Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Day 315 - The Scent of Green Papaya

The Scent of Green Papaya (1993) directed by Anh Hung Tran

The Scent of Green Papaya is a about a young peasant girl who is sent off to work for a merchant family. The girl, Mui, works endlessly serving the house while quietly observing the daily lives of the family. We see the film through her eyes and ears giving the movie a sense of nostalgic beauty. We watch Mui study her lush surroundings to the most minute detail, from tiny ants and crickets to frogs in the courtyard and drops of water falling on top of a leaf. She is a curiously observant child, attentive to her  surroundings and those around her.

She is a good worker and gains the favor of the mistress of the household who grows to view her as a daughter. We find out that the mistress has lost her own daughter who would be about the same age as Mui now. The mistress is in charge of the family business while the husband often takes off at days at a time with all their money, boozing and womanizing until it is all gone. The grandmother of the house sits in her room and prays all day ever since the loss of her granddaughter.

It is hard to say I really enjoyed this film because it is such a slow and moody movie with a pretty minimalistic plot. We just watch the days go by in their lives as they do their daily routines. There is no real conflict or drama, just ordinary people living their ordinary lives. Much of the appeal of the film is in its restrained drama and its artistic vision. It is beautiful to look at and has a quiet beauty and sadness to it.

I suppose you could also call it a romantic film. The most heart warming scenes for me was when the old man confessed to young Mui his devoted love for the old grandmother of the house. He has loved her faithfully for the last seven years with no response. Mui encourages him to go up to the grandmother's room to take a look at her and when he does his face lights up and that is it. A simple glance is all he needs. The latter third of the movie when Mui is ten years older she is now working for a friend of one of the mistress's sons. There is a silent romance in the film highlighted by the man's piano playing. The latter parts of the film is almost entirely silent as we can observe the romance unfold with the music dictating the mood. I actually did not care that much for this part and much preferred the film when Mui was a younger child despite the plot being at a bare minimum. It seemed like a much more innocent and nostalgic time. Now that she is all grown up, the loses much of that feel and becomes more of a cliched romance. Overall this film may not be for everyone because of its slow pace, but it is an artistic vision that can be appreciated like poetry.

Grade: B

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Day 314 - She's Gotta Have It

She's Gotta Have It (1986) directed by Spike Lee

She's Gotta Have It was Spike Lee's first feature film and perhaps one of his most artistic. It is bubbling with his distinct vision and unique style. Shot in sleek black and white with a curious camera, it almost feels like a French New Wave film as there is an energy and freshness to it that is invigorating to watch.

In a nutshell, I guess the film is a look into modern female sexuality and the double standards and expectations of sex. Nola Darling is a strong willed independent woman who openly and happily has three boyfriends, or rather, guys she is seeing. The first boyfriend we are introduced to is Jamie, who is sweet and sensitive. The second boyfriend is Mars Blackman (perhaps more famous for appearing in those old school Air Jordan commercials) who can always make her laugh. Then there is Greer who has the physique of a Roman statue. Nola thinks of herself as a normal woman with a healthy sex drive, but naturally her lovers cannot understand why one man is not enough for her. What they fail to realize of course is that they are lacking in one way or the other and that her ideal mate would be some combination of all three of them.

Immediately we can see why any one particular relationship won't work. Mars is a good natured comedian, but lacks the seriousness for a real relationship. We can see in all their interactions what a clown he is, not to mention the fact that he's sort of a player. Greer is impossibly good looking but also impossibly conceited and lacking passion. In a key scene, Nola has just hopped into bed naked ready for sex. Any normal man would jump on her but Greer takes great care in taking off his clothes and meticulously folding them, making her wait in boredom. The most interesting candidate is Jamie who seems like an ideal boyfriend or husband type and she does seem to be the happiest with him, so why doesn't she just stick with him? Therein lies the problem. We assume that settling down and getting married is what she, or every woman, wants. Perhaps Jamie is the perfect man (he isn't as revealed in a later key scene) but that isn't the point. Of course if the roles were reversed and Nola was a man, we would say that he is just having fun in his youth, but change it into a woman, then she is kind of a slut or freak. In fact, Greer even suggests to her that she seek help for sex addiction. The boyfriends become fed up with Nola and eventually she will have to make a choice, but who is she making the choice for, them or herself? The real question isn't what man she wants, it is if she really wants any of them and why must she choose in the first place. The film is an effective comedy but is also a strong feminist film about sexual politics.

I really liked the film's story but enjoyed it even more as a movie. There are a lot of great little artsy things going on. What is it about early or debut films shot in black and white? Jim Jarmusch had Stranger Than Paradise (a film that She's Gotta Have It is often compared to for "ushering in the American independent film movement of the 1980's") is in black and white as is Kevin Smith's Clerks (though nowhere on the level of these two films). Here the black and white looks really sharp. There are also great uses of still photography showing off various parts of New York. There is an impressive series of stills of Jamie on a subway which would pass in any art gallery that showcased photography. There is a very artistic and erotic shot of Nola's nipple in a closeup where it almost looks like a mountain. I thought this whole sequence was really cool. There is one scene shot in color in a Wizard of Oz type moment that was fun to watch as well. The film is sprinkled with these sorts of interesting visual treats.

Grade: A-

Monday, February 27, 2012

Day 313 - Being John Malkovich

Being John Malkovich (1999) directed by Spike Jonze

This is one of the weirdest movies I've ever seen and almost impossible to describe by mere plot summary. It is also a testament to the talent of writer Charlie Kaufman who also wrote Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. What do all these movies have in common? They are all complex cerebral adventures that defy conventional thinking and storytelling. They take risks and bold turns, flowing in a stream of consciousness that is seemingly random and chaotic yet makes perfect sense. In Being John Malkovich we simply accept the fact that there is a building with a seven-and-a-halved floor and on this floor exists a portal into the mind of, well, John Malkovich. I have no idea what the inspiration for such a plot could have possibly came from but it is pure genius and honestly a little demented.

The movie is so interesting because it takes so many unexpected turns, not for mere shock appeal, but in clever and intriguing ways. It also has great characters that breathe so much life into the script. First there is Craig Schwartz (played by John Cusack) who is a struggling street puppeteer. He's not Kevin Clash of Sesame Street fame though. Instead he is a darker Woody Allen type, dark, neurotic and self loathing. He is so unlikeable that random strangers punch him in the face during his street performances. He is married to Lotte (Cameron Diaz) who is also a complete wreck. The two live together in an apartment with a monkey. Don't ask. They both fall in love with the same woman, Maxine (Catherine Keener), who is cold and dismissive to both, that is until they take the form of John Malkovich, to which she has a deep connection with. That of course leads to a virtuoso performance by Malkovich himself in a bizarre role which he plays himself, sort of. The film even features a cameo appearance by Charlie Sheen before he became the Charlie Sheen we've grown to know which makes it even more awesome.

Anyways Craig discovers a secret portal into the brain of John Malkovich where you can be a part of him for fifteen minutes. He and Maxine devise a plan to charge people $200 for the experience. Things go awry when Lotte wants to try it and finds that she is in love with being him and in love with Maxine who loves her back, but only when she is him. To make things worse, Craig is in love with Maxine as well and finds his only way in is to be him as well. It is a fight for Maxine via John Malkovich who himself becomes aware that something crazy is going on inside of his head. In one memorable scene he goes through his own portal entering his own mind. Craig discovers he enjoys entering the actor's mind as he is able to utilize his puppeteering talents. There is just so much craziness going on it is difficult to explain without spoiling things.

It is easy to see the connection between this film and Adaptation, the next Kaufman/Jones pairing as they have a very distinct narrative style that just jumps around from place to place. I loved the random fantasy element of the film and the dark witty humor. I don't really know what else to say other than this is one of the most bizarrely enjoyable films I've seen in a long time.

Grade: A-

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Day 312 - Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey (2011) directed by Constance Marks

Elmo was an unpopular and misused Muppet on Sesame Street that was on his way out until he was thrown into the lap of Kevin Clash and told, "See what you can do with him." Elmo would wind up being a staple on the show for years and perhaps its most recognizable character. Clash's secret for revitalizing Elmo? The love, warmth and affection that is more about Kevin than the furry puppet on his arm. Ever since Kevin Clash was young all he wanted to do was play with puppets. Even at a young age he was able to see the transformative properties they had and their ability to light up a crowd. It was also a way for an introverted and shy kid to be able to express himself. Kevin fondly recalls making his first puppet out of his father's wool coat when he was a kid, not even thinking about what his father might say. Luckily for him, his father was understanding and simply said, "Ask next time."

Being Elmo is a feel good look into the life of Kevin Clash, renowned puppeteer, voice actor and currently co-executive producer of Sesame Street. There are no hardships, childhood traumas or abject living conditions, no villains or conflicts. It is simply the story of a man who has dedicated his life to puppets and making audiences, particularly children, laugh and learn. He retells his humble beginnings at a local Baltimore TV show and his early days with Sesame Street and his experiences with his idols Jim Henson and Frank Oz. It is a mild mannered and warm story though somewhat lacking in some of the stuff that really interested me. For instance, I would have loved for Kevin to have given a detailed lesson on how to control a puppet or some of the other technical aspects of what he does. It's clear though that he is great at what he does, but I would like a better understanding of why. Perhaps that is something that cannot be explained in a handbook or training video. Perhaps his genius doesn't come from years of training, but rather years of love and care for his craft. Few people come across as genuinely likable as Kevin Clash and it shows off in his work. Elmo is so warm and loving only because Kevin is.

Grade: B-

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Day 311 - The Red Balloon

The Red Balloon (1956) directed by Albert Lamorisse

The Red Balloon is a short but sweet reminder of what it's like to be a kid again, filling our hearts and imaginations with pure childhood wonder. It is a 34 minute short about a boy who finds a red balloon that seems to have a mind of its own and their mini-odyssey through the streets of Paris drawing the attention of children and adults alike. With a simple score and virtually no dialogue, it is almost like a silent film and like any good silent film, it is all in the visual story telling and few films are as beautifully imagined as this.

I knew basically nothing about this film but was intrigued by its premise and was totally blown away by it. It's only 34 minutes long and sort of plotless but each minute is magical as you watch the boy interact with the balloon. I try to avoid using cliche superlatives but pick any that you want, magical, enchanting, charming, sweet, wonderful, imaginative, transcendant, and it describes The Red Balloon. It's kind of difficult to really explain the movie since it is so simple looking but I suppose the best way to describe it is in the feelings it invokes while watching it. Perhaps I'm being overly sentimental but it is a wonderful children's movie that can be appreciated by adults as well for its sweet innocence.

On a purely technical level, this film is a marvel as well. Exactly how they were able to make this balloon seem like a living thing with a mind of its own I'll never know and to be honest I don't want to know. Visually the bright red balloon provides such interesting pictures as it stands out so much in the sort of muted Paris landscape.

Sort of semi-spoiler but I'll just throw it out there, I wonder if elements of the Pixar movie Up was inspired by The Red Balloon, particularly its colorful and literally uplifting ending.

Grade: A

Friday, February 24, 2012

Day 310 - Stray Dog

Stray Dog (1949) directed by Akira Kurosawa

Stray Dog is a film noir police procedural that shows off Kurosawa's strong storytelling and style. It also features a great performance by Toshiro Mifune in one of his earlier roles. Here he plays Murakami, a rookie cop who gets his gun stolen on a crowded bus in the beginning of the film. Ridden with guilt and shame, he is determined to find his gun before it is used for harm rather than good. When a crook gets a hold of it he uses it in a series of murders, it drives Murakami to the brink of insanity as he attempts to stop him.

The main theme of the film is the difference between guilt and responsibility. Murakami feels responsible for everything that the crook does with his gun, almost as if he were the one pulling the trigger himself. This guilt is a heavy and unreasonable burden that he places upon himself. His partner Sato points out to him that if it wasn't his gun it would have been someone else's, but he is inconsolable regarding this fact. The next step then for Murakami is to stop feeling sorry for himself and do his job, catch the bad guy. Mifune displays a remarkable determination and intensity in his portrayal of Murakami though it is the different kind of ferocity than his roles of Rashomon and Seven Samurai. In Stray Dog, he holds much of it back and you can sense the tension and anxiety build up inside of him. Kurosawa makes sure to use plenty of closeups to capture Mifune's facial expressions and particularly his eyes. This film is more about his character's emotional journey than the police procedural itself.

As with many of Kurosawa's works there is the master/student father/son relationship. Here it is seen in the relationship between Murakami and his older partner Sato. Sato is played by ubiquitous Takashi Shimura who starred in even more of Kurosawa's movies than Mifune, though to perhaps less acclaim. The two actors had a similar dynamic in their first pairing in the movie Drunken Angel.

Another theme that Kurosawa uses in other films is the use of weather, particularly the sweltering heat and torrential rain. It is a way of highlighting the emotion and sentiment going on. This is a sweat drenched picture as all the characters are dripping in it, with beads of sweat dripping down foreheads and shirts soaked. The rainstorms come at the breaking point when the heat has become overwhelming and ready to explode, coming at a key plot turn of the film.

Stray Dog is an earlier Kurosawa picture though even at this early stage it was clear he was one of the most talented directors in the world.

Grade: B+

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Day 309 - The Big Bird Cage

The Big Bird Cage (1972) directed by Jack Hill

The 70's might have been the golden era of cinema but it was also the heyday of some really low brow shit with exploitation films. My favorite of these is probably blaxploitation with films such as Super Fly and Shaft but you got to love the women in prison films. Hot chicks wearing skimpy outfits? Unnecessary shower scenes? Prison rape? Did I mention sex and boobies? Despite all of that The Big Bird Cage is actually a pretty terrible movie. Low production value, terrible acting, and a not so clever script. Of course you expect all of these things in an exploitation picture so you just got to let some things slide. I wouldn't really categorize this film in the it's so bad it's good category though. It's more of a it's so mediocre that it's bad kind of film.

I'm not going to bother going into a deep analysis of the film because honestly you're only watching this movie to see boobies anyways. Rest assured, you will see boobies, bare skin and women mud wrestling. What else do you really need? Back in the day that made these films awesome but now when hot naked chicks are just one click away, these films can feel terribly dated if there isn't anything else to go with it. The story here is passable but nothing noteworthy. My main beef with the film is that the acting is just sooooo bad. Even Pam Grier, as awesome as she is, stinks it up. Added with the corny script and low production values it makes the film look so campy and outright bad.

I will say though that it is pretty entertaining at times. Pam Grier, who I really only know through Jackie Brown, is a badass though her performance is pretty laughable. If this film were made now you would think that everyone is just having a fun time with a silly movie, but it is kind of hard to judge her performance here. The film is actually pretty serious most of the way making it kind of a buzzkill but it does pick up in the latter half when the girls start rebelling. The highlight has got to be the reverse gang rape where the females rape the gay prison guard. I LOLed because it is a) obviously ridiculous and b) hilariously awesome. Other than that though, there aren't really that many highlights unless you count up the so-so boobies sprinkled throughout the film.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Day 308 - Lemon Tree

Lemon Tree (2008) directed by Eran Riklis

Lemon Tree is a film that shows what happens when ordinary people from both sides of the fence interact with each other as individuals rather than as faceless sides of a struggle. It is a humanistic film that shows we are all the same people. This message is even more poignant when you realize that Lemon Tree is an Israeli made film that is decidedly sympathetic to the Palestinian plight.

Salma is a widowed Palestinian woman whose family has tended to a lemon grove for generations. This lemon grove sits right on the border of Israel and the West Bank which is a problem when the Israeli Defense Minister and his wife move into a house that sits next to the grove. The Israeli Secret Service decides that the grove poses a national security threat since terrorists could hide in there or something to attack the house so they order the grove to be cut down. Salma enlists the help of a lawyer Ziad to fight this order and takes it all the way to the Supreme Court.

The key to the story isn't necessarily the conflict of the lemon trees but of the human relationships formed in the film. The Minister's wife Mira sits on the other side of the barbed wire fence and silently observes Salma lovingly tend to her trees and sympathizes with her. They both share a sense of isolation and loneliness that speaks volumes to each other even though they rarely say a word to each other throughout the film. The other relationship that forms is between Salma and her lawyer Ziad who also shares her sense of loneliness. He has left his wife and daughter behind to find work back in the homeland. There is a romantic spark between him and Salma as he grows to appreciate her quiet strength and beauty. It is a sort of forbidden love that adds more dimensions to the story. Overall Lemon Tree is an effective story of human relationships that is worth watching even if the issue of the trees themselves comes out as a little dry. Perhaps my one complaint would be that while it is an intriguing drama, it doesn't quite speak to me on a cinematic level. There's nothing fancy going on, just characters acting in front of a camera, though sometimes that is all you need to tell a nice story.

Grade: B

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Day 307 - The Sword of Doom

The Sword of Doom (1967) directed by Kihachi Okamoto

In the beginning of The Sword of Doom, an elderly pilgrim prays at a shrine for death so he would no longer be a burden to his granddaughter who cares for him. As if to answer his prayers, a mysterious samurai appears seemingly from thin air and grants him his wish by slashing him down mercilessly. This samurai is Ryunosuke Tsukue and he can best be described as pure evil in human form. Here is a man who has honed his craft so perfectly that he has become a literal harbinger of death, leaving behind bodies for no other reason than that he simply can.

There is a fencing match where he must face off against a member of his former school. The man he must face off against is no match for him so his wife comes to Ryunosuke to beg to let her husband win so he does not lose his position and honor. Ryunosuke agrees only if she sleeps with him and in a disturbing scene he forces himself upon her in what could only be described as rape. The husband finds out about this and takes the match personally attempting to defeat him with an illegal maneuver. Ryunosuke parries his attack and gives a swift blow to the head that kills him. The man's school seeks revenge against Ryunosuke and attempt an ambush. In one of the film's several lengthy and bloody fight sequences, Ryunosuke slays them one by one. In perhaps the film's signature composition, he stands in the center of the frame walking through the misty forest with bodies lying in his wake.

The film is broken into several episodic chapters. From what I have read, The Sword of Doom was based on a serialized newspaper story that spanned over thirty years. These chapters kind of give the film a disjointed feel as the central plot is loosely strung together, but it basically focuses on the exploits of this distinctively villainous anti-hero. As a disgraced samurai, Ryunosuke can only find work with a band of thieves. He now has a son with the woman he raped and whose husband he killed and it is a torturous and painful relationship for her but Ryunosuke is all that she has. The husband's brother seeks revenge against Ryunosuke but first must receive training from the finest swordsman in the land Shimada, played by Toshiro mother-effing Mifune.

Shimada is the antithesis of Ryunosuke. One is virtuous and dignified while the other is amoral. He doesn't have a lot of screen time but Mifune makes the most of it and is given a lengthy fight scene of his own which totally kicks ass. In it, Shimada slays a bunch of assassins in a snowy exterior set, providing a nice contrast between the white snow and the dark blood of his victims. It also reveals the difference between Shimada and Ryunosuke. Shimada only kills when he has to and hates the idea of taking life while Ryunosuke relishes in it. When he witnesses Shimada at work it shakes him to his very core as he reflects on the darkness of his heart.

The film fast forwards yet again when the younger brother is ready for his duel with Ryunosuke, yet interestingly this match does not happen and is actually a sort of afterthought. There are many questions left unanswered in this film due to its episodic nature and that this was supposed to be the first of a series of movies that never came. Instead the film's finale comes when Ryunosuke is confronted with his own conscience. He sees the spirits of all the victims he has killed in shadows on the walls and he slashes violently out of control in a demented state. Soon real people enter the scene to kill him in yet another lengthy fight sequence. The would-be assassins come out of the woodwork and as soon as one is slain another takes his place as Ryunosuke slays one after another after another. The fight literally never ends as the movie ends with a freeze frame in the middle of the scene, focusing in on Ryunosuke's anguished face of pain, rage and perhaps ecstasy.

I think the real reason why the film ends with this freeze frame is because this was meant to be the first of a series of films and the next film would simply just pick up where this one left off. They never intended this to be the only and thus last film. In a way though this is the perfect ending because it captures the essence of the film, the never ending violence and perpetual state of evil in Ryunosuke. He is literally trapped in this scene forever fighting off his personal demons and enemies in his own personal hell.

The Sword of Doom is far from perfect as its story could have been tightened up but it is an undeniably interesting film. It has great black and white cinematography which serve as a perfect backdrop for its stylized violence. I will say one thing though that always confused me, why is it that in a one against thirty sword fight, the bad guys take turns fighting him rather than just rush him? There were so many times when Ryunosuke (or Shimada in his scene) could have been attacked from behind when he was preoccupied with the guy in front of him. He only has one sword, we have fifty. Just surround him and hack away. Don't fight him one at a time!

Grade: B

Monday, February 20, 2012

Day 306 - Gnomeo & Juliet

Gnomeo & Juliet (2011) directed by Kelly Asbury

I've been so burnt out lately that I needed a throwaway movie to just rest my brain so I went with the easiest category I could think of. I think the kid's animated movie probably has the lowest batting average of any genre other than maybe snuff films. It's not that animated movies are all horrible, it's that so many of them are just utterly mediocre and forgettable. For every Ponyo or Pixar classic, you get ten Rio's and Gnomeo & Juliet's. These aren't necessarily bad films; they're just stuff that grown adults could really care less about, but little kids just eat up.

Gnomeo & Juliet is another take on Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet (duh) featuring the wonderful and secret world of garden gnomes. Huh? It is a pretty bizarre concept, but sure, we can work with it. At least it's kind of an original idea. I wonder if they picked gnomes only for the reason that they could cleverly replace Romeo with Gnomeo. Anyways, as you might expect there are two families that hate each other, the house of Red and the house of Blue. Just like the Crips and the Bloods, they do not get along and often get into gang fights. One day Gnomeo meets this girl gnome Juliet and the two instantly hit it off until they find out they are from opposing families! SHOCKER! I'm not going to rehash a plot that everyone should already know so instead I will just give some general observations.

I think one of the main drawing appeals for this film is the Elton John soundtrack. There are some brand new songs and variations of some of his classics. They are pretty catchy but also quite corny when you have to incorporate the gnome elements to them, which reminds me, who thought it was a good idea to have garden gnomes as the central figures for the story? They just seem so uninteresting as objects to center a movie around. The gnomes follow the rules of the Toy Story universe where they must remain still in front of humans but when people aren't around, they can move around freely. It works in Toy Story because we always imagined our toys being real. Who ever gave a gnome a second thought?

Anyways the film is decent at what it does, mainly entertain kids, but for adults there isn't much going for it other than maybe the familiar Elton John tunes. The humor is pretty uninspired and the story doesn't add much heart or depth to it, only offering the minimum requirements to make it an adaptation of the play. The animation is decent, but also uninspired. I think much of it has to do with the ascetically displeasing looks of gnomes. There aren't any eye popping visuals to make it stand out from all the other standard CGI animated fare. Just a typically mediocre and forgettable kid's animated film.

Grade: C  

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Day 305 - Safe House

Safe House (2012) directed by Daniel Espinosa

Serious question. Why are you bringing your infant child to a theatre with loud noises at 11:00 PM? There was not one but two babies in the theatre serenading the audience with their majestic cries, providing the surround sound experience of a maternity ward. On top of that, the guy sitting behind me was snoring and randomly kicking my chair in his slumber. And my popcorn was a little stale and my Coke Zero flat. It was one of the more unpleasant movie going experiences I've had in a while, not to mention that the movie itself was pretty mediocre.

Safe House is a messy action flick that leans heavily on its energy and constant movement but unfortunately never leads anywhere we haven't been before. It does feature the ever awesome Denzel Washington and heart throb Ryan Reynolds as the leads, but there is only so much of Training Day and American Gangster that Washington can put into this role without it feeling generic. Washington plays Tobin Frost, a renegade ex-CIA master agent who has suddenly reappeared in South Africa after a decade off the grid. He is being hunted down by some bad guys after acquiring a mysterious computer file. Running out of places to turn to as bullets wiz by, he turns himself into the American consulate where he is immediately arrested and taken into a CIA safe house. The safe house is overseen by a rookie operative, Matt Weston (Reynolds), who has been begging for some action. Well action just came your way kiddo! The bad guys attack the safe house and Matt and Frost escape. The two must work together to run from the bad guys and figure out their next move. Frost won't make it easy on Matt of course since he is his prisoner but the two frenemies make a dynamic pair.

Director Daniel Espinosa would have been better served to slow things down a bit and let scenes breathe rather than shoot the movie like a music video. The action is too quickly cut and shot too close in making it difficult to figure out what is going on. It is the standard quick editing technique that is basically lazy direction. You can mask a weakly choreographed action sequence by getting in close and doing these quick cuts making the action seem more intense than it is, but what ends up happening is that it is nearly impossible to figure out what is going on. You can't tell where characters are in relationship to each other or their surroundings and the action itself becomes meaningless because you can't see any of it. Compare this to the action scenes in Haywire where Soderbergh shoots his fight sequences in medium shots with minimal cuts allowing us to get a full glimpse of all the action. I'm not sure what the relationship is between cinematographers and editors are, but Oliver Wood (cinematographer) was responsible for the last two Bourne movies which I loved, but you could hardly see any of his work here when the shots are chopped up into a million bits and pieces.

Finally the movie itself is kind of generic with standard plot holes and predictable moments. This is a standard popcorn action picture that to be honest I'm not too upset over. I just wish it was a little better done because it is somewhat entertaining and who doesn't like Denzel?

Grade: C+


There is a scene in a soccer stadium where Frost is attempting to escape from Matt. Matt yells out to him, "Frost! Frost! Frost!" Does he honestly expect him to turn around and wait for him? Why doesn't he keep his element of surprise and chase after him or something. All the meanwhile Matt draws attention to himself where the stadium security pulls out his gun and open fires into a crowd. LOL, there's no way anyone would ever do that.

There is an obvious (at least to me) double crosser in the movie and it is between either Branden Gleeson or Vera Farmiga. I thought it was Gleeson's character all along because he has a personal relationship with Matt, thus creating a more dramatic heel turn. It actually doesn't really matter though because we barely know anything about these characters so we don't really care if one suddenly turns, though that is also why it's obviously Gleeson since we know more about him.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Day 304 - Beginners

Beginners (2011) directed by Mike Millis

It is never too late to restart your life. Several months after his wife of 44 years dies, Hal tells his son Oliver that he is gay and he intends to pursue this lifestyle he never had, even at 75 years of age. In a couple years Hal too will pass away leaving Oliver alone in the world wondering if it is too late to restart his own life. Beginners is a wonderful little film about two people at different points in their lives who are still beginners in life and love.

Several months after Hal dies, Oliver is still mourning. We see him in his father's empty house slowly trying to piece his life back together. All he has left is his father's faithful dog Arthur who can speak to Oliver on a subconscious level, or maybe Oliver is so alone that he can only confide in a dog. One day at a party he meets a girl named Anna and they hit if off. They fall in love and begin a serious relationship, something that Oliver is not quite good at. He has a history of pushing people away, afraid of commitment and all the pain it brings. But perhaps this time is different as he reflects back on the last years of his father's life where Hal was able to embrace who he was and learn to live his life to the fullest to the very end. Oliver's present day timeline is interwoven with Hal's as we see the parallels in their stories. A third timeline is introduced as we see the relationship between a young Oliver and his mother, perhaps the last woman he truly loved.

We see Oliver and Anna's relationship slowly bloom into something beautiful. We also watch the relationship between Oliver and his father which is heart-achingly sad yet equally beautiful. These are his last few years but you would never guess from Hal's demeanor. Here is a man who has lived in the closet for all his life and despite terminal cancer, it is like a great weight has been lifted from his shoulders. He loved Oliver's mother but never quite in that way. Now he is able to experience life and love like he has never felt. Oliver watches his father closely and learns that it is never too late to restart your life. But Oliver is luckier than his father; he still has time to set things right.

I absolutely loved Beginners. It is a genuinely warm and heartfelt movie that is romantic, touching, sad, funny and thoughtful. It is also artfully made in a style that is rarely seen anymore. It is a movie more fitting for the French New Wave than Hollywood in 2011. There are various shots that reminded me so much of Jules and Jim, Vivre Sa Vie, and Breathless I wonder if this was some kind of homage. Regardless it is damn fine film making. I also have to say what a huge difference a musical score can make. The thoughtful piano score is just so beautiful. Maybe it was just my mood at the time, but this was one of the most touching films I've seen in a while and certainly one the best I've seen from 2011.

Grade: A

Friday, February 17, 2012

Day 303 - Atlantic City

Atlantic City (1980) directed by Louis Malle

For as much gambling as I've done I've never been to Atlantic City, partly because it's across the country in the middle of nowhere New Jersey and also that everything I've ever heard about it makes it seem like a total shit hole. The HBO show Boardwalk Empire shows the city's glory days where buildings were brand new and classy gangsters roamed the streets, but nowadays the city seems to be a shell of its former self, often described as a city of steady decline and urban decay. This 1980 film, Atlantic City, is a perfect example of this theme as it is a story of broken dreams and disappointment in the heart of a dying city.

Much of the film is located in a derelict apartment building. Its walls are crumbling, the whites off colored, smudged with years of dirt and grime. An often repeated shot is of a sign on a crumbling building that reads of a development project in the works, again. But the dying city is really just a metaphor for the characters themselves. At the heart of the film are two characters, Burt Lancaster's Lou and Susan Sarandon's Sally, who find themselves stuck in their dreary lives. Lou is an aging numbers runner whose glory days are behind him, much like Atlantic City itself. He claims to have been a big time gangster in Las Vegas, even once a cellmate of Bugsy Siegel, but is now collecting quarter bets on the street. You get the sense that he was never the man that he claimed to be but also that he desperately needs to prove himself, not just to others but himself. He may not have been Bugsy Siegel, but given the opportunity he very may well have, at least that is what he tells himself. He finds his opportunity in his neighbor Sally. She is a much younger woman who works at an oyster bar. Her dream job is to be a blackjack dealer in Monte Carlo, away from this life in AC. She is separated from her husband who ran off with her younger sister and the two are expecting a child. They come to her for a place to stay and she doesn't have the heart or the nerve to tell them off.

In the very first scene of the film we see Lou peeking into Sally's kitchen window as she does her nightly ritual of washing off the fishy smell with freshly cut lemons in a slow seductive trance, yet it isn't necessarily the sensuality that turns Lou on to her. He sees a vulnerable young woman that he might impress with his stories. She may be the only person in AC who hasn't heard them. Like any odd couple, Sally and Lou are actually good matches for each other. Sally is in need of some help and Lou desperately wants to feel useful. In a twist of fate, Lou runs into Sally's husband who is in town to sell some stolen drugs. He enlists Lou's help in making an exchange when he is hunted down by the men who he stole the drugs from and killed. Suddenly Lou has a bunch of cash and drugs at his disposal and gets his chance to be the big shot he always dreamed he could be. He is finally able to talk to Sally and impresses her with his lavish lifestyle and worldly ways. So impressed with this older gentleman, she asks him to teach her about the world. You can hardly blame Lou though as every guy has been in his position, talking himself up, throwing around cash he doesn't really have, all in hopes of impressing the girl. Naturally, she finds out where he got the money from, as do the gangsters who want their drugs and/or cash equivalent. This is where Lou finally gets his chance to prove himself as a man, to protect the girl and stand up to the bad guys by being an even badder guy. The relationship with Sally is never really about romance or companionship for him, it is all about this moment of heroism.

This is reflected in two key moments. The first is when Lou shoots the gangsters who are threatening him and Sally. It is the first time he's ever killed someone, perhaps even the first time he's fired a gun. How he reacts though is how we know he's never been who he says he was. He is far too excited. A real gangster handles his business without emotion and just does what he has to do. Lou admires the gangsters from his youth. Perhaps with this act of valor he may even think he belongs to be mentioned in the same breath as them but what really excites him is that he's proven himself as a man. This is why he places so much emphasis on the fact that he "protected" Sally, using that word over and over. It is also why he is so easily able to let Sally go in the end because he has fulfilled his dream in saving her. Perhaps he is saving her once more by letting her go, letting her live her own life.

Atlantic City is a film about dreams and disappointment in life. Lou dreams of his past while Sally dreams of her future. In some ways this brings them together but is also the reason why they can never be together. At the center of their universe is the city itself, a representation of their fading expectations in life. This is a wonderful little film with characters that we grow to care about. We feel for Lou because he reminds us a little of ourselves. We always tell ourselves, "Tomorrow is another day," but those tomorrows add up and before we know it we are old men living in regret, wondering where our youth went.

Grade: A-

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Day 302 - Hunger

Hunger (2008) directed by Steve McQueen

Hunger tells the story of the 1981 hunger strikes that took place in the Maze prison in Belfast by IRA members. It is a brutal yet captivating look at harsh prison conditions and the sheer willpower of the human spirit. It is also a testament to what actors must go through in order to play certain roles. Michael Fassbender, who plays Bobby Sands, went from 170 to 132 pounds and looks deathly unhealthy in the last act when the hunger strike takes place. You always hear about actors and actresses gaining or losing weight for roles and it shows the dedication that they have for their craft and their desire for authenticity.

The film begins not with Bobby Sands or other IRA prisoners but with a prison guard going through his daily routines. We see him standing outside in the snow taking things in and the shot rests upon a tiny snowflake landing on his bloody knuckles. It is a beautiful yet painful image that sets the tone for the rest of the film. The first portions of the film deal with the "blanket" and "no wash" strike where prisoners refused to wear prison clothes or wash themselves. We get a close look at one cell where human feces is smeared across the walls, the centerpiece being a perfectly formed vortex of shit. It is a powerful image that is kind of beautiful yet so obviously repulsive. In this first act we see the scenes of unflinching prison brutality. In a well shot scene guards arrive in riot gear and forcibly remove prisoners from their cells to beat them, most of it done in one long continuos shot highlighted by a moment where we see one guard crying off to the side while his compadres exert their force. One thing I've noticed from Steve McQueen, who directed Shame, is that he has a great visual style, which shouldn't be too surprising since he was an artist before going into movies.

Even with the scenes of violence in the first act and the slow agonizing death of Bobby in the last act and all the visual imagery throughout, the highlight of the film to me was the middle which is basically a twenty minute conversation between Bobby and a priest. It is shot in a single take with no camera movements at all, simply two guys sitting down and talking. In a film with virtually no dialogue, it is one of the longest scenes of dialogue I can remember seeing. Here Bobby and the priest exchange ideas, arguing over the merits and morality of a hunger strike. One thing is clear, Bobby is willing to die for his beliefs and details exactly why he must do what he's about to do. It is such a simple yet effective scene that explains everything you need to know.

The last act where Bobby goes through the hunger strike is almost an afterthought. He made his decision to martyr himself in that conversation with the priest, his slow agonizing death is just a formality. These last scenes are painful and depressing. We can see Bobby's life slowly drain out of him, yet his point is made stronger and stronger as he gets weaker and weaker until he finally dies. It is hard to say if his death was worth it, the prisoners did wind up getting some things, but in the grand scheme of things perhaps not nearly enough. One thing is for certain though, the minor victory that Bobby Sands won by his death was worth it to him and no one can take that away from him.

Grade: B

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Day 301 - 12 Angry Men

12 Angry Men (1957) directed by Sidney Lumet

12 Angry Men is one of my all time favorite movies but I haven't seen it in years so I figured it'd be okay to watch it again. Plus I've been dying to check out the Criterion Blu-ray that's been sitting on my shelf for a month. What I love so much about this film is that it is a gripping drama that keeps you captivated simply by people acting. Just stick twelve actors in a small room with a camera and you have one of the best movies of all time.

The film is a courtroom drama where we must figure out if a kid is guilty of murder. If convicted he goes to the electric chair, if not he walks, plain and simple. Except nothing is that simple when it comes to deciding the fate of someone's life. From the onset it seems like an open and shut case and that the decision may take just five minutes. The jurors vote and one by one they all raise their hands for guilty, except for one man, juror number 8 (Henry Fonda). It is important to note that Number 8 doesn't necessarily think that the kid is innocent, only that the case is at least worth discussing. It is no easy thing to send a man to his death, nor is it easy for one man to stand up against eleven. In this way the film sort of reminds me of High Noon where one man must stand alone. 12 Angry Men may be a courtroom drama about law and justice, but it is all built upon a single act of courage.

So we slowly learn about the case second hand through their discussion. We learn about key facts and witnesses and we hear points and counterpoints. The kid may very well be guilty but that is not the point. The great thing about the American legal system is that guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and slowly but surely doubt creeps into the jurors' minds. But no matter what evidence or testimony is refuted, there are some jurors who are convinced the kid is guilty. We learn a lot about the case, but we learn even more about the jurors. Each has his own distinct personality that we pick up on and are familiar with. This isn't just a collection of people deciding a case but a representative of American society as a whole. They represent the very best of people, logical, compassionate, and humble, and the very worst, angry, prejudiced, and opinionated. It is a film like 12 Angry Men where we realize the beauty in the American legal system and also its fatal flaw, the reliance on people who have their own opinions.

The film packs twelve men together in one stifling room. It is the hottest day of the year and we can see the sweat pouring down their faces. The heat is a not so subtle thematic device used to mirror the tension in the room. They have heated debates, tempers flare and anger erupts. Adding to the tension is the use of the camera which slowly tightens up as the film progresses, making the room feel smaller squeezing in on the jurors. In the beginning the debate is mostly civil with everything shot in medium length. Then we start to see more close ups where we can see the walls and the ceilings closing in as the arguments get more heated. Finally by the end, it is almost suffocating. It would have been so easy to just sit a camera in the front of the room and start rolling, but Lumet adds in this great and effective touch. I could go on and on about this movie, but I think I hit the key points. It's a really great movie that I'd tell anyone who hasn't watched it to do so immediately.

Grade: A

300 Days...

300 Days...

You'd figure after watching 300 movies in 300 days that I would have some sort of rhythm or routine going on but that hasn't really been the case. I've played a lot of poker the past couple months at odd hours so I'd often come home super exhausted in the middle of the night or early morning to watch a movie and I feel my blog entres have really suffered because of it. I'm sort of limping into the home stretch now but come hell or high water I'm going to get this done.

The past 100 days have been kind of weird because the classics are getting fewer and further between so it feels like I've been watching more middling movies. This is reflected in the lower amount of A's and the increase in B's and B-'s. It could also be that I'm just under-appreciating some of the critically acclaimed greats. For instance, I haven't given any non-Chaplin silent film an A despite the high praise I've given in my comments for some of them.

Here are the stats!

Be decade:
2010: 30
2000: 9
1990: 10
1980: 7
1970: 9
1960: 5
1950: 11
1940: 7
1930: 7
1920: 5

Now by grade:
A   15
A-  21
B+ 18
B   21
B-  12
C+  7
C    2
C-   3
D+  0
D    1
D-   0
F     0

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

After Hours, AlienAu Revoir Les Enfants, A Christmas Story, Dark City, The French Connection, Floating Weeds, Hugo in 3D, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Nobody Knows, Notorious, ShameSwingers, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 21 Grams

It's tough to say which one of these I like the most since they're all great, but I will say the movie that has given me the most thought is probably Dark City. It is a slept-on classic that gets overshadowed by The Matrix but is every bit as fascinating. Kudos to Floating Weeds for being one of the most visually compelling movies I've ever seen and Notorious for being a bad-ass Hitchcock.

Link to 200 days.

Link to 100 days.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Day 300 - The African Queen

The African Queen (1952) directed by John Huston

Being that it's Valentine's Day and all I decided to watch a romance but couldn't bring myself to watch some Nicholas Sparks movie. I think in general romances get a bad rep only because there are so many bad ones out these days. I don't have anything against romance at all, I just don't like bad movies, ha.

The African Queen is a classic romance adventure that has everything going for it, namely its two lead stars and the exotic location that makes the romance and adventure all the more alluring. Humphrey Bogart plays Charlie Allnut, a raggedy ship boat captain, and Katharine Hepburn plays Rose Sayer, a righteous missionary do-gooder. As World War I begins, all hell breaks loose in German East Africa where Charlie and Rose escape down river abord his ship The African Queen. Stuck together on the small boat, the odd couple's relationship grows from minor annoyance to deep love. Their love only grows as the journey gets more treacherous as they must navigate the dangerous river and get past those pesky Germans. It is a classic yet simple formula that works thanks to the two leads, a smart and funny screenplay and the African locale. Filmed on location in Uganda and the Congo in Technicolor, the screen pops out with vivid color and textures uncommon in films back then.

I really enjoyed watching the timeless adventure unfold. It can almost be described as a romantic buddy adventure comedy. While this film was made after Bogart's and Hepburn's primes (they both look rather old and tired), they still work their magic in older roles. It goes to show that not every love story has to be about hot young twenty-somethings. Middle age romance can be just as sweet as shirtless models frolicking on the beach. While being shot on location gives the performances and setting a sense of authenticity, there was some noticeable use of hilariously fake models and blue screening during some of the rougher river scenes. In one scene I think the boat is literally a toy model with little wooden figurines in them. Some people hate on older movies because of stuff like this. I  actually don't mind at all because it still works to tell the story. In fact, sometimes I think it is rather charming. I know that no matter how realistic an alien may look in a modern film, I know it's all CGI anyways so how is that any more real than the toy boat?

Anyways, a charming little film that both guys and girls can enjoy since it has a little bit of everything, though I suppose it technically is a chick flick.

Grade: A-

Monday, February 13, 2012

Day 299 - Whale Rider

Whale Rider (2002) directed by Niki Caro

Whale Rider opens with the birth of Pai, who narrates that it was not a day of celebration; her twin brother and mother die in the process. Her father is so grief stricken that he flees leaving her to the care of her grandparents Koro and Nanny. Pai, now twelve, is strong willed, intelligent, and emotionally aware. Her only fault is being a girl, which excludes her from many of the Maori activities in a male dominated culture. Koro loves her as a granddaughter but is extremely strict as he has rigid expectations of what a Maori girl can and cannot do, such as being chosen to be the future leader of the tribe. The main conflict of the film revolves around their teetering relationship as Pai attempts to win Koro's approval despite his stubborn views. It is a familiar story with familiar themes. You may even call it formulaic but it is a formula for a reason. These are stories that that transcend time and culture and carry universal truths. It may be about a Maori girl living in New Zealand but could easily be about a Navajo girl in America.

Part of the appeal of the film lies in the portrayal of Maori life in modern New Zealand. It is a fading culture where its elders such as Koro attempt to fiercely hold onto their traditions. We don't see anything spectacular happening, just the daily routines of modern living, which is why it is so important for Koro to hold onto the past.

One of my biggest beefs with having kids star in dramas is that most child actors suck. It is always a revelation then to find the rare film where the kid is great and Keisha Castle-Hughes, who was twelve at the time, basically makes this film. (She was the youngest person ever nominated for an Academy Award for this role.) She shows plenty of natural talent and plays Pai convincingly and movingly.

If I were to have a couple minor complaints it would be in Koro and Pai's father. I understand that Koro must be portrayed as a total hard-ass to make his turn all the more dramatic but he doesn't deserve the unconditional love that Pai gives him. Also Pai's father, Koro's son, disapproves of Koro's expectations of him and flees to live his own life as an act of rebellion, yet leaves behind Pai to be raised by him? What kind of father is that? And he too is undeserving of Pai's unconditional love. I suppose this makes Pai's character all all the more powerful as she is all loving and understanding, but I would guess not terribly realistic.

Grade: A-  

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Day 298 - The Crazies

The Crazies (2010) directed by Breck Eisner

I think I've already mentioned this numerous times: I'm a gigantic vag when it comes to scary movies. I just don't like the whole things popping out at you genre. A couple scenes here and there, sure, but 90 minutes worth of crapping in your pants? No thank you. I thought I was done with horror movies after Halloween, but for whatever reason when this movie started playing I just kept on watching. It probably had something to do with the fact that I was laying down on my couch and the controller was just out of arm's reach, or maybe that The Crazies is actually pretty good.

One of the plus sides of zombie movies, and yes this is a zombie movie even though they aren't technically zombies, is that you know exactly what you're getting into. You got your relentless man eating baddies on one side and the small group of survivors on the other. How you get to this point can vary from story to story, but rest assured you will get there. This is probably one of the easiest formulas to follow, which is why there are so many of these kind of movies out there, but it is also probably one of the most difficult genres to distinguish yourself in because let's face it, all these movies are the same. So what makes The Crazies stand out from the rest of the pack? Not terribly much, but it is well made with some scenes that are sure to make you jolt, which is why you're here in the first place. The sense of dread and doom is sustained throughout the entire film making it a true horror film in both atmosphere and the number of scares which a lot of other horror films fail to pull off. It also spends a fair amount of time on the principle characters to make us sort of care for them, I guess.

You might notice that I have not yet mentioned the plot. It's not because I am afraid of ruining it for you, but because you already know what this film is about. If you've seen one zombie movie you've seen them all. This actually might be the reason why I was able to sit through this movie because once you already know what to expect, you can brace yourself for all the scary moments because you know they are coming. Just know that it gets the job done in rather unspectacular yet satisfying fashion. It's unlikely I'll remember anything about this movie a month from now, but for those 90 minutes I was into it.

Grade: B-

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Day 297 - Chronicle

Chronicle (2012) directed by Josh Trank

Chronicle has been described as a superhero movie, and I suppose it is, but to me what it really is is a character study of a tormented teenager who is given an outlet for his inner rage. Replace telekinetic powers with a gun and this could almost be a retelling of any number of stories where kids wind up shooting up schools. Andrew is an unpopular kid who gets picked on at school and has a dying mother and an abusive father who likes to drink. His only real friend is his cousin Matt who is confident, good looking and popular. Matt is friends with Steve, the most popular kid in school, so by extension Steve is at least courteous with Andrew, so much so that he invites him along to explore a mysterious hole in the ground. The three of them go into the hole as normal teenagers and come out as young supermen who can move things with their minds and fly.

At first the kids test their powers on small objects but soon graduate to moving cars and even flying. They have fun showing off and playing jokes on unsuspecting people, but when Andrew angrily causes a car crash, they realize just how powerful and dangerous their gifts are. The three agree to control their powers to make sure nothing bad ever happens, but despite the link that bonds them, Andrew is very different than Matt and Steve. We see his relationship with his father worsen, his mother dying a slow painful death, and the constant humiliation at school. He is one step away from crossing over to the dark side, to borrow a term from Star Wars. For the first half of the film, we see kids being kids, having fun and exploring their powers, but the second half is decidedly darker and more mature as they realize the consequences of their powers. This is a great superhero (and villain) origin story.

The first thing you might notice about the film is its POV "lost footage" style. In the beginning of the film Andrew decides to chronicle his life via videotape, thus providing us with the majority of the footage we see. Other footage comes from a girl who is doing a video blog of her own, surveillance cameras and TV footage. It is an interesting and creative way to shoot the film that I would have never thought of for this type of film. A lot of the times these kind of films feel gimmicky but it works really well here because I feel like we get a much more personal look at the three characters, particularly Andrew. It also isn't disorientating at all like so many of these films can be because of the clever trick of Andrew being able to levitate and operate the camera without holding it giving us different looks and angles rather than the standard POV. This is particularly useful in seeing action sequences. A shot I really liked was when they first learn to fly and are soaring through the clouds. It looks like sky diving footage and is quite awesome to look at.

Grade: A-

Friday, February 10, 2012

Day 296 - Swingers

Swingers (1996) directed by Doug Liman

Shockingly I've never seen Swingers before. Supposedly it's like the ultimate bro movie, but I was actually quite surprised at the amount of depth and truth in this film. It is indeed the ultimate bro movie because few movies have captured the male mindset as accurately as Swingers. It is mostly funny, yet insightful and at times even heartfelt, all disguised of course behind the veil of Vince Vaughn's catchphrase "That's money, baby."

The story follows Mike, a comedian who recently moved to Los Angeles from New York, leaving behind his longterm girlfriend in the process. Six months have passed and she's gotten a new boyfriend and Mike is devastated. We've all been there before. When people break up it's a race to see who gets over who first and the first step is when your ex starts dating again. It feels like she has moved on with her life while you are stuck where you are. You start reminiscing, throwing pity parties and wallowing in depression. Raise your hand if you know what I'm talking about. Losers.

At least that is how Trent views Mike's morose mood. He may seem like a douchebag but he is absolutely right in his assessment of Mike. He needs to get over her and get out there. Who is he being a martyr for? But as anyone who's gotten out of a long relationship can attest to, it is much easier said than done. Trent suggests a Vegas trip with Mike to have some fun and the chemistry between Jon Favreau (Mike) and Vince Vaughn (Trent) is great in these scenes and the Vegas scenes had me cracking up.

When it comes time to pick up girls, Trent is the ultimate pro who knows all the lines while Mike is still so attached to his ex he has lost all confidence with other women. Again, Trent, while being kind of a dick, is generally correct in his statements about what women really want. It is just much more difficult for some people than others. It's funny because I know guys like Trent and I can't believe how many girls they get, while guys like Mike (and myself unfortunately) get nothing. So when it gets down to business Trent is about to score while Mike has a nice conversation with his potential hook-up about well, his ex. Smooth move, Mike.

And that is the formula of the film. We watch Mike mope around and unsuccessfully try to pick up girls. He is generally a wreck throughout the film, just as we all are when we are getting over someone. It may feel like it is hopeless and that you'll never be with someone again, but that feeling will eventually pass. All you need is a little time (some more than others) and of course someone new to come along. It may take a while, but it will happen eventually, at least that is what I keep telling myself. Ha!

Swingers is a funny and observant comedy and well deserving of its bro-status. One of the things that makes this film so great is that all the character feel real, what they say, what they do, how they act. It feels natural even when it's obviously scripted to be comedic. Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau are a natural pair, Vaughn with his sly cockiness and Favreau with his more reserved nervousness. They kind of remind me of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau from The Odd Couple. Bottom line, it is one of the best male comedies to come out of the 90's.

Grade: A

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Day 295 - Things To Come

Things To Come (1936) directed by William Cameron Menzies

My schedule has been all screwed up lately because I've been focusing a lot on poker. My daily schedule goes something like this: Wake up. Watch a movie. Rush over to the casino and play for like 15 hours. Go home exhausted. Think of typing up the blog entry but decide to do it when I wake up. Rinse, repeat. This is why my past couple entries have been coming in late. And the days that I have managed to have extra time on hand I decide to watch basketball instead of typing. (Jeremy Lin all the way!) Like I've said all along, watching the movies haven't been the problem, writing about them is just grueling work.

Things to Come is a weird movie in that couldn't really say what it was about in just a couple sentences. It is part anti-war, post-apocalyptic and science fiction all rolled into one. It centers around the fictitious city of Everytown over a span of a hundred years. In 1940, the country (presumably Great Briton) is preparing for war with an unnamed country in an eerie parallel to the upcoming World War II. The tone of this portion of the film is decidedly anti-war rhetoric but also points out that the greatest scientific progress has come during times of war which is actually true. A lot of the greatest innovations have come from military applications. Everytown is bombed much like London was during WW2. The war spans several decades and we now see Everytown lying in ruins in a post-apocalyptic world resembling that of Mad Max where fuel is scarce. There is also the issue of the wandering sickness, a black plague type disease that has killed half the world's population. Everytown is rulled by a dictator like leader as all post-apocalyptic worlds seem to be. Then in comes the weird science fiction angle as a new civilization called Wings Over the World come rolling on through. While Everytown is a dystopia, Wings Over the World represents some type of utopia imagined by John Lennon. Fast forward to 2036 where Everytown is now a futuristic advanced society where progress is key, represented by the mission to send a man to the moon. (While they got World War II right, I guess it would have been difficult to imagine people going to the moon just thirty years later rather than the far distant year of 2036.) But is all progress good? A character in the film claims that it isn't, that the purpose of life is to live for the now rather than to forever prepare for the future. I think it's kind of a silly argument. Your now that you live in is only this way because of past preparations. And what about the whole thing about making the world better for your children and all that? The tone of the film shifts dramatically into a long winded philosophical lecture that quite honestly, I didn't care too much about nor did I find particularly engaging.

It's hard to say whether I enjoyed the film or not. I don't really recommend it on any pure cinematic level. The story was disjointed into unrelated segments so it was hard to get into it. In the end Things To Come is merely an interesting film to see for its vision of the future, but not for any type of drama or human interest.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Day 294 - Chasing Amy

Chasing Amy (1997) directed by Kevin Smith

Chasing Amy is one of those rare films that touches upon like every theme in a man's romantic life, going after an unobtainable girl, retarded insecurity, feelings of inadequacies, and just plain stupidness. It's been a while where I could relate so much to a story yet at the same time not understand why some people are just so dumb.

Holden meets a girl named Alyssa and the two instantly hit it off. He thinks their reparte is leading some place (his bed) but there is a catch; Alyssa is a lesbian and only sees Holden as a friend. That doesn't stop Holden though from hanging out with her and becoming BFF's. He genuinely likes her and soon enough he realizes that he is in love. I think every guy has been in this position before. No, it's not being in love with a lesbian, but with a good friend who only sees you as that. Navigating through the friend zone is tough enough, but to try to convert a lesbian is a whole other matter. At this point, the film could devolve into a stupid romantic comedy with a quirky obstacle, but Chasing Amy handles this situation with surprising sentiment and depth. Kevin Smith is known for his casual Tarantino style dialogue, and this film has plenty of that, but he is also capable of writing genuinely touching stuff, as seen from Holden's soul bearing confession to Alyssa. Perhaps it is a bit scripted, it is a movie after all, but I'm sure if I gave this speech to a girl, they'd at least consider it! It's kind of funny that I watched this movie today because I sort of found myself in Holden's position recently with a friend that I've gotten to liking but with almost no chance of anything happening.

As it turns out, the speech does work with Alyssa and they end up together which leads to a whole different set of complications for Holden. It also shows his general naivety and plain ignorance. This can be traced back to an earlier conversation that Holden and Alyssa have about lesbian sex. He cannot understand what women get out of sex without a penis. Alyssa has had plenty of lovers, but they were all women, so technically she is still a virgin. Way to completely belittle her there! It's kind of funny though because while what he is saying is stupid, it is pretty much how guys think. For instance, guys love the idea of lesbian sex because it is harmless fun and not as meaningful as "real" sex with a man. Tell a guy that this girl has been in a threesome with another woman and they will think she is hot. Tell him that she's been in a threesome with two men and he will think she's a total slut.

So when it turns out that Alyssa has been adventurous with men before Holden doesn't know how to handle it so he goes off on her and sees her completely different. Every guy has been in this situation too. For some reason guys just need to know how many guys their girlfriends have been with which is just retarded because no matter what she says you're not going to like the answer. And what does that matter anyways whether it is one guy or thirty as long as she is with you now? Her past is her past and has nothing to do with you now. Of course Holden behaves like any normal guy, which is to say stupidly and they get into a fight that is 100% his fault and easily avoidable. But at the heart of that question "How many guys have you been with?" is a deeper rooted insecurity. If a girl is too experienced in a guy's mind, he will feel inadequate and intimidated and always wondering if he is good enough for her. I've definitely felt this way around some girls whether justly or not; it's just how guys are wired. So at this point in the movie, I can kind of understand Holden but at the same time am seriously pissed at him because he's behaving like such a retard. But that is what I think is so good about the film, it captures a man's real weakness so well. What really surprised me though is the solution that Holden has to try to fix his relationship with Alyssa. I don't want to give anything away, but I couldn't believe it. Can someone really be this stupid? It really shows that he never really understood Alyssa at all and further proves the point that some guys behave like idiots when it comes to relationships.

Chasing Amy is a funny, touching, and sometimes painful film about the nature of relationships. If I were to have one complaint is that while I think Kevin Smith writes good dialogue I feel like his tone is the same for every character. Everyone sounds the same and this was true in Clerks as well. It is a minor complaint though because I enjoy these types of conversations that the characters have, which is basically about anything and everything. There isn't really anything noteworthy about Kevin Smith's visual style as a director, but he has a distinct voice as a writer.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Day 293 - Hellboy

Hellboy (2004) directed by Guillermo Del Toro

Hellboy is a comic book movie starring an uncommon hero, a man/creature from the depths of hell here to save mankind. He is bright red with horns and a tail and if he weren't out saving kittens he could easily be confused for the devil himself. Curiously the film does not dwell much on the internal struggle that must exist in the heart of a spawn from hell; we sort of just except that he is a generally soft spoken mild mannered hero. I would have loved for the film to further explore the possibility that HB is a hero because he chooses to be despite a true evil nature, the whole conflicted hero angle bit. It would actually make his relationship with his father, the man who discovered him and raised him as his own, more touching and meaningful because then we could see what a positive effect he has on HB's life. Despite his appearance and origin, he seems far too normal. Of course, all of this is explored in the very last minutes of the film when HB must decide whether he wants to be a hero or the harbinger of evil, but it almost seems like an afterthought and we never truly expect him to turn.

Despite Hellboy's potentially dark nature, the film is actually very light hearted and plays out more like a traditional comic book. There is action, there is humor, and a surprising amount of love and the staple of any good story of good vs. evil, Nazis. (Ever notice how many movies have Nazis as bad guys?) I actually kind of feel like this movie is a little too light hearted, not that there's anything wrong with a rock em sock'em action comedy, but it sort of limits the film's potential.

As you can see from Ron Pearlman's costume and the monsters that HB has to fight, special effects play a big role in the movie. They are merely adequate in my opinion and much of the stuff going on looks a little, well, cartoonish, which was probably the intention all along.

All in all, I thought Hellboy was decent comic book fun.

Grade: B-

Monday, February 6, 2012

Day 292 - Trollhunter

Trollhunter (2011) directed by Andre Orvedal

Three college students with a camera investigate a man who is believed to be illegally poaching bears in Norway's wilderness, but it soon becomes clear he does not deal with merely bears. The claw marks on his truck are far too big, the footprints he tracks far too strange. He is a troll hunter working for the Troll Security Service (TSS), a government organization that hides these trolls from the public and kills any that leaves designated territories. Hans, the troll hunter, invites the kids to tag along with him into the secret world of trolls. Trollhunter is a curious "found footage" mockumentary in the same spirit of The Blair Witch Project, which means plenty of shaky cameras, grainy night time footage and an abrupt ending. For what it's worth, I didn't like The Blair Witch Project but I mildly enjoyed Trollhunter.

It's kind of hard to give any real input to the film because it's sort of just out there. I expected it to be more funny or more intelligent or more, well, something, but it just wasn't. It's basically just a ho-hum monster film masquerading as something more unique because of its POV style. I suppose I should go ahead and describe the trolls which come in varying shapes but (gigantic) sizes. The first troll we see has three heads, the last troll we see is over fifty feet tall. Exactly how do creatures this size remain hidden from the public? All the trolls smell really bad and have huge noses to sniff out.... Christians? I found that a really odd thing to just throw in there and was wondering if there was any significance to it other than being kind of funny. I mean I suppose if you were really reaching you could view Trollhunter as a sort of anti-Semitic satire. For instance, is it a coincidence that these trolls have huge noses, a common stereotype for Jews, and that they seek out Christian blood? Having just thought this, I Googled "Troll hunter anti-semitism" to see if I wasn't the only one who thought this and it appears that I am not the only one.

There is some dry humor that is sort of hit or miss and there aren't really any real scares. There isn't anything really innovative about the film either. I will say though I was sort of taken aback by the appearance of the trolls. They are interesting, and apparently racist, creatures. At least, watching the film didn't give me a dizzying headache like The Blair Witch Project.

Grade: C+

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Day 291 - Ip Man 2

Ip Man 2 (2010) directed by Wilson Yip

Following the events of Ip Man, Ip Man and his family have moved to Hong Kong where he hopes to start a new martial arts school to teach his Wing Chun style. He is opposed by the local syndicate who runs the martial arts racket. In order to get a license to instruct, Ip Man must face an open challenge against the other masters in a fight. This fight is held on top of a table surrounded by painful looking chairs turned upside with the legs up; first person to fall off loses. He beats a couple of masters rather easily and stalemates with the leader of the group, Master Hung, in a frenzied battle of furious kicks and punches. Ip Man earns his right to teach with the caveat that he pays the monthly dues. Ip Man refuses believing that the dues are only meant to line Master Hung's pockets, but he doesn't realize the immense pressure Hung faces from the British occupiers. The two masters have a lot in common as it turns out, namely their Chinese pride and sense of honor. This is a familiar theme for those who watched the first film, the dignity of the Chinese and the arrogance and oppression of the foreign occupiers. They are basically anti-imperialist propaganda films. The main conflict of this film occurs when a Chinese martial arts vs. Western boxing exhibition takes place in the ultimate East vs. West, good vs. evil showdown. The villain is a British boxing champion named Twister who is so over the top that he is basically a cartoon character. Am I really ruining anything when I say Ip Man and Twister fight in the grand finale and Chinese honor prevails?

Part of what made the first Ip Man so great was its epic scope and storytelling. Ip Man 2's story is much thinner and focuses much of its energy on its pandering sentimentality and also quite blatantly recycles much of the same plot points and themes from the original. That isn't to say I didn't fall for it because it is pretty darn entertaining, but I couldn't help but notice how scripted it all felt. I also felt like the fighting sequences in the first were much better and that the final fight in this one unbelievable for a couple reasons. One, there is no way a boxer could ever compete against a world class martial artist. This is why pure boxers struggle so much in MMA. I understand that they have to make the fight look good but how awesome would it be if Ip Man just kicked the crap out of him without even being touched? And while we're at it, why is Twister using boxing gloves while Ip Man uses his bare hands, elbows, knees and feet? Why is Ip Man even allowed to kick in the first place? That is a huge disadvantage to Twister. I suppose you don't try to question the logic of such scenes, just appreciate the athletic ballet of fists and the scripted drama, like the rest of the film.

Grade: B-

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Day 290 - Machete

Machete (2010) directed by Robert Rodriguez

"You f*cked with the wrong Mexican."

Machete is that ubiquitous character that has been sprinkled throughout Robert Rodriguez's movies from Spy Kids to Desperado but was perhaps most famous for the fake trailer in Grindhouse, Rodriguez's double feature B-movie homage with Quentin Tarantino. Having so much fun with it, Rodriguez expanded upon that trailer to make a full length movie and keeping with Grindhouse's B-movie theme, Machete is oodles of badness and is proud of it.

I have a soft spot in my heart for movies that are purposely bad and Machete certainly falls in that category. In the opening scenes Machete, who conveniently shares the same name as his weapon of choice, goes into a house and immediately starts impaling and beheading bad guys on scratched and grainy film. He rescues a hot naked woman who pulls a cell phone from the only place she could hide one. And in walks Steven Segal. Yes, it's going to be that kind of film.

Yet in some ways it isn't that kind of film. Machete suffers a bit from the same problems Once Upon a Time in Mexico has, a convoluted and overly ambitious plot. Part of the beauty of a so bad it's good movie is supposed to be its utter simplicity. Machete however tries to do too much and stretches itself too thin in complicated plot points dragging down the pace a little bit. Nonetheless, for the most part the film is still the fun B-movie you'd expect.

I guess I might as well mention the plot not that it really matters for this kind of movie. Machete is an ex-federali whose family was killed by the Mexican drug lord Torrez (Steven Segal). A couple years later he finds himself on the other side of the border in an assassination attempt of a anti-immigrant senator (Robert De Niro) where he is set up by the people who hired him. Machete is helped by Luz (Michelle Rodriguez) the leader of a sort of Mexican underground railroad and pursued by Rivera (Jessica Alba) an immigrations officer torn between the law and her nationality. There are a lot of characters and subplots to keep track of. Part of fun is in seeing all the familiar faces in these ridiculous roles. Lindsay Lohan plays a troubled girl who spends half the movie drugged out and/or topless (boobies!) in a good natured self effacing role.

The film has its good moments, the outrageous violence and corny one liners, but it also has its bad moments as well, the outrageous violence and corny one liners. There is only so much of the same stuff you can rehash over an hour and fifty minutes, some of it is good, some of it tiring. My favorite outrageous moment might be Machete using someone's intestines as a rope, set up nicely after a throwaway line in a previous scene mentioning that that the human intestine is 60 feet long. In the end Machete is a decent B-movie that might have done better by trimming down a little to keep things rolling more smoothly.

Grade: C+