Tuesday, April 24, 2012

365 Days...

365 Days...

It's hard to believe but I haven't watched a movie in like four days. Watching movies had become second nature to me but even after a full year I never really got the hang of writing about movies. Some days it would be a monumental struggle as I couldn't think of anything to say; other times I got inspired and wrote mini-essays. The past two months have been particularly tough on me because I played more poker than I ever had in my entire life. Sometimes there literally were not enough hours in the day to play poker, watch a movie and then write about it. I think I was averaging just 5 hours of sleep during this time. I had to cheat a little and watch a handful of movies I've already seen because I was just so burnt out. Anyways a more comprehensive write up will come later, but this will just be my breakdown of the past 65 days in movies.

As usual here are the stats:

By decade:
2010: 14
2000: 14
1990: 8
1980: 6
1970: 3
1960: 9
1950: 5
1940: 2
1930: 4

By Grade:
A    15
A-   12
B+  11
B    15
B-   6
C+  5
C    1
C-   0
D+  0
D    0
D-   0
F     0

Here are the movies I've given an A to:

Ace in the HoleAnchorman - The Legend of Ron Burgundy, BeginnersBraveheart, The Cabin in the Woods, Cinema Paradiso, Gone With the Wind, Moulin Rouge!, The Red BallonA Single Man, A Separation, Touching the Void, The Wild Bunch, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 12 Angry Men

Several of these are personal favorites of mine so I'm already biased as to which ones I'd consider the best. But I honestly do believe Moulin Rouge is one of the best films to come out in the past decade. 12 Angry Men and The Wild Bunch would round up the top of the top.

Link to 300 days.

Link to 200 days.

Link to 100 days.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Day 365 - Gone With the Wind

Gone With the Wind (1939) directed by Victor Fleming

Wow. I can't believe I'm all done now. I actually did it, 365 movies in 365 days. I don't really know if I want to talk about my relief of being done or my excitement about this film. It's only fitting that the last movie of my journey would be Gone With the Wind, perhaps the greatest if not grandest epic ever. The two movies I feared the most during this challenge were Lawrence of Arabia and GWTW because of their fame, epic scope and mostly their daunting lengths. GWTW is almost four hours long! However the four hours breezed by relatively quickly because of how captivating the story is. It is the very definition of sweeping epic, complete with rich complicated characters, the Civil War, the changing south, romance, and tragedy.

I always shied away from GWTW because I assumed it would be some sappy soap opera melodrama. It is definitely soap opera-y but is far from sappy. I was shocked by just how cynical and nasty the film is. I thought the film would be about Scarlett's and Rhett's undying love for each other but the two characters spend most of the film absolutely despising each other. The theme of their romance is spite, hatred, and greed, stuff straight out of the soaps but nonetheless intriguing and invigorating. I loved it! Some of the stuff they say to each other is just plain mean and hurtful. I guess it's true that there is a thin line between love and hate. All this leads to what you think would be a moment of clarity when the two realize that they loved each other all along but the film avoids the traditional happy ending where they passionately kiss and the end credits roll. No, instead we are treated to one of the most famous quotes in movie history: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," when Rhett finally gives up on Scarlett. There really is a thin line between love and hate.

The film is notable for its great technical brilliance, but honestly it begins and ends with the performances and the sweeping story. Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh provide powerhouse performances that carry the entire film. Rhett recognizes that they are perfect for each other immediately; both are stubborn, selfish and don't have the southern manners everyone else has. Yet these are also the reasons why they could never be together; they are just too hard headed. That and there's no way to tame the strong willed Scarlett. In many ways she is one of the first modern women in film, sexually aware, business savvy, fiercely proud and independent. She has three husbands that she marries for reasons other than love yet is not ashamed of it. She does what she has to do to get what she wants. Ain't nothing wrong with that. The only person who could possibly match her is someone equally brash and strong and that is Rhett. Despite the vitriol they hurl at each other there is an undeniable passion between them.

And of course there is the setting in which the story takes place. It takes place in the deep south around the time of the Civil War and captures this time period well. We can see the ravages of war and the aftermath of reconstruction. As the phases of the south changes so does Scarlett. She begins as a spoiled brat, becomes a determined survivor, and then finally turns into a successful business woman.

It always amazes me how good some of these older movies look. The colors in this film pop out and some of the scenes look like paintings. The sunsets are so majestic they border on cliche, but damn, they are nice to look at. There are a lot of great little scenes that show off the director's grand vision. One impressive one is a shot that we've grown familiar with in other films, countless dead bodies spread out seemingly as far as the eyes can see. Scarlett stands lost in the middle in a sea of bodies showing the horrors of war. There are even good action sequences such as when Scarlett and Rhett are fleeing from a burning Atlanta. At the time of filming this was the most expensive film ever and it's easy to see why. They spared no expenses on sets, props, costumes and the like. The production value, even by modern standards, are top notch.

Also, mad props to Victor Fleming who directed GWTW and Wizard of Oz which came out in the same year! Has any other director pull out two bonafide classics in the same year? I really enjoyed this film. It is the very definition of epic. Perhaps I am riding a little high on my project finally being over or maybe it's just the feeling you get after watching a great movie. It's hard to differentiate between the two now. Either way I'm glad I picked this one as my my last film. And just like that, I'm gone with the wind.

Grade: A

A final write up is coming, but I need some time to just take a break and gather my thoughts.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Day 364 - Anchorman - The Legend of Ron Burgundy

Anchorman - The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) directed by Adam McKay

There isn't a single guy around my age group that doesn't love Anchorman. This is the Animal House of our generation as far as cult comedies go and in my opinion may very well be the best slapstick comedy of all time. At least in my circle of the world, I don't think there's been a more quoted movie in the past ten years. It is pure comedic genius.

The film obviously begins and ends with Will Farrell who plays Ron Burgundy with such enthusiasm and charm that you can't help but like him no matter how ridiculous he may behave. What makes Farrell such a great comedic actor is his ability to say something completely absurd and make it sound hilarious. The way he delivers his lines never fails to crack me up even after the umpteenth time watching it. "I don't know how to put this, but I'm kind of a big deal." "Discovered by the Germans in 1904, they named it San Diego, which of course in German means a whale's vagina." Haha, I could seriously go on just quoting him forever. "Milk was a bad choice!" I think if there is one scene that can sum up Will Farrell's comedic genius is the scene where he's in the telephone booth, or rather "a glass cage of emotion." The agony of his face matched with the ridiculousness of the situation can pretty much only be done by him. Farrell also has a great cast to surround him including stars in their own rights, Steve Carell and Paul Rudd. I've never been a huge fan of David Koechner's over the top douchery but even here he's really funny.

On a purely artistic level, this can't be a great movie because, well, it's a slapstick comedy meant to be a total farce. There is no great cinematography or an sweeping musical score. It's not an important movie meant to move audiences. In that way comedies are  always judged unfairly because while this film would never be nominated for any Oscars it is so much better than so many of those serious movies we see around awards time. As a comedy, it does exactly what it sets out to do and that is to make you laugh, and laugh hard. If you are one of the very best films of your genre you should be considered a great movie and Anchorman fits the bill. I recently heard about a sequel coming up and needless to say I am very very excited. Keep it classy, San Diego.

Grade: A

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Day 363 - Braveheart

Braveheart (1995) directed by Mel Gibson

What is the most times you've ever watched a movie? I'm not merely speaking in hyperbole when say I've seen Braveheart literally dozens (though probably not an exact multiple of twelve) of times. I first saw this film in a theatre in Texas when I was visiting my grandparents. (I remember me and my brother would get dropped off at the theatre and we'd movie-hop all day. If we timed it right, we could watch like five movies in one day.) Back in 1995 I was eleven years old so I'm pretty sure this was my very first sweeping epic that I saw and I remember crying uncontrollably when SPOILER ALERT Mel Gibson gets tortured and killed at the end. Fast forward a couple of years when we first got HBO and there was this stretch where Braveheart would play literally every single day and without fail I'd always watch it. I could even recite most of the lines and this is a three hour movie. Needless to say I was a little obsessed and since then I've always cited this film as my favorite movie of all time.

Well, over the years my fervor for the film has died down a bit as I've seen better movies but I'm pretty sure I've never loved a film as much as I loved Braveheart as a kid. I don't think it is even physically possible. I will say though that this film isn't nearly as great as I once remembered, but it is still awesome in my eyes. One of the things the film suffers from is overly manipulative sentimentality and cliches. But even in knowing that I still can't help but be moved by the powerful themes of freedom, love, loyalty and heroism. The one thing that can never ceases to move me, provided it isn't completely awful, are acts of self sacrificing heroism and the William Wallace mythos of this film is pretty much second to Jesus in that regard.

Logically some things in the film do not compute. Why would Robert the Bruce himself be the one to personally guard the king and joust with Wallace in the battlefield? (Obviously to film the moment of shock on Wallace's face when he realizes he's been betrayed. I remember when I saw that scene as a kid and it broke my heart, but now I sort of think there's no way it would happen that way.) Isn't it a little too convient for the French princess to fall for Wallace? Maybe, but hey it is a movie after all. But even with these minor things creating some white noise, you still can't deny the epic scope and entertainment value of this film. The medieval battle scenes are still some of the best ever filmed. The cinematography is splendid and the costumes and set pieces all look authentic. It may take liberties with historical accuracy but that is hardly relavent. Much of what we know about the real William Wallace is based on myth and hearsay anyways, so this film just celebrates his myth. Plus, it still blows away just about every other period piece epic, especially the overrated Gladiator that for whatever reason Braveheart is always compared to. Seriously, eff Gladiator.

Grade: A

Monday, April 16, 2012

Day 362 - Moulin Rouge!

Moulin Rouge! (2001) directed by Baz Luhrmann

With just a couple more movies to go I decided that I'd watch a couple of personal favorites. I think I've deserved it...

Whenever someone asks me what my favorite movie of all time is, I instinctively answer Braveheart but deep down inside Moulin Rouge might be the real answer. Yes, I realize that makes me sound like a girl but I don't care. I LOVE THIS MOVIE AND I'M NOT AFRAID TO ADMIT IT. I first saw Moulin Rouge back in high school without knowing a single thing about it going into the theatre. I left totally blown away for the first time realizing that movies weren't just made for entertainment but could also be considered a true art form. I had seen musicals before, but I had never seen one quite like this just as I've seen elaborate sets and costumes before but none as vibrant and colorful. I also noticed just how much input a director has in the vision of a film. No one else could have picked up a script and a camera and made this film quite like Baz Luhrmann. This was the first time I really fell in love with movies. I suppose everyone has a film that just moved them in this certain way and Moulin Rouge was it for me. To me this film has it all, epic romance, tragedy, comedy, interesting characters, great cinematography, editing, elaborate sets and costumes, and awesome soundtrack to boot. Seriously, what's not to like?

The first portion of the film is dizzying as Luhrmann cuts and edits with breakneck speed and frantic energy. The first dance and song number in the Moulin Rouge is Luhrmann's signature style (he began his career as a music video director) but honestly these scenes may be my least favorite even if they are engrossing. To me the film really begins when Christian (Ewan McGregor) and Satine (Nicole Kidman) meet each other for the first time in the Elephant Room. Satine is doing her hilarious sexy poses when Christian just busts out singing, "My gift is my song....." Satine then stops what she's doing and stares at him wide eyed just like the rest of the audience. I remember thinking to myself, "Wow." They end up in a dream-like fog filled rooftop with a singing moon and I was just hooked right in. I had never seen a movie quite like this one. This was the first time I've seen the film in a while and this scene put a smile on my face. Each scene, particularly the song and dance numbers, is a visual (and audio) treat.

Don't get me wrong, Moulin Rouge is a total chick flick, but even thugs fall in love too right? This is a great romance that is passionate, moving and tragic on a Shakespearean level. It also helps that I love both Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman who are personal favorites of mine because of this film. (I once saw Ewan McGregor perform Guys and Dolls live in London and loved it. He really can sing.) I'm not going to say that I cried at the end, but I was pretty bummed out. Love can be so heartbreaking sometimes but "The greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return." I'll probably be flamed to the high heavens for this, but honestly this is one of the best films to come out in the past decade. Seriously. I know I sound like a total girl, but whatever. I'm nearing the end of this challenge and I'm losing my mind! Haha.

Grade: A

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Day 361 - The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods (2012) directed by Drew Goddard

I saw the title of the film and I immediately had no interest. A horror movie that takes place in a cabin in the woods? How lame and unoriginal. That is until my friend told me I simply had to watch it and that it is nothing like I've ever seen before. So I took him at his word and was totally taken aback by this ridiculous horror parody that does such a good job at poking fun of the genre that it becomes something else all together. I am reminded of the original Scream, a slasher flick that was so aware of its own upbringing that it relished in its own cliches. The Cabin in the Woods borrows from a bunch of different genres, horror, science fiction, conspiracy and comedy and mashes them all together creating one of the most original titles I've seen in years.

I'll try not to spoil anything about the movie other than the basics. A group of five college kids go out on a trip to a cousin's remote cabin in the woods. It is a premise that is so familiar that the film is purposely titled as such as a jab to people like me who'd think "Oh great. What an original idea." But what really interests the viewer isn't this standard horror film premise but what is going on behind the scenes. Something devious is going on in a giant laboratory pulling all the strings and we get the sense of something much bigger going on, but we can't yet understand what. Other than the purposely cryptic behind the scenes laboratory stuff the film begins as typical horror films do. There are a couple genuine scares and suspense, but that really isn't the point of the film. Once we realize what is actually going on in the film, you can't help but shake your head at the sheer ridiculousness yet genius of it all. The grand finale of the film is just so absurd and awesome that I dare not spoil it. I don't think I could even if I wanted to.

I know I'm being purposely vague and ambiguous in describing this movie but like many horror films it is best that I not spoil the any of the fun. Just believe me when I say that you think you know how this will go but you really have no idea. It is one of the most original and audacious ideas for a film I've seen in a while. There is some more in depth stuff I could talk about, like how this movie is so aware of its cliches it smashes them all together or how the writers/directors of the film are like the lab guys behind the scenes putting on a show for our entertainment, but this film doesn't need that type of nitpicking to be enjoyed. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Grade: A

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Day 360 - Shall We Dance?

Shall We Dance? (1996) directed by Masayuki Suo

"If you can walk you can dance. If you can talk you can sing."
- Zimbabwean proverb

Like 90% of all people, I am an awful at dancing, but like 90% of all people that doesn't mean I don't enjoy it when I do. We were all born to dance even though most of us don't realize it. We're often too far removed from our natural instincts and caught up in the every day routines of life. It is fitting that Shall We Dance? is set in Japan, a socially conservative society so focused on manners and etiquette that even standing on a dance floor can be a huge challenge. In the opening scene the narration states that even holding hands in public or spouses saying "I love you" is uncommon, so how can two people ever dance with each other? But this just isn't a Japanese phenomenon, it is universal. We've all been there before, standing on the sidelines watching others let loose, wondering why you can't do it yourself, too nervous or embarrassed to really enjoy life.

The main character is Mr. Sugiyama, married with a kid with a new house and a good job. He is living the life that he assumed he always wanted, yet he feels an emptiness deep inside. One night while riding the the train home he glances out the window and sees a beautiful woman standing alone at a window. She looks distinctly sad, lost in thought. The next night he sees her again at the same window with the same sad and lonely expression. It is an achingly beautiful scene of longing. Sugiyama decides to investigate further and finds out that the building is a dance studio that teaches ballroom dancing. Intrigued by the woman who is a teacher there he enters and before he knows it has signed up for classes. If he weren't already married this would be a good premise for a romantic comedy, a dance teacher and an uptight man who learns to let loose, but this film surprises by not really going that direction. But of course Sugiyama only signs up for lessons because of her, but he quickly realizes his place when a friendly offer of dinner is refused. The instructor, Mai, sternly warns him that she takes dance very seriously and if he's there only for her he should just quit. Embarrassed and determined to prove to her that isn't why, he begins to take dance seriously and finds out that he really enjoys it. But why is Mai so sad? Why does she hardly ever smile? What is her story? These are all questions that we slowly figure out, but it turns out that it is teaching Sugiyama that she begins to enjoy herself again as well.

Shall We Dance? is a warm and enchanting film about, well, a man learning to dance, but is deceptively more rich than its light hearted tone. This film could have very well been titled Shall We Paint? or Shall We Cook? Dancing is just the vehicle for Sugiyama to find an outlet for himself. The two lead characters are an intriguing pair because they are both looking to fill a void in their lives. This film could have been despairingly somber or over the top cheesy but thankfully it finds a nice medium. It is both sad and thoughtful and humorous and fun. A really good movie.

Grade: A-

Friday, April 13, 2012

Day 359 - Belle de Jour

Belle de Jour (1967) directed by Luis Bunuel

Belle de Jour begins with a startling rape fantasy scene where its main character Severine imagines her husband ordering two men to humiliate and dominate her. In reality her husband is near perfect, handsome, considerate and caring, but does not fulfill her innermost sexual desires. This is a film about sexual repression, fantasies and the means to liberate them.

When finding out that someone she knows has taken to prostitution in a brothel, Severine displays disgust but deep down inside she is erotically intrigued. She works up the courage to go to one and without any explanation or fanfare she decides to become a prostitute. While most girls do it for the money, she does it to fulfill her fantasies and liberate her sexual being. In the process we see that the nature of sexual desire isn't merely the act of sex (there are no explicit sex scenes in the film) but rather in the mind. We see several clients with odd fetishes that are difficult to explain. One involves a mysterious buzzing box and the sound of bells, while another involves some strange funeral ritual. The most normal fetish is simple domination which Severine observes with disgust yet watches intently. Severine's own domination fantasy involves mud being thrown at her tied-up body. If you watch enough porn, you'll eventually come across some crazy stuff that is just impossible to explain. Some of it is so bizarre  and/or disgusting you can't believe anyone would watch it yet some people clearly do. What makes it sexually provocative isn't the sex itself but the idea of it. Despite its steamy premise, Belle de Jour is more psychological than sexy, but hardly any less erotic or provocative than typical Hollywood T&A flicks. It is only so long before Severine's two worlds intertwine with each other, just as it her fantasies become more interlaced with her reality. By the end it is difficult to differentiate what is real and what isn't.

This is a hard movie to explain, yet so fascinating to watch. It may not be for everyone as it is the slow kind of artsy film that is purposely ambiguous and symbolic that some people just hate, but I was totally engrossed by it. It's hard to explain why I liked this movie so much, other than that I'm probably some type of sexual deviant with crazy unknown fetishes of my own. Kidding! (Sort of.)

Grade: A-

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Day 358 - The Man Who Wasn't There

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) directed by The Coen Brothers

The Man Who Wasn't There is the Coen Brothers ode to film noir, a genre I have grown to know and love over the past year. It gets most of the details right from the stark black and white cinematography to the lurid plot details where people are blackmailed, backstabbed, murdered, wrongly accused yet rightly caught. Yet if there is one thing that it doesn't do right is pace the film accordingly to its potential. What I mean is that on paper the details look and feel like this could be a thriller on par with Double Indemnity but instead it opts to be a moody and deliberate character piece, which isn't actually a bad thing, but that isn't really what film noirs are. But I understand why this film is paced so slowly. It is because its central character, Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is a slow and deliberate character. He narrates the film with a detached manner as if an impartial observer to his own story. He has lived a life with little meaning or passion. His wife is cheating on him but he simply shrugs it off as if that is just how things are.

The story has a familiar film noir plot. A businessman comes into town with the idea of a new invention called dry cleaning. He needs $10,000 to start up. Ed, tired of his ordinary meaningless life, knows where to get $10,000, anonymously blackmail his friend who is having an affair with his wife. It sets into motion a story straight out of the golden days of film noir complete with ironic twists of fates and unexpected deaths and developments. It seems intriguing but as I stated before it isn't quite as compelling as it sounds thanks to its meticulous pacing and focus on the details of the genre rather than the plot itself. The Coen Brothers carefully construct a classical film noir but uncharacteristically forget to get the story right. It's easy to read that and think that this is a slow and boring movie but it really isn't thanks to the Coen Brothers's excellent craftsmanship. The film looks superb and manages to keep things interesting even when the story isn't always on point. Plus the film is well acted and the slow and deep focus on Ed's character pays off as we get such a great sense of a character so lost and trapped in life. This may be categorized as film noir but it is perhaps an even better character study.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Day 357 - The Wedding Banquet

The Wedding Banquet (1993) directed by Ang Lee

Have you ever told a lie that simply got out of hand? Wai Tung has lived his whole life as a lie, keeping the fact he's gay a secret from his old fashioned parents. This has served as a constant nuisance in his life as they keep pestering him about marriage and grandchildren. But they live in Taiwan and he lives in America so he hasn't felt the need to come out of the closet to them. After his parents take things one step further by setting him up with a woman, Wai Tung's boyfriend Simon comes up with an ingenious plan for Wai Tung to marry their friend Wei-Wei who needs a green card. She gets to stay in America while Wai Tung can finally get his parents off his back. That way everyone is happy. That is until the parents inform them that they will be coming to New York for the wedding. And the lies keep on building up until you know they will eventually tip over. The Wedding Banquet is a familiar comedy of errors and misinformation that could be so easily be made into farcical slapstick, but thankfully under Ang Lee's watchful direction and tender care, it becomes a surprisingly moving family comedic drama.

What makes this film so good is that it tackles important social and family issues of the pressures of being gay and pleasing one's parents while not taking itself too seriously either. There is a delicate balance between its light hearted comedic elements and its serious drama. The key to the film is in having characters that we can care about. We can sense the pressure in Wai Tung's life as he desperately doesn't want to disappoint his parents. There is Simon, the ever thoughtful and considerate boyfriend who suggests this whole farce in the first place. It is only inevitable of course that he will feel left out as he plays the role of "just a friend" while Wai Tung's parents are around. The parents themselves would be easy to stereotype as old fashioned folk who simply don't get it, and in many ways they are for the purposes of the film, but they are also surprisingly rich in character as well. Perhaps the most interesting character of all is Wei-Wei. The marriage benefits her because she gets a green card but her feelings are hardly considered. She likes Wai Tung and on some level wishes she really were married to him. By the end of the film, I grew to care for all the characters and was surprised by how moved I was by such a seemingly light hearted comedy.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Day 356 - Touching the Void

Touching the Void (2003) directed by Kevin Macdonald

I'm always fascinated by these survival stories where people go through great lengths to get themselves out of impossibly harrowing ordeals. It is a true test of human courage and the sheer will to live. Stories like the guy in 127 Hours where he cuts off his own arm to free himself from a rock are just incredible to me. Of course it makes me wonder why people even climb mountains, explore the wilderness, and run across deserts in the first place. I guess part of what makes us human is our curiosity, our sense of adventure or our desire to simply conquer the world.

In 1985, two British climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates went to Peru to climb the treacherous west face of the Siula Grande. It had never been successfully climbed before and they were going to do it "Alpine style", climbing the mountain in one great push carrying all the gear with them. (Typically these climbs are pre-planned ahead of time with base camps set up along the way.) The climb to the top takes several grueling but uneventful days. The scenery is deadly but serenely beautiful and I can only imagine the feeling of standing on top of the world. But the tricky part is on the way down as 80% of all climbing accidents occur on the descent. I'm not giving anything away by saying something happens and that they live to tell about it because the real life Simpson and and Yates are interviewed recalling these events. But that doesn't make the film any less gripping and terrifying even though we know we are only watching a reenactment and that they survive.

The descent is hazardous and the worst possible thing happens; Joe lands awkwardly after slipping off a cliff face and breaks his leg, a virtual death sentence 20,000 feet high with no support. Recalling the incident Joe admits to being surprised that Simon stayed with him rather than going on ahead, decreasing his own chances of survival greatly. They devise a plan to attach two 150 foot ropes together to make one longer 300 foot rope where Simon would lower Joe down. The key moment of the film occurs when Simon inadvertently lowers Joe off the side of a cliff leaving him dangling in the air. Simon has no idea what is going on below him except that all of Joe's weight is on the rope. He is stuck holding his position unable to pull him up while Joe is stuck dangling in the air unable to get down or up. They are stuck in this position for quite a while when it becomes painfully clear that Simon will have to cut the rope or risk them both plummeting to their deaths once Simon's precarious position in the unstable snow gives way. But cutting the rope would mean almost certain death for Joe who may fall who knows how far below. It could be just 10 feet, it could be 5000. What a terrible decision Simon has to make but he makes the only logical one and one that Joe himself said he would make. He cuts the rope.

And this is where the story gets really dicey. Simon has no idea where Joe could have possibly landed when he cut the rope and can only assume the worst, that he's dead and goes on ahead alone. But as we all know, Joe is alive and well (sort of). Incredibly he falls relatively safely into a deep crevice. Unable to go back up and not content to just sit there and die, he gambles by going down even further into the crevice, into the unknown. Amazingly he manages to find a way out, but that is only the beginning of his ordeal. He still has thousands of feet to descend with a broken leg and limited supplies. This portion of the film is a testament to human courage and sheer will power. Of course we know he survives but the ordeal is so impossible we can hardly believe it is true. When Joe and Simon are finally reunited together, the emotional power of the moment is almost too much.

Touching the Void is an incredible story that is both terrifying and inspiring. It is also perhaps the best docudrama I've ever seen. I know the actors playing Joe and Simon are reenacting the scenes with the safety and supervision of stunt coordinators but I was genuinely scared for them. Shot on location in the Andes the scenery is breathtaking and daunting. In one scene we see Joe bravely crawl and hop his way twenty yards at a time when the camera dramatically zooms out revealing the entirety of the mountain and just how tiny we really are in the world. That Joe was able to survive is simply amazing.

Grade: A

Monday, April 9, 2012

Day 355 - The Gambler

The Gambler (1974) directed by Karel Reisz

It's always funny when you watch a movie that could basically be about you. I kind of feel that way about any movie about gambling since I could always find something to relate to; the uncontrollable itch, the thrill of victory, the soul crushing losses, the self loathing afterwards, the glimmer of hope, the despair, the highs, the lows, the smoothness of the dice, the anxiety of the next card, praying on a longshot, the feeling of cold hard cash, searching through your empty pockets, betting money you can't afford to lose, winning money so you can bet even bigger, bemoaning your bad luck when deep down inside you know you're destined to lose, the self destruction. I know these feelings all too well, perhaps not as much as Axel Freed does in The Gambler, but I'd be lying if I said I haven't been just as stupid as he is at times in this movie.

James Caan plays Axel Freed, a gambling junkie who is in for $44,000 to some very bad people. It's money that he does not have yet he doesn't seem too worried. All he needs is one big rush and everything will be better. But of course we all know how that turns out. His mother bails him out and gets him the money but instead of paying off his debts he instead gambles even more and even bigger. His girlfriend asks him, "What if you lose?" He replies back, "I'm not going to lose. I'm going to gamble!" During a hot streak in Vegas he doubles down on a hard 18 which is obviously ridiculous. Someone tells him that he is crazy. He replies back, "I'm not crazy. I'm blessed." There are some all time classic gambling quotes in this film for its sheer absurdity and awesomeness.

The plot develops the way you would expect, with Axel's gambling addiction spiraling out of control as his world collapses around him. This is one of the best films I've seen in dealing with the issues of gambling addiction as it captures the desperation of Axel's character so well. (The best film I've seen about gambling addiction is Owning Mahowny) What also makes the character work is the actor who plays him, James Caan, who delivers his lines like a true junkie and is generally awesome. I could see a bit of myself in the character which was kind of funny and scary at the same time. That could very well be me in ten years!

Grade: B+

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Day 354 - My Week with Marilyn

My Week with Marilyn (2011) directed by Simon Curtis

If there is any one person who exemplifies the pressures of fame it would have to be Marilyn Monroe. She was perhaps the most famous woman in the world, practically a goddess to many, but deep down inside she shared the same insecurities and vulnerabilities as the rest of the world. It sounds cliche to say but celebrities are people too. My Week with Marilyn captures a brief moment in the troubled star's life told from the perspective of Colin Clark, a young assistant director during the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957).

The film centers around Monroe but is actually Colin's story. In a way this is the best way to understand Monroe because we can never really know what she was thinking or how she felt. Here was a woman who was so well known yet remained a mystery to even those who knew her best. We can only know how she affected the people around her and how the world perceived her. The film begins with Colin, an eager youth who talks his way onto the set of The Prince and the Showgirl as an assistant to Laurence Olivier. (How it must have been to be working underneath one of the most revered actors of all time and the biggest icon of the time both at once.) In walks Monroe and heads turn and hearts drop. Even the mighty Olivier is mesmerized. The film is all about Monroe but also about how others responded to her.

But immediately we can see she is not perfect. She has the finicky nature of a movie star where everything must be just right, but she also has the insecurities of a normal young woman. She is afraid of not being good enough, afraid of being alone, perhaps afraid of herself. On the set, she is a nervous wreck, forgetting lines and missing her marks. Soon enough Olivier's admiration of her turns into angry frustration, writing her off as another typical spoiled Hollywood starlet. In the background is the lowly assistant Colin who observes everything. He sees Monroe's great beauty and talents but also her fragile nature.

Eventually Monroe notices Colin and befriends him. The film, and Colin himself, doesn't really say why she takes an interest in basically a nobody, but perhaps it is precisely because he is a nobody. In one scene she admits to him that everybody wants to be with Marilyn Monroe but once they realize that she is not her, they all run away. Naturally Colin assures her that he would never run away. As he gets to know Marilyn, Colin grows to admire and love her but this is not a romance or even an account of an affair. (There is no sexual relationship implied in the film.) After all, how do you hold onto a star without being burned? How could a goddess love a mere mortal? This film simply captures a moment in Colin's life when he once spent time with and even kissed the most famous woman in the world. Clearly these precious few days meant the world to Colin, but did they mean anything to her? Not even he can really know. That is basically the entirety of the film. Eventually they finish shooting the movie and Marilyn is gone, though memories of her stay with Colin forever.

Obviously the film starts and ends with Michelle Williams who basically makes the movie. The film wouldn't work without a compelling and believable Marilyn. She looks pretty close to the real deal and captures Marilyn Monroe's look and feel pretty well. The way she smiles, the way she pouts, the way she poses and even her raspy voice is pretty spot on. Sometimes I forgot I was watching a performance and not the real thing. The film has plenty of strong performances to match up with Williams. Kenneth Branagh plays Laurence Olivier well and Judi Dench, who plays Sybil Thorndike, is always good. Interestingly the character of Colin, played by Eddie Redmayne, is perhaps the weakest though perhaps that was done intentionally to contrast him with Marilyn.

I'm sure there's been dozens of Marilyn Monroe movies but at least this one is unique in that she isn't really the central character. Instead the story is told from an onlooker's perspective which is really the only way to really talk about her since even those closest to her didn't know her completely. The film provides a brief glimpse of her life and like Colin, we're left wanting more. Unfortunately that would be the story of her life as she died at just 36 years old.

Grade: B

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Day 353 - American Reuinion

American Reunion (2012) directed by Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg

I think American Pie was the very first rated R movie that I snuck into with a group of friends. It was one of the most awesome things that I had seen at the time and in many ways is one of the iconic coming of age teenage films of the 1990's. It dealt with all the issues of teenage life that horny adolescents thought and cared about, sex, sex and more sex. And it's raunchy absurdity made the film fresh and exciting. Of course there had to be sequels. It is an inevitable fate for Hollywood blockbusters and unfortunately, like in many other series, each installment of the American Pie series has gotten progressively worse. Well, that's not really fair... more like progressively stale. Isn't there a certain age limit for low brow college level sex jokes? And just how much more growing up do 30-something year old men need?

Jim, Kevin, Oz, Finch and Stiffler are all in their 30's now but with each generation comes a new level of sexual problems. Jim and Michelle are now parents but their sex lives have suffered because of it. Oz has become a celebrity of sorts though still longs for his high school sweetheart Heather. Kevin is happily married but old feelings stir up when he sees his high school sweetheart Vicky again. (What ever happened to Tara Reid's career by the way?) Finch is just gonna Finch. The person with the biggest issues of course is Stiffler who seems to still be stuck in high school despite the fact that he supposedly learned to grow up a bit in the last installment American Wedding almost nine years ago. And that is one of my issues with this series, didn't they all complete their story arcs entering manhood in the last movie? Why was this movie even made?

Some of the jokes are funny, but how many sex jokes can you really sit through for thirteen years? A lot of the initial charm has sort of lost its luster and the movie feels like a shell of its former self. It is nice though catching up on old friends. I did sort of grow up with these guys after all. I just hope I don't have to watch American Mid-Life Crisis ten years from now when they are all complaining about erectile disfunction and the hot secretary they wish they could bang.

Grade: C+

Friday, April 6, 2012

Day 352 - The Host

The Host (2006) directed by Joon-ho Bong

The Host is a throwback to the old monster movies from the 1950's where a giant creature wrecks havoc on an unsuspecting populous. Rest assured, the creature is quite impressive, large, menacing, slithery and slimy. In fact it is one of the best designed creatures I've seen in a while. But like any good monster film, the focus of The Host isn't really on the creature but on a select group of people that tries to stop and/or survive it. In this case it is the Park family, a sort of disjointed family that is brought together when its pride and joy, teenage Hyun-seo, is taken by the beast. If anything, this is more of a family drama than a monster film. Indeed that is perhaps the film's greatest asset, having characters that we grow to understand and care about. Unfortunately it is part of its weakness as well, a sort of lethargic middle act where we don't see much of the monster or any action at all. But I give the film credit for being more than simply a monster mayhem movie. There is character, heart, and tenderness as well as monster mashing, horror, and comedy. Throw in a little political satire and you have a pretty well rounded movie, not just of the monster film genre.

The film has gotten plenty of praise from critics (92% on Rotten Tomatoes) but I found it more charming and amusing than anything. There are portions of the movie that are purposely campy which I didn't mind at all that some people have told me they hated about it. What I did mind was the sort of slow paced middle where nothing really seemed to be happening. And for as awesome as the monster looked, I didn't get to see nearly enough of it. In other words, it's right on the cusp of being pretty darn good but instead falls a little flat at pretty decent. Fans of the genre should be happy though.

Grade: B-

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Day 351 - American Me

American Me (1992) directed by Edward James Olmos

American Me is a crime drama depicting the fictionalized account of the rise of the Mexican Mafia, the largest and most powerful gang in U.S. Prisons. At its center is Santana, played by Edward James Olmos, its charismatic and ruthless founder and leader. This is a film about prison life which is every bit as harsh as we could only imagine.

We are naturally relieved when bad guys get locked away but prison often makes them even badder and more criminal minded. As Andy Dufrane says in Shawshank Redemption, "It took me going to prison that made me a criminal." What films like American Me and Blood In Blood Out show us is that the influence of prison gangs often reach outside prison walls, entering our neighborhoods via the drugs they control, the violence they spread, and the influence they have on the people. In this film, we learn the in and outs of the gang, their rituals and credos, and the vast crime network they control including drugs, murder, gambling and prostitution. It is a frightening and cold look into a world so far removed from our own we can hardly believe this is happening in our proverbial backyard.

I think we all have some sort of fascination with gang culture, whether we are enamored or horrified from it. I was totally engrossed by American Me. It's a man's kind of movie, powerful, gripping, hardcore, thuggish and real, yet it also contains a sentimental and intelligent core. Santana is a natural born criminal but did he have a choice in his life? Is he a product of his environment, a vicious socio-economical cycle of poverty and racism? Or does he contain his own thoughts and have his own free will. We learn from the woman he cares about that he is like two men. "One is like a child who doesn't know how to dance or make love to a woman. The other is a killer." By the end Santana is able to reflect back on the choices he has made in life and wonders if it's not too late to change. Many others aren't as fortunate to gain that perspective as they remained trapped in this cycle.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Day 350 - 8 1/2

8 1/2 (1963) directed by Federico Fellini

There are certain films that you simply aren't going to get the first time you watch it. I've already seen a couple of them for this project but unfortunately I only have time to watch these movies once. 8 1/2 is one of those movies that has so much stuff going on that it demands to be watched again and again in order to fully appreciate. Great movies are like great songs in that way; you always find something new and exciting that you hadn't thought of or noticed before each time you play them.

8 1/2 is often cited as the greatest film about film making ever made. It is about Guido, a director who is suffering from "director's block" while in the middle of filming a big budget science fiction epic that he has lost all interest and passion in. Some of it is due to the enormous pressure he is getting from the studio heads who have a lot of money riding on the movie and another part is his personal life becoming a mess as he tries to manage the women in his life. If I had to sum up this film in one sentence I'd say the film is about the pressures of being an artist.

The first thing I noticed about the film is just how frigging weird it is. It begins with a dream sequence where Guido is dreaming that he is dying of asphyxiation in his car. He manages to escape and float away only to be pulled back down to earth by the studio execs. Immediately I was intrigued by the strangeness and the visual flair of these sequences. Later fantasy sequences are even stranger and more inexplicable. They feel like elaborately choreographed parties or parades. I remember that Felini had a fascination with the circus and you can definitely tell in these sequences as they feel very, well, circus-y. This blend of fantasy with reality can make the film a little confusing to watch and it would be easy to make the assumption that Felini made a film about a director who runs out of ideas because he himself was a director who was out of ideas, especially when the film seems so autobiographical. I think that argument is wrong though because in watching some of these scenes, it seems to me that Felini was FULL of ideas. Maybe these ideas are hard to grasp or understand, but they are ideas nonetheless and more importantly filled with artistic vision. This is probably one of the films that people would cite when arguing movies as art.

Was 8 1/2 my favorite thing ever? No, not by a long shot, but the artistry of the film is undeniable as it is a visual and audible treat (I loved the music in the film). Perhaps I'll grow to love it with future viewings as I discover more and more things about it. I feel kind of bad even giving this film a grade because I know I missed some things and it should be watched more than once, but I can only go by my initial impression...

Grade: B+

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Day 349 - Arsenic and Old Lace

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) directed by Frank Capra

Arsenic and Old Lace is a silly little comedy that I've never heard of but it features Cary Grant and is directed by Frank Capra so I figured why not. In absolute terms this movie is really no better than say, the hilarious 21 Jump Street, but I feel like these old classics will always maintain their charm while the newer cruder comedies may grow stale over time. In some ways though this film can almost be viewed as a more modern movie due to its shocking premise, a couple of sweet old ladies that kill lonely old bachelors. The comedic potential there is just as funny now as it was then, though I suppose it was even more shocking 68 years ago.

Cary Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, a man recently married who goes to visit the loving aunts that raised him. He makes a shocking discovery when he finds a dead body in a chest, but his aunts assure him there is nothing to fret about. That is just one of a dozen dead bodies they are responsible for as they have been performing mercy killings of lonely old men for a while now. Obviously Mortimer is shocked and watching Cary Grant's exacerbated expressions in the first hour is the highlight of the film. His comedic timing and facial expressions are pure gold. Things turn for the even more bizarre when Mortimer's estranged brother, the psychotic criminal Jonathan, comes back threatening the aunts and Mortimer. The first half is much funnier than the second half as the neat little premise turns into a messy and complicated romp. I suppose that is the nature of the screwball comedy but I sort of feel like the film looses much of its focus. It is sort of funny though that the sweet serial killer aunts are the sympathetic characters with the introduction of a villain. They're all villains! Caught in the middle of it all is Mortimer who must protect his aunts but also make sure they they themselves don't kill again. There are some good side characters as well, particularly the drunken Dr. Einstein, played by the wonderful Peter Lorre.

In the grand scheme of things there are certainly better slapstick screwball comedies out there and I suspect is more highly rated than it deserves to be due to the Grant/Capra appeal. The film's first half is legitimately pretty funny and amusing but it sort of loses steam at the end. I wonder though if we will look back as fondly at our generation's raunchfests as people look back at these classic screwball comedies.

Grade: B-

Monday, April 2, 2012

Day 348 - Ace in the Hole

Ace in the Hole (1951) directed by Billy Wilder

Do you remember the Chilean mining accident where 33 miners were trapped in a mine for over two months back in 2010? It's hard not to since it was in the news practically every day. It just goes to the old adage "There's no news like bad news." Perhaps no movie ever captured this sentiment better than Ace in the Hole, a movie about the shady nature of the news and the world that consumes it. Kirk Douglas plays Charles Tatum, a would be hot shot journalist working for a small time New Mexico newspaper. He's been stuck in this job for over a year when he suddenly gets his big break. On his way to a rattlesnake competition, he stops at an out of the way town where he discovers that a man, Leo Minosa, is trapped in an abandoned mine in a cave-in. Realizing the potential of this story, Tatum jumps into action covering it and exploiting the situation to his advantage. The key moment of the film comes when the engineer tells him that it should take about sixteen hours to rescue Leo by shoring up the tunnels with timber. Wanting to milk the story for as long as he can, Tatum suggests that they instead drill from the top, a long and arduous process that will take seven days. That is seven days for more stories, interviews and pictures and more importantly getting Tatum's name out there as the main man behind the scenes. In an early scene, Tatum's young faithful photographer points out that they don't make the news; they just report it. Tatum knows that in the real world that people make their own breaks as evidenced when he puts Leo's life at unnecessary risk to make his story.

This isn't just a movie about sleazy journalism. It is also about why it is allowed to exist. People love low brow stories and for this reason are just as responsible for what is put into newspapers as the people who publish them. While Tatum creates a media circus with his stories, people come all across the state and country camp outside the mine. Leo's wife Lorraine even gets the idea of charging people money for entering the site, even allowing a literal circus there making it a freakshow spectacle. It is a sort of ridiculous satire but not that far from the truth.

This is a terrific film all the way around. It starts with Kirk Douglas's performance as Tatum. What makes a great character is part the actor but also part the screenplay and here they match up perfectly. Tatum is such a lowlife (sort of reminds me of Sidney Falco from Sweet Smell of Success) that you kind of have to appreciate his tenacity even though you obviously hate him for being such a scumbag. Douglas plays him with such confidence and intensity and is pretty awesome. (Yes, pretty awesome. I'm clearly the worst) Jan Sterling as Lorraine, Leo's bitch of a wife, is also great. She plays the classic underhanded woman that populate film noir and hardboiled stories. There is also of course Billy Wilder, the director of many great films (For this project I've seen Double IndemnityWitness for the Prosecution. Other notable films include Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Some Like it Hot and The Apartment.). I love the look and feel of his movies and also the harsh feel of his dramas. But perhaps above all is the fact that Ace in the Hole is over sixty years but still feels completely fresh and current. Even another one hundred years from now this film will still feel relavent because it understands the nature of the news so well. There is no news like bad news and as long as there is an audience for it, there is someone to tell it.

Grade: A

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Day 347 - Battle Royale

Battle Royale (2001) directed by Kinji Fukasaku

In Battle Royale children are forced by the government to kill each other in a game of survival until one person remains. If this plot sounds familiar it should; it is essentially the original Hunger Games, which has been accused of being a rip-off of this Japanese film and the novel that inspired it. The similarities are striking, but there are enough differences to make each story uniquely its own. But I think most importantly it should be noted that Battle Royale is not entirely unique in itself. People being forced to fight each other to the death has gone as far back as the Romans with their gladiators and colosseums. The difference here is that it involves children. You'd be surprised just how sick the human mind is. That two separate people could come up with this idea independently shouldn't be surprising at all.

In the world of Battle Royale, children have gotten out of control. In order to pacify them and to demonstrate their power the government has come up with the idea for Battle Royale, where they select a classroom at random, place the kids on a deserted island and force them to kill each other until one remains. There are 42 kids in all which means plenty of gruesome death scenes, but also a lot of characters to keep track of. This may sound racist, but they all have funny names and they all look the same! Obviously many of the kids are only there for their inevitable death scenes but the film does a decent job in giving many of them personalities and back stories. Luckily only a few of them are really important, but even the ones we do focus on can be hard to remember at times.

Other than being a violent exploitation film, Battle Royale also captures teenage adolescence well as the characters bring their school problems out to the battlefield including petty jealousy, puppy love and (obviously exaggerated) high school drama backstabbing and gossip. The battlefield can almost be seen as an extension of high school itself. One scene involves a group of girls who swear to not kill anybody and live together peacefully till the end until one accidentally kills another causing an escalating scene of accusation and infighting breaking the group apart until inevitable violence. Imagine any clique of girls you remember from high school and the drama of one of them stealing another's boyfriend, but with guns. Perhaps it isn't a coincidence that they choose a deserted island as a setting for the Hunger Games, errr, Battle Royale. Put a bunch of people together on a deserted island and watch them all turn into savages, where normal kids suddenly turn into killers. The breakdown of civilization and the innate savagery of man is straight out of Lord of the Flies.

This point always makes me wonder. Why are there always psychos in these films that are so eager to kill when just one hour ago they are normal kids? I know the whole idea is to prove the innate beast in man, but you can never really take these stories seriously when the characters' taste for violence reaches cartoon levels. Of course this is done purposely so we can establish clear heroes and villains, but I think the villains take far too much joy in their roles. But that is generally the whole appeal of Battle Royale, a vehicle for sensationalized violence and with 42 kids fighting for their lives you can expect a lot of it, though it isn't nearly the comical bloodfest of say Kill Bill.

Overall this is a pretty unique and generally awesome movie. The violence is sort of out there and in your face, but it is done with a certain style and grace, making it feel almost poetic. I enjoyed the film despite the lack of focus towards the end where it gets a little convoluted and complicated. But don't let that distract you from the glorious first parts of the film where all mayhem breaks loose. I suppose you're wondering what movie is better, Battle Royale or The Hunger Games. Yes, they are indeed similar, not just in plot but in theme as well, but they are different enough that they can be judged without being compared to each other. I think the primary difference is in the characters themselves. The strength of The Hunger Games is in the strong central protagonist Katniss. This is unfortunately a weakness of Battle Royale. Yes we get a wider variety of characters to get to know, but we never are able to know any particular one of them well enough to get that sense of attachment we do with Katniss. I think on a purely cinematic level Battle Royale is actually better, but as far as storytelling goes, I prefer The Hunger Games, though much of that may have to do with the fact that I read the books.

Grade: B

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Day 346 - The Blues Brothers

The Blues Brothers (1980) directed by John Landis

I had no idea that The Blues Brothers was actually an action movie that rivals Fast Five and The Road Warrior in car crash mayhem. Indeed the chase sequences in this film are beyond absurd with cars purposely running into each other creating literal traffic pile ups. There are also two scenes where entire sets are inexplicably blown up in typical Hollywood fashion. Mayhem, chaos and disorder are at the heart of The Blues Brothers which combines its outrageous destruction of property with equally zany comedy and amped up musical numbers. What results is an action comedy musical unlike most others.

Jake (John Belushi) and Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) are the Blues Brothers who have decided to get the band back together to raise the $5000 the orphanage that raised them needs to stay in business. Along the way they anger the cops, some Nazis, another band, and a psychotic woman out to kill them. The plot isn't really the selling point here; it is the chaotic atmosphere of the film that hooks you in. Belushi and Aykroyd gives the film the charisma and humor it needs to drive the film forward. They are helped by fantastic cameo appearances by musical legends such James Brown, Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles who provide impromptu performances that gives the film the vibe of a live action concert. I don't know if they did their own singing but Belushi and Aykroyd's musical numbers are great as well.

The Blues Brothers seems to be more of a celebration of music and comedy mayhem than an actual film. For the most part it is fun entertainment albiet a little on the long side. It's as if they had so many things planned for the movie they didn't know what to leave out so they just threw it all in there. Does the film need this many car crashes and explosions? Perhaps not, but for the most part these scenes work out and some, like the final chase, are choreographed quite well.

Grade: B+

Friday, March 30, 2012

Day 345 - Duck Soup

Duck Soup (1933) directed by Leo McCarey

I've never seen any bit by the Marx Brothers so Duck Soup was my first ever look at them. To say this film is crazy would be an understatement. In fact, they have a whole genre of films for this kind of nonsense called anarchic comedy where anything and everything can happen to get a laugh. This film probably holds the record for most jokes told per minute as Groucho spits them out nonstop in a stream-of-conscience non sequitur manner. The key to his comedy is in his puns and his use of double entendres. (As a rap fan, I'm a sucker for a good double entendre.) Some of the stuff is pretty funny but after a while it sort of grew stale on me. Just the sheer volume of jokes was exhausting to sit through and many of the jokes just tried way too hard (some of the jokes just flat out sucked). Also the style of comedy just feels very dated to me. That isn't to say that I hated it or anything, just that I'm not the biggest fan.

Anyways, Duck Soup is a sort of political farce comedy where Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) is named the dictator of the small, bankrupt country of Freedonia. Why, exactly? I'm not entirely sure, but it probably has to do with his joke telling abilities. Anyways, Freedonia's enemy and neighbor Sylvania has its eyes on the troubled nation and sends out spies Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx) to infiltrate Firefly's inner circle. Since I'm feeling especially lazy today, I will just use the generic plot description "and craziness ensues." But honestly, that is kind of the best way to describe this film since a plot summary wouldn't really make a lot of sense anyways. The whole thing is just an excuse for the Marx Brothers to do their bits.

I made sure to pay close attention to the much ballyhooed mirror scene where Pinky (Harpo), dressed as Firefly is sneaking around in Firefly's house when he breaks a hallway mirror. The real Firefly (Groucho) comes downstairs to investigate and finds Pinky staring back at him from the other side of where the mirror should be. Suspicious, Firefly does a bunch of silly gestures in which Pinky imitates perfectly. It gets even more absurd when Firefly thinks up of ways to trick his "reflection" which Pinky still nails. Eventually they even circle each other and trade places several times and we forget which is the real Firefly. It is classic physical comedy equal to if not better than some of Chaplin's best bits.

Other than a couple of select scenes and select jokes though, Duck Soup tasted sort of bland to me. Maybe I wasn't in the mood (I was super tired) but I found much of it more tired than funny. The mirror bit is great, but I can't really recommend a movie for one scene alone. But running at just over an hour long and with some good wisecracks in there it's hard to hate on it too much.

Grade: B-

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Day 344 - Cinema Paradiso

Cinema Paradiso (1988) directed by Giuseppe Tornatore

Salvatore is a young boy whose father has gone missing in the war and whose mother has little time for him. The one constant in his life is the Cinema Paradiso and the magic of the movies that play there. He sneaks out every night to watch every show much to his mother's disapproval. Even at a young age, Salvatore is able to understand the power that movies hold, their ability to capture hearts and imaginations and in the case of a young boy in need of attention, to love and always be there. Soon Salvatore forms a friendship with the projectionist Alfredo, whom he eventually grows to view as a father, teacher and friend. Cinema Paradiso is a heartfelt film about the power of movies, particularly in their ability to foster a lifelong bond between a fatherless kid and a childless man.

The film is told primarily through flashback. An older Salvatore learns that his mentor Alfredo has just died and he lays in bed recalling his youth with a great sense of nostalgia. These earlier scenes of Salvatore's youth are filled with a sweet childlike innocence and are the film's strongest moments. There is such joy and exuberance in these scenes, particularly in his budding relationship with Alfredo. Is is also marred with a sense of sadness because we know something has happened to separate the two before Alfredo's death. (In the present day scene it implies that Salvatore has not been back home in many many years.) Eventually Salvatore grows older and he finds love, pain, joy, and loss, basically all the things people go through while growing up. The one constant though has always been that magical theater that has shaped his life.

There is more to the story than this of course, but like many great movies plot summaries do not do the film justice. In reality, the plot is very simplistic. A boy grows up and leaves town. He comes back and remembers. But the whole beauty and joy in watching the film is in watching life unfold. We grow familiar with the sights and sounds of the theater, the people who go there, the daily rhythms of the street, a young boy we watch grow up before our eyes and of a man who loves him like a son.

Grade: A

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Day 343 - A Shot in the Dark

A Shot in the Dark (1964) directed by Blake Edwards

I've never seen any of the original Peter Sellers Pink Panther movies. In fact my first exposure to Inspector Clouseau were the awful Steve Martin remakes, so I was sort of curious to see what made the original ones such classics. The key ingredient of course is Peter Sellers himself who was just a brilliant comedic actor (Steve Martin was no slouch himself in his heyday, but he's been in some truly awful movies the past decade). Sellers is perhaps most known for his famous triple performance in Dr. Strangelove, but his performance as Inspector Clouseau is nothing short of genius. I've never been a big fan of the bumbling idiot routine, which is why I generally hate the Mr. Bean character, the Steve Martin Pink Panther, and Mr. Hulot's Holiday, but I loved Sellers as Clouseau. Even though the character is clumsy and sort of an idiot, he displays a sense of dignified charm to him. The way he carries himself and delivers his lines is just fantastic and comic gold. I normally don't fall for the people tripping over themselves routine but I was genuinely amused when watching Sellers do his thing.

A Shot in the Dark, the second film of the Pink Panther series, begins with a cleverly choreographed introduction where several people are sneaking in and out of a house. It is all observed from a distance in one shot as we can see the characters sneaking around inside through the windows. It's tough to figure out what's going on but before you know it a lady enters a room where two people already are and in an instant gunshots are fired. Cue in the famous Pink Panther animated title and credits and the movie is on its way. The main suspect is the gorgeous maid Maria who is found on the scene with a gun in her hand. Inspector Clouseau arrives on the scene and immediately falls for her and believes her to be innocent. Meanwhile the real murderer is on the loose killing more people and eventually targets Clouseau himself.

The film is set up to demonstrate Clouseau's bumbling nature by putting him in ridiculous situations (such as being in a nudist colony), how clueless he is (people die around him without him even noticing), but also his occasional flash in the pan brilliance. The plot is sort of a mess, but you are really watching this film for Sellers who gives a fantastic and seemingly effortless performance. Even the really stupid stuff isn't forced. It just seems like he is playfully stumbling along if that makes any sense. But the screenplay is also sharply written with some funny exchanges and routines.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Day 342 - The Rock

The Rock (1996) directed by Michael Bay

With just twenty-something more days left in this challenge I was hoping to finish strong with a bunch of classics. The Rock is not one of them, LOL. It just started playing on TV so I started to watch and before I knew it it was already halfway over, so I figured I was committed to seeing the whole thing through. I used to love this movie when I was little and over the years still watched it whenever it came on. It's funny watching it now as an older more experienced movie watcher since it is exactly what I suspected all along, a pretty bad movie. But whatever, let the haters hate because I still enjoy this movie. Call it a guilty pleasure I guess.

The Rock is one of the cornerstones of the action movie extravaganza Hollywood was putting out during the 90's which included such films as Independence Day, Con Air, Wild Wild West and Michael Bay's Armageddon and the Bad Boys franchise. All these movies have have a couple things in common, big budgets, big action, and big box office numbers. They also represent a low point in American cinema and the dumbing down of audience that basically has not recovered since. Case in point, Michael Bay himself who is responsible for maybe the worst franchise in movie history Transformers which has gone on to make over a billion dollars between them.

I think I gave a pretty good summary why I think Michael Bay is bad in my post about Transformers, so I'll try not to just repeat everything I wrote there. Basically it sums down to this. What does he care more about, the art or the business of movies? Do you think he cares that his films are just action porn? Or that his plots make no sense? Or that his corny dialogue can be written by fifth graders? Or that including cliches is actually part of his formula? Say what you want about him, but Michael Bay is undoubtedly intelligent despite how dumb his movies are. He knows exactly what sells and exploits it to the maximum. Yeah, his movies are dumb, but he knows his audience is even dumber and loves them. But how can you really fault Michael Bay? After all he is giving people exactly what they want and the numbers do not lie. People like to go watch his movies. Why should he change things up and ruin things for the masses just to appease a select few?

Anyways, back to the movie. I've said it before but The Rock is easily Michael Bay's best movie even if it does suffer from some of the stupidity and cliche of his other films. This is thanks to a reasonably exciting plot strung together by endless action sequences. But the real reason why the film works is in the dynamic pairing of Nicholas Cage and Sean Connery. I couldn't imagine this film with anybody but these two in the lead. Say what you want about Nicholas Cage, because he's been in a lot of stinkers, but at least he gives it his all in every role he plays. Here he plays the nervous chemicals expert who is forced to come along for the ride because he is the only one who knows how to handle the biological weapon. Sean Connery plays the imprisoned British agent who is needed because he is the only person to have ever escaped off of Alcatraz. Together they must go to The Rock to stop a madman from detonated biological weapons into San Francisco. What results is an adrenaline rush of an action movie held together by gunfights, fist fights, macho men confrontations, explosions, macho man heroism, funny one liners, not so funny one liners, heroic music, idiotic side characters, chase sequences, close calls, speeches, cliches galore Ed Harris's strong jawline, Sean Connery's prickly British attitude and Nicholas Cage's manic eyes.

There are a plethora of stuff that is pretty unbelievable or plain doesn't make sense, but hey it is a movie. Why is there an Indiana Jones style mine cart railway on the island? What is the purpose of that crazy furnace with the deadly rotating gears other than to provide a cool entryway for Sean Connery? Why does Sean Connery wreck half of San Francisco to escape only to willingly be caught again? Why do the mercenaries think they will get paid if they launch the weapons when the logical response would be to just bomb the hell out of the island after? Why are they so intent on launching the weapon when its clear they're not going to get paid anyways? Are they just murdering psychopaths? Why is the head person in charge always a complete moron? I could go on, but honestly, this is actually one of the better scripted Michael Bay films. He doesn't get out of control until Armageddon where literally nothing would ever happen the way it happens in real life.

Anyways it's kind of stupid to criticize a movie like The Rock. It is meant to be popcorn fun and it is. My favorite line of the movie? Cage asks Connery, who's hanging upside down, if he's okay. James Bond responds, "Yes, I'm perfectly okay, you f*cking idiot." You think Shia LeBeof could ever pull that line off?

Grade: B

Monday, March 26, 2012

Day 341 - The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) directed by Joseph Sargent

Why are remakes always worse than the original? Well, that's not entirely true. The new Italian Job is much better than the original one but it seems like most remakes just suck. If they are following the same premise, why can't they produce the same results? For example, compare this 1974 thriller with the 2009 Tony Scott mess that not even Denzel Washington and John Travolta could save. One is smart and tense, the other is just loud and stupid. The difference is day and night.

This is a heist film where a gang of men hijack a subway train and hold its passengers hostage for one million dollars. Logistically speaking it doesn't seem like you'd be able to get away with it. You're stuck in a small train car underground surrounded on all sides with nowhere to go, but its exactly this reason why it makes for such a compelling thriller. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the train and the tunnel adds to the tension and the sense of danger. As the time deadline approaches we can feel the tunnel getting smaller until something must explode. Never mind that this isn't the most ingenious scheme. As long as there is tension you have a thriller.

This film is also smartly written with a touch of humor and strong characters. The bad guys are led by Robert Shaw who plays Mr. Blue. He is a cold and calculating mercenary. He is teamed up with Mr. Green, an ex-motorman, Mr. Brown, a professional, and Mr. Grey, a hot head ex-mafia. I'm sure Quentin Tarantino drew inspiration from this film when writing Reservoir Dogs. On the cop side there is Lieutenant Garber played by Walter Matthau. You wouldn't expect Walter Matthau to play a cop but he brings a much needed sense of humor to the film that works. But best of all is the colorful array of side characters from the cops to the hostages which show off the diversity (and urban tension) of a big city.

The main difference between this 1974 film and the 2009 Tony Scott film is in its direction. Sargent directs the film with a calm and steady camera, letting the story breathe and progress naturally. Tony Scott edits his films do death. Sometimes it works, sometimes it is a chaotic mess that resembles a music video montage more than a film. The original is also simple and to the point while the latter film adds in unnecessary complications.

Grade: B+

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Day 340 - Bringing Up Baby

Bringing Up Baby (1938) directed by Howard Hawks

Bringing Up Baby is considered by many to be the pinnacle of the screwball comedy. While it is an enjoyable film, I think I have to disagree. I have to watch more of these kind of films but so far I'm partial to My Man Godfredy and a different Hawks-Grant collaboration, His Girl Friday. The main problem I have with Bringing Up Baby is that I spent most of the time being annoyed at Katherine Hepburn's character, which is kind of silly since it's almost the same kind of zany woman in My Man Godfrey. Hepburn's character Susan though is so over the top and loud I found it hard to stomach at times. But there are of course other moments where she shines. Paired with Cary Grant, the two do have a sparkling chemistry. Throw a leopard and a dog into the mix and you have wacky almost-gold.

Cary Grant plays David Huxley, a paleontologist who is trying to win over a wealthy millionaire to donate money to the museum. Somewhere along the way he runs into Katherine Hepburn's character Susan Vance, an eccentric hurricane of trouble. Susan's wacky antics both intrigue and befuddle David and he spends much of the movie rueing the day he ever met her as she throws a wrench into both his personal and professional life. It goes without saying a romance will ensue despite the fact that he has legitimate reasons to hate her. It is sort of similar to My Man Godfrey in this way, a zany socialite woman who annoys the crap out an ordinary guy to the point where he realizes he loves her. Is this how romance happens in real life? Is this why they say it's a thin line between love and hate?

Susan tricks David into helping her drive her pet leopard Baby (yes you read that right, a leopard) to her Connecticut home. Needless to say, more wackiness ensues. If adding in a random wild animal doesn't epitomize the word screwball, then I don't know what does. How funny you think the film is really depends on whether or not you find Susan's characteristics endearing or annoying. I suppose it is meant to be both, but I found it weighted too heavily on the annoying side at times. But other times she displays remarkable charm and comic delivery. She is helped by some witty one liners that rapid fire screwball comedies are known for. Perhaps my favorite line: [reading letter about her new leopard] "'He's three years old, gentle as a kitten, and likes dogs.' I wonder whether Mark means that he eats dogs or is fond of them?"

But best of all is the interplay between Susan and David as they share plenty of witty banter, most of which emphasize what a mess she's made for David. Speaking of which, Cary Grant turns in a great performance as David, playing the exacerbated object of Susan's desires to the tee. Overall this is a solid lightweight comedy. I hesitate to call it great when I couldn't really get in tune with Hepburn's character, even if Grant's character could.

Grade: B