upon them with deep sorrow, if that makes any sense. Linda's narration is also quite chilling which adds to this feeling. I don't think the film is particularly deep or anything but it isn't simply pretty pictures either.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Day 230 - The Wages of Fear

The Wages of Fear (1953) directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

The Wages of Fear is the original Ice Road Truckers, the popular TV show about truck drivers who risk their lives delivering goods on dangerous roads. In this movie four men go on a suicide mission to drive highly explosive nitroglycerine across 300 miles of dangerous road where any little bump or mishap could cause them all to blow up.

First I'd just like to point out that once the trucks are on the road, the film is very exciting and suspenseful.  It is a truly great thriller. However, I could have done without the thirty minute set up that doesn't even really set it up. In the early scenes we come across a poor South American town where people are sort of trapped. There are no good jobs and it is virtually impossible to leave because tickets out are so expensive. This could have been established in 15 minutes top but instead we are treated to extended scenes that don't amount to much and it's not like they are brimming with character development. We learn far more about the characters once they are on the road.

When they finally do hit the road it is pretty amazing how long the film can hold the tension. I think the key is that the four characters are divided into two trucks. We know that they must get further otherwise the movie will end prematurely but we do not know the rules of the story. Will both trucks make it out or will one blow up? Or maybe they both blow up? There are several major hazards on the road that the trucks must navigate that are filmed with great suspense. One is where they must maneuver past a creaky wooden part of the road that hangs precariously off the cliff. It is daring and dangerous in all the obvious ways we can see. Another is when a huge rock blocks the pathway and they decide to use some of the nitroglycerine to blow it up. While in the other scene we can see just how close the trucks are to the edge, in this scene all the tension is implied because while handling the nitroglycerine they could blow up at any moment with even the tiniest mishap. You know all those movies where the hero must diffuse the bomb while the timer ticks down to zero? During this entire film the timer is stuck at :01.

Another important part to the film is in the characters and how they handle themselves. The team of Luigi and Bimba are kind of secondary characters but they are given ample screen time to gain or sympathies. The conflict of the film is between Mario and Jo. It turns out that Jo is a coward but what is interesting to me is that the film doesn't really go in the direction I expected with him. Semi-spoiler in white: There never really is a moment of redemption for him. He basically sucks throughout the whole film. I thought the final sequence was pretty interesting and also very unconventional compared to the typical Hollywood ending. It is a little nihilistic but that isn't really a bad thing.

The Wages of Fear is a great thriller but could have used a bit of trimming. My only other complaint is that Mario and Luigi should have been on the same team! (Also they got it backwards here, the short chubby guy with the mustache should have bene named Mario while the tall skinny guy Luigi.)

Grade: B+

Monday, December 5, 2011

Day 229 - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) directed by David Hand

Snow White is so famous that it invariably comes up from time to time so that it remains relatively fresh in my memory. Or that it is so influential that it has become a permanent fixture in my consciousness. I haven't seen this film since I was a little kid, but I feel like I could just throw it on and be familiar with it like an old friend I hadn't talked to in a while. Who could ever forget "Mirror mirror on the wall"? Who could forget the names of the seven dwarfs? (Well, I could. I just watched the film and I don't think I can name them all.) But perhaps more so than the historical significance of the film, it is the very first full length animated feature, or the familiar story any eight year old could recite, it is the feeling you get when you watch this film that leaves the greatest impression. There are a lot of films, even some great ones, that are pretty forgettable. You name a good movie and sometimes the only thing that comes to mind is "That was a pretty good movie." But you name a timeless classic like Snow White and you're not just talking about a movie, you're talking about a piece of your childhood and terms like magical, wonderful and enchanting get thrown around.

Snow White isn't my favorite Disney movie but it is perhaps the one that I respect the most for what it accomplished and the influence it would have. Yeah the story is kind of simple and contrived, but you can't help but admire its charm. I will say that I didn't remember this film being so frightening. You got this evil queen who wants Snow White's heart in a box for crying out loud. There is the huntsman who sneaks up behind Snow White and is about to Norman Bates her. When she flees through the woods it turns alive trying to eat her. These are pretty frightening images to little girls. And let's not even talk about the scene when the seven dwarfs sneak up on the sleeping Snow White. I've seen many videos start this way, haha. (I feel like I had to add in the haha to lighten that comment otherwise you'd just think I was a sick pervert. I take serious offense to being called sick!)

The animation is quite excellent and looks fantastic on Blu-ray, perhaps not quite as good as Bambi, but still pretty impressive. It's kind of insane to think that this entire thing is hand drawn and a single scene could take days if not weeks to do (though I'm sure working with computers present its own set of problems).

There isn't really much else I can say about the film. It kind of speaks for itself.

Grade: A-

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Day 228 - Skin

Skin (2008) directed by Anthony Fabian

Skin tells the true story of Sandra Laing who struggled her entire life to find her identity in South Africa during apartheid. Her parents are white, but she is unmistakably dark skinned. This is odd, though should not be surprising. After all, as a geneticist in the film states, "many and perhaps most Afrikaners have some non-white blood." In her parents eyes, Sandra is unquestionably white. They raise and love her like any other white child and are outraged when others treat her differently. Her father fights all the way to the Supreme Court to ensure that Sandra is classified as white and eventually gets his way. However, a piece of paper cannot shield Sandra from the realities of the world around her; she is still seen as black and quickly realizes just how different she really is despite what her parents say.

Ironically it is Sandra's father who would cause her the most grief. Just because he has fought for and accepted her it does not mean he accepts blacks. He works closely with them at the store, but is decidedly distant. He tells his wife harshly to do business with them, not talk with them. So when Sandra finds she has more in common with Petrus, a black man, rather than the white men her parents set her on dates with, he is furious. When she runs off with Petrus he disowns her. Sandra is stuck between two worlds. She is neither white or black. In a twist of irony she must go back to the records office where her father once fought for her to be classified as white to become reclassified as black so she can legally live with Petrus and their mixed child; otherwise she is breaking the law. When Petrus grows to resent Sandra's whiteness, she is left all alone rejected by both sides.

The story focuses more on the family drama and Sandra's search for identity rather than the political landscape of the time. There is no need for Mandela or protestors to make appearances because we can see the injustice in Sandra's very existence. It is a compelling story told convincingly by Sophie Okonedo's performance as Sandra spanning several decades. The emotional pay off at the end is rather subdued and not as uplifting or satisfying as one would expect. That is okay though, sometimes we don't need the extra sentimental Hollywood ending to make it work. Just because apartheid ended it doesn't magically erase the emotional turmoil that Sandra had to go through her whole life.

Grade: B

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Day 227 - Hugo in 3D

Hugo (2011) directed by Martin Scorsese

I'll just start off by saying that Hugo makes the best use of 3-D I've ever seen in a film which is pretty remarkable considering it is Martin Scorcese's first big budget special effects feature. What is an old school legend known for his gripping dramas doing making a CGI laden kid's fantasy adventure story? It is easy to forget that even adults were once kids. Undoubtedly young Martin Scorcese daydreamed and fantasized like the rest of us. As a child he was immediately drawn to the magical qualities of film, a wonderful medium for which to tell stories and express dreams and wonder. How fitting is it then that his first children's movie is basically about movies.

Hugo is a young orphan who lives in a Paris train station. He lives behind the walls and goes about maintaining all the clocks in the station incognito, a job left to him by his drunk uncle who left him. His daily routine is fixing the clocks, stealing food and avoiding capture by the station's inspector who loves nothing more than to snatch up orphans. Hugo's real passion however is fixing an old automaton, a robot of sorts, that he and his father were working on before he unexpectedly died. The automaton is all he has left of his father and by fixing it he hopes to reconnect with him somehow. He must steal the spare parts he needs and is caught by a cranky toy shop owner who is visibly upset when he discovers Hugo's plan for fixing an old automaton.

Hugo befriends the old man's goddaughter Isabelle and the two share adventures together. These are fantastic adventures not in the sense of slaying dragons or discovering a pirate's treasure, but in the simpler things that we as adults often take for granted. They explore the train station together, go to a bookstore and sneak off to the movies and these scenes remind us what it's like to be kids again.

The film is broken into two distinct halves, the first being Hugo's story; his chase scenes with the station inspector, uncovering the mystery of the automaton with Isabelle and ultimately trying to find meaning in his life. This leads to the second half of the film where Hugo discovers that the answers to his questions lies with the old toy shop owner who himself struggles to find meaning to his own life. I don't want to give anything away but it inevitably leads to the early history of cinema. These moments are a cinephile's wet dream. Even to casual observers these scenes are enchanting, magical and wonderfully informative.

As I stated earlier this is the best use of 3-D I've ever seen in a film. It's not that things pop out even more, it's how they pop out. For instance in the very beginning of the film we are treated to several long tracking shots that weave through the train station and all the people on the platform and through the walls past all the pipes and gears. As the scene progresses it is like a pop up book unfolding revealing layer after layer of extra depth and dimension. It goes to show that it is not the technology that creates the wonderful effects (though it certainly helps) but the vision behind it to make it all happen.

I really loved the homage that Scorcese pays to these old time classics. There are clips of Buster Keaton and other long forgotten greats. The famous scene where Keaton hangs from a clock tower is recreated later when Hugo attempts to flee the inspector. One of the very first films ever was of a train pulling into a station titled "Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat" (1897). People who were watching that for the first time instinctively tried to jump out of the way. Imagine how those early patrons would have reacted to Scorcese's 3-D version. It is this original sense of imagination and wonder that Scorcese puts into this film.

Grade: A

Friday, December 2, 2011

Day 226 - Life in a Day

Life in a Day (2011) directed by Kevin Macdonald

Life in a Day is a representative look at the world we live in in more ways than one. First it is literally about the world we live in as it chronicles the daily lives of people all around the world that takes place on one single day, July 24, 2010. Secondly how the footage was filmed and obtained is a process of the world we live in today thanks to technology and the levels of collaboration that it has created. A film like this would never have been possible even five years ago. Virtually all the footage was taken from YouTube users, over 4500 hours of video from 80,000 submissions across 192 countries. What is the film about? Basically us.

The film begins in the early morning and we are shown clips of people all around the world of people waking up, brushing their teeth, going to the bathroom, eating eggs for breakfast. This film is all about unifying people by showing us we are all the same. We have the same mundane routines, we have the same loving relationships with others, we all put our pants on one leg at a time, as the saying goes. There are, of course interesting individual stories that gain a little more attention. One of the early scenes is a heartbreaking one involving the morning ritual of a Japanese father and his young son. They live in a cramped messy apartment with pictures of a woman adorning the living space. They burn incense at an alter for the woman, the wife and mother, and we realize that the father and son are coping with loss. Perhaps the most symbolic subject of the film is a Korean man who has been biking around the world for the past ten years. He's been to over 190 countries, seen all the different faces of the world and has a dream of one day unifying North and South Korea.

There is no real rhythm to the film. It jumps from country to country, story to story. One moment it follows a young South American boy who shine shoes, the next an old couple are renewing their vows in the funniest and most light hearted moment of the film. We are taken to war torn Afghanistan, then we are shown an anxious wife back home prettying herself up to video chat with her husband who is a soldier half a world away. People are asked simple questions like, "What do you have in your pocket?", "What do you love the most?" and "What is your biggest fear?" Ghosts, zombies, being alone and death seem to be universal answers to the latter.

Being entirely composed of YouTube content there are some pretty amazing videos as well, including a close up of a hand capturing a fly and then releasing it outside where we can see it fly away. The highlight of the film to me was an incredible sky diving scene that would be impressive for a professional cameraman let alone a user submitted video.

The day itself isn't really relavant. It could have been any day of the year and that is the point. Interesting and not so interesting things happen every day in the world. We can find simple pleasure in the mundane, in knowing that someone out there may be doing the exact same thing you are doing. We are never truly alone. Life in a Day is a very interesting concept for a film. Never before have so many different people collaborated in such a project, though this type of work is already part of the world we live in today as the world flattens. Today a man from Sri Lanka may be as close to you as your next door neighbor thanks to the Internet and other technologies.

Grade: B