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

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Day 339 - House on Haunted Hill

House on Haunted Hill (1959) directed by Robb White

House on the Haunted Hill is a kind of cheesy horror movie that is actually pretty good with a diabolical (although kind of ridiculous) plot, surprises and some cheap scares. Running at just 70 minutes, it gets to the point right away by introducing the entire cast, premise and first shock within the first five minutes and doesn't let up till the very end. That's exactly how I like these kind of films, tight and concise not wasting a single moment.

A wealthy man and his wife invite five guests over to a haunted house and will give each person $10,000 if they decide to stay the night. Obviously the set up sounds super suspicious but that does not stop them from agreeing, though perhaps they wish they hadn't when strange and creepy stuff starts to happen in the house. A murder occurs and soon the guests realize this is no simple game and they must figure out exactly what is going on. I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but I am eerily reminded of Les Diaboliques. I have no doubt that this film borrowed its sneaky plot from the French classic. You'll simply have to watch one movie or the other to know exactly what I mean, but I really appreciated the ending for being surprising and unique.

Of course this wouldn't be a horror film without some of the obligatory scares and this film has a couple of them. There is one pop out moment that is rather jolting and could easily be the best scene in most horror films. Some of the other scares border on tacky including a dancing skeleton but it is amusing in a very good way. It's not difficult to see the fakery of it all but it is still pretty darn good and gives the film a certain charm. Overall this is a great film for its genre because it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, entertain and scare, even throwing in a clever plot to boot. In comparing this film with Les Diaboliques, I would say on many levels the French film is better, but for pure entertainment value House on Haunted Hill takes the cake. It should be noted though they are clearly different films despite the obvious similarities.

Grade: A-

Friday, March 23, 2012

Day 338 - The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games (2012) directed by Gary Ross

I missed out on the whole Harry Potter and Twilight craze so I wasn't about to miss out on the biggest book in recent years with The Hunger Games. I finished the trilogy pretty quickly and have been eagerly waiting for this day for months. I haven't done the whole waiting outside of the theatre thing since like the new Star Wars movies, but today my friends and I waited outside for a couple hours like a bunch of nerds. With all the movies that I've been watching on my own the past year it reminded me how fun it was to go out to these big opening days.

In case you've been living under a rock I'll give you a brief description of the movie. In a dystopian future there is a central capitol city and twelve surrounding districts that are ruled under the Capitol's iron fist. Every year each district must supply two tributes, a boy and a girl, to participate in the Hunger Games where they will fight to the death for the Capitol's amusement, Roman gladiator style. 24 people enter the arena but only one will make it out. The hero of the story is Katniss Everdeen, one of the strongest female protagonists in recent memory. (She would kick the crap out of that whiny Bella Swan.) She is accompanied by fellow tribute Peeta Mellark who serves as a love interest despite the fact that there can only be one winner which means one, or mostly likely both, will not survive.

Half the fun in watching a movie of a book you've read is in seeing how it matches up with what you imagined when reading the book. I was curious to see how they portrayed characters and how certain scenes would translate onto film. First I'd like to say that Jennifer Lawrence is a perfect fit for Katniss. She is a strong and compelling young actress playing a character with similar traits to Ree, her highly praised role in Winter's Bone. She's pretty much exactly what I imagined Katniss to look and feel like and she plays the part well. I can't really say the same for the other characters as nobody looks like what I pictured. That isn't to say that anyone was miscast or anything, just that they're just different from what I imagined. For instance, I imagined Haymitch, played by Woody Harrelson, to be kind of a fat slob. Even when Harrelson is trying to be a slob he still looks cool doing it and he is definitely not fat here. I know they are trying to put more emphasis on the love triangle angle between Katniss, Gale and Peeta but it seems like they are trying to do what Twilight did by having the other guy (Gale) be a super hunk. Meanwhile Peeta, played by Josh Hutcherson, kind of looks like a doofus. Who still slicks their hair back like that anyways? What is this, the 60's?

A lot of people assume the biggest challenge in adapting a book into a movie, particularly a futuristic sci-fi world no one has really seen before, is in the visual imagery, but in my opinion a bigger challenge is in translating heavy internal dialogue onto the screen. The books are written in the first person with Katniss as the narrator so we know exactly what she is thinking and feeling. In the film we can't read her thoughts and it would be lame to have a voice over going throughout the whole thing, so we have to interpret a lot of her thoughts and feelings through her actions and short dialogue. I feel like a lot of Katniss's thought processes and motivations aren't clearly defined in the film. It is easy for me to say what she is supposed to be feeling in a scene because I've read the book, but I feel like a lot of stuff would be missed or looked over by someone who hasn't. For instance, I wasn't entirely convinced of her sudden romantic interest in Peeta. In the book it is a continual struggle for her to accept him, but here it just comes too suddenly without that much build up. Her alliance with Rue and her feelings towards her also felt kind of rushed which kind of muffles the emotional impact of their scene together.

The significance of the berries at the the end of the book is detailed almost ad nauseam. In the film I felt like it was completely ignored. I understand the need for brevity and the tough task it is to trim down a book into a screenplay, but this was a huge part of the story and a key link to the second book. When it is down to Katniss and Peeta as the final two, I would have loved to see a longer scene with more emotional struggle, but the scene ends so fast and without much of the punch.

Overall I feel like the movie is a faithful adaptation to the book, but it seemed to be missing its emotional core which would have made the film so much better. Regardless it is still a fun and exciting movie to watch. While I felt the character development was kind of lacking, I did think the film did a pretty good job in the action/fighting/surviving department, which is what I suppose the casual fan wants to see in a movie anyways. I probably had more fun than most because of my attachment to the book, and I wasn't really even that attached, so I can imagine how the true fans must have really dug it up. Now I have to wait another year for Catching Fire.

Grade: B

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Day 337 - The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps (1935) directed by Alfred Hitchcock

The 39 Steps provides the template for many of Hitchcock's future films (most notably North by Northwest) where an innocent man must go on the run to prove his innocence all the while uncovering a larger conspiracy. The film opens with the protagonist Richard Hannay watching a show in a theatre when suddenly shots are fired. In the ensuring panic, he brings home a frightened woman who turns out to be a spy being pursued by assassins. Later that night Hannay wakes up when the woman comes stumbling into his room... with a knife in her back. She gives him a map and tells him to run and so he does. Naturally Hannay is accused of her murder and of course the only way to clear his name is to follow the clue that she left him. What follows is the familiar story of every day man turned spy complete with all the familiar thrills and spills and of course the obligatory love interest he meets along the way. Is there ever not a romance angle involved in these movies?

One thing I just realized other than how much Hitchock loved this forumla is how much he loved trains. It seems like just about every film he's done involved a train scene. He even has a movie called Strangers on a Train! In The 39 Steps, just like North by Northwest, the hero finds himself hiding out on a train where he meets the girl. I've ridden on the Amtrak a couple times; it didn't really seem like a place to pick up hot girls. Sigh. The reparte between the two leads is nice though not particularly outstanding. I did enjoy the scenes where he plays along with her fear and belief that he is a killer by falsely admitting to it, partly out of fun but also to get her to behave.

Overall the film provides a nice dosage of spy thriller and romantic comedy. I suppose you could call The 39 Steps a sort of North by Northwest lite. There aren't any particularly outstanding moments or even memorable scenes (though escaping the train was a nice touch) but was still pleasing throughout. The movie is also a brisk 85 minutes, a fraction of the running time of North by Northwest, though also a fraction of the fun as well. Nonetheless, this is a solid early entry into a familiar genre that Hitchock helped popularize.

Grade: B

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Day 336 - Revenge of the Nerds

Revenge of Nerds (1984) directed by Jeff Kanew

There would be no American Pie without Revenge of the Nerds, one of the original teenage raunch comedies. Of course there would be no American Pie 14: Sorority Chicks Visit Middle School and Nerds Invade the Playboy Mansion or the any of the slew of crap over the years either but that is besides the point. What separates Revenge of the Nerds and American Pie from the cheap imitators (and unfortunately their own sequels) is a sense of heart that makes the film more than just immature boys thinking about boobies. Instead they tell stories of boys becoming men, not through sexual realization but through simply growing up. At its very core, they are coming of age stories that use boobs as window dressing. I'll just get this out of the way first though. Revenge of the Nerds is not as good or funny as American Pie, though I can imagine the kids from the 80's must have felt the same way about this movie as I did in the 90's with AP.

The title for Revenge of the Nerds tells you basically everything you need to know about the film. Sometimes I like titles like these so I know exactly what I'm getting into when I watch it unlike say the super ambiguous title John Carter. A couple of nerds are new to college where they find themselves being mercilessly picked on by the jocks and scorned by the hot sorority girls. The nerds try to form their own fraternity but when the Alpha Beta frat and Pi sorority makes life hell for them, they enact their revenge. This means some sabotaging pranks on the guys and some panty raiding of the girls. It is a typical teenage raunch comedy that we have all grown accustomed to. Imagine a geekier version of Animal House.

A couple of quick comments though. The character of Booger is an obvious rip off of Jim Belushi's character in Animal House which kind of begs the question, how is this guy a nerd? Also, what is it about 80's comedies and their portrayals of Asians? Another typical token Asian character here. The sexual pranks are kind of goofy and meant to be harmless, but if you really thought about these scenes, you'd realize it is borderline sexual predator rape stuff!

Anyways, Revenge of the Nerds is sort of a standard comedy but has enough heart to turn it from mediocre to pleasantly enjoyable.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Day 335 - Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) directed by Shane Black

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is one of those self important films that likes to remind the audience how cool and clever it is. Fortunately for the film, it really is that cool thanks to its sharp and witty screenplay, though not nearly as clever as it thinks itself to be no thanks to a plot that is almost as confusing as The Big Sleep. But like The Big Sleep and other hard boiled detective stories, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang isn't so much about the plot as it is about watching cool guys do cool things.

The story is narrated by Harry Lockhart, a petty thief that gets caught up in a Hollywood story of detective work, dead bodies, scandal and bad guys with guns. He is assisted by private detective Gay Perry who rivals Omar Little in the awesome gay tough guy category. The third wheel is Harmony Lane, Harry's obligatory love interest who finds herself caught in the middle. This is all I can really say of the plot because I couldn't even describe it to you if I wanted to, but like I said, none of that matters anyways. You simply watch the film to watch Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer be awesome and they are.

The highlight of the film is the screenplay which is full of funny little nuggets. "Look up idiot in the dictionary. You know what you'll find?" "A picture of me?" "No the definition of the word idiot, which you f*cking are!" This is the type of crass sarcastic humor that has populated films in recent years that can come off completely wrong (Kevin Smith) or be totally awesome (Quentin Tarantino). It is awesome here because the lines are delivered by awesome dudes like a gay Val Kilmer and the always cool Robert Downey and fits well with the overall feel of the story. It is like one of those classic Raymond Candler hard boiled stories updated for modern times.

I don't think I can say it enough times, but Val Kilmer kicks ass in this movie. I'll be your huckleberry.

Grade: A- 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Day 334 - The Hours

The Hours (2002) directed by Stephen Daldry

Why would anyone want to watch such a morose film about unrelenting depression? I know this sounds kind of hypocritical given my praise for such films as A Single Man and Shame but for some reason the deathly serious tone of The Hours sort of rubbed me the wrong way. Don't get me wrong, I think this is a good film, but it made me wonder why would I even watch such a thing?

The plot is sort of complicated. There are three sort of parallel narratives involving three different women. The first is the author Virginia Woolf who lived much of her life in constant depression. She is working on her novel Mrs. Dalloway, which is about a woman who is planning a party. This is reflected in the other two narratives, one involving Laura, a pregnant housewife in 1951 who feels trapped in her life. She finds difficulty in even the simplest of tasks such as baking a birthday cake, or loving her perfect husband and son. Fast forward to the present (2001) where Clarissa, which happens to be the name of the protagonist in Mrs. Dalloway, is throwing a party for her former lover and close friend, a poet and author who is going through the advanced stages of AIDS. All three women feel immense pressure and a gaping hole in their lives. Some of it has to do with expectations placed upon them, Virginia as a renowned artist far removed from normal society, Laura as a suburban housewife with nothing to look forward to, and Clarissa having to care for a dying man she still loves. Perhaps some of it has to do with their partners in life. All three characters display moments of bisexuality (in fact Clarissa is an open lesbian) in kisses with the same sex (or in Clarissa's case with the opposite sex). Whatever the case, what is clear is that all three women yearn for a personal freedom they cannot possess. The principle characters go about their day, though not all of them will live to see the end of it.

The Hours is a film that revels in its own melancholy. There are no moments of laughter or joy, just constant sadness. Characters spend inordinate amounts of time staring blankly into space with longing faces. There are occasional outbursts in case you could not gather that these characters are depressed. It is not a fun film to watch. But it is a well made film with nice art direction, music, direction, and most of all terrific performances. It is a star studded film with Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Juliane Moore as the three women and Ed Harris as the dying poet. They are all convincing and moving.

I do have a curious question though. Nicole Kidman won Best Actress for her role as Virginia Woolf, but I wouldn't have really picked her as the main character of the film and thinking back on it, she may not have even had the most screen time. I would argue that Juliane Moore's character Laura was actually the central character (she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress). I wonder how the nomination process goes for these films because I see this happen frequently in movies.

Anyways, solid film, though not one I would be itching to see again, unless you just enjoy soul sucking rain on your parade.

Grade: B

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Day 333 - 21 Jump Street

21 Jump Street (2012) directed by Phil Lord & Chris Miller

21 Jump Street is smarter, funnier and sweeter than anything I would have expected from an obviously ridiculous remake of an obscure TV show whose lasting fame would be of jumpstarting Johnny Depp's career. I've never seen the show nor do I have any idea of the general tone of it, but I'm assuming "loose remake" would be an appropriate term to describe the movie. It is a good thing too because following an idea too closely can seriously limit new ones. Instead writers Jonah Hill and Michael Bacall have written a screenplay that only uses the premise as a vehicle to tell their hilarious jokes and surprisingly smart story.

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum play the classic Odd Couple, a pair of unlikely friends whose outer differences will cause them to fight but whose inner similarities will ultimately keep them together. In high school Schmidt was an unpopular geek while Jenko was the handsome (but dumb) jock. In an early scene we see Jenko laugh at Schmidt when he unsuccessfully tries to ask a girl out to prom. Unfortunately for Jenko, he can't go to prom either because of failing grades. Seven years later they both find themselves in police academy with the same problems, Schmidt too chubby and insecure, Jenko too dimwitted. Naturally they make the perfect team and become best buds, though both are seen as jokes and outcasts patrolling a park on their bicycles like a couple of doofuses. After their first near bust, the duo get assigned to an undercover operation where they must infiltrate a high school (as students) to investigate a new drug.

Whenever these types of situations come up in movies, whether it is time travel or reliving the past, the whole idea is doing things differently. When their identities accidentally get switched (because they can't remember their undercover names), Schmidt must get in with the popular kids and Jenko must hang out with nerds and both must adapt to their new roles. Suddenly the cop movie becomes a surviving high school coming of age movie. Of course it is rather silly to think of two grown men coming of age in high school, but one of the things that makes the film so good is that it doesn't take itself to seriously. Imagine 26 year olds trying to win the approval of 17 and 18 year olds and you'll realize how preposterous it all sounds. One of the running jokes in the film is how old Jenko looks. Of course Channing Tatum would never pass for a high school kid, but that is the whole fun of the movie isn't it?

This movie is funny, in fact one of funniest films I've seen in a while. As I said before part of the fun is in the film's own self awareness. For instance during a car chase we expect several different vehicles to blow up but they don't, playing with the audience's expectations and pointing out how silly the whole process is. There is also a good dosage of (good) crude humor involved, making the film surprisingly vulgar, not settling to be labeled as a safe buddy comedy. The jokes are wicked and often side splitting. It is also helped by solid performances. This is the first true comedy I've seen Channing Tatum in and he is surprisingly very funny and seems comfortable in this role. Jonah Hill is of course a natural comedian whose observational and ironic humor comes off naturally. Ice Cube, who plays their boss, is also great in a smaller role.

Grade: B+

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Day 332 - Mafioso

Mafioso (1964) directed by Alberto Lattuada

Nino doesn't realize what is happening before it is too late; he is stuck doing the Don a favor he cannot refuse. In a way, the audience is in the same boat as Nino is. At first we think we are seeing an almost farce-like comedy when things suddenly become deathly serious. Without even realizing it we have just witnessed a startling crime drama that was brewing underneath the surface all along.

Nino is a Sicilian born man who takes his wife and two daughters on vacation for the first time to his hometown in Calamo. He has a romanticized memory of Sicily where everything is peaches and cream despite all the clues to tell him otherwise. Upon arrival there is a funeral procession. He asks a man, "How did he die?" The man replies, "Two bullets." Even several of Nino's childhood friends are now dead, but he does not let that bother him. The affable and gregarious Nino is so happily naive he can almost be seen as a caricature and indeed the beginning portions of the film plays out like a comedy. Nino's wife and daughters are almost like tourists in Sicily as the culture is so different from their urban Italian life. We get to meet Nino's relatives, an almost Italian version of the Brady Bunch.

Then Nino pays his respect to the influential Don Vincenzo and without realizing it has just stepped into the mafia's underworld. The Don helps Nino's father with a land purchase and Nino pledges his undying loyalty to him without really realizing what that might entail. We can see the Don has devious plans for him all the while he thinks of him as a benevolent benefactor. Then he is unwittingly sent to America to do a dirty deed that rivals Al Pacino's restaurant scene in The Godfather. It is an interesting character study of a good man who can be turned into the world of crime almost in the blink of an eye and shows the corrupting power of the mafia that seeps into people's pores as if by osmosis. He returns back to his family as if nothing has changed, though everything has. Can he ever be normal again after his mission? The closing shots would indicate that even the most good natured of people cannot escape evil.

Grade: B

Friday, March 16, 2012

Day 331 - A Separation

A Separation (2011) directed by Asghar Farhadi

A Separation is a powerful family drama about the messy nature of human relationships where each character can be sympathized with and understood. This is not a movie with sensationalized drama, but a study of real people in difficult circumstances. Real human drama happens at the home, and sadly at the courts, as people fight for custody, divorce, and plain spite. There are no winners in these circumstances, often only losers, just as there aren't really any true villains, just ordinary people at ends with each other.

The film begins with Simin and Nader sitting before a judge. Simin seeks a divorce if Nader does not agree to move abroad for a better opportunity for their daughter Termeh. Nader cannot leave on account of his father who suffers from Alzheimer's. "He doesn't even know that you are his son," she argues. "I know that he is my father," he answers back. She leaves him for a short while to cool things off between them. He is left alone to care for their eleven year old daughter and his ailing father. At this point of the film we must side with Nader, but can we really accuse Simin of being heartless? She is only thinking of Termeh's future and deep down inside knows there is no hope for Nader's father anyways.

Nader hires a a caretaker named Razieh to look after his father while he is at work. Razieh doesn't realize how much work it is to care for him and is overwhelmed. Plus the commute is long and she is five months pregnant. One day Nader comes back to find Razieh gone and his father tied to his bed. Razieh has stepped away to run an errand, the nature of which we do not know nor will she say. When she returns Nader confronts her angrily. A physical altercation occurs and Razieh may or may not have been pushed down a flight of stairs causing a miscarriage. Nader would never intentionally harm a woman, a pregnant one no less; he just simply wanted to her out of his house in his moment of anger. But the damage is done and now Razieh and her husband are suing him for murder. Nader in turn sues her for negligence while caring for his father. It is an ugly and messy dispute where both sides come across looking bad, yet we understand both sides. What really happened almost doesn't matter; no one will be happy in the end.

Nader's relationship with Simin is even more strained than before. Would any of this have happened if she were still at home with them? The real loser in all this fighting is Termeh who is caught in the middle. She may be only eleven but she undersands fully what is happening around her. She must suffer silently as she watches her parents argue. Children are far more perceptive than they are given credit for. In one scene we see Termeh exchanging long eye contact with Razieh's four year old daughter as the grown ups argue. They can sympathize with each other's problems.


All the grown ups must share the blame to some extent, Simin for leaving, Razieh for holding on to her secrets, her husband for being ill-tempered, and perhaps most of all Nader not just for pushing Razieh but in how he handles the aftermath. In a gut wrenching scene Termeh is expected to lie for Nader to the judge. Nothing is said between them but you can sense the rift grow between them. In a later scene Nader puts all the pressure on her by bluffing her with a guilt trip in hopes she will not go with her mother. Earlier he confronts Simin for being a coward, but this was the most cowardly move in the whole film. But again, he isn't really a bad guy here. We can see how decent and loving he can be. He is simply a man with a difficult problem. Would any of us really act any differently?

My one complaint would be that we don't really get a sense of closure with the other family and that Nader gets away too easily morally given the other factors involved. I would have liked to see an additional scene where Razieh reveals to him that she lost her baby because she was looking after her father. Perhaps he didn't directly cause the miscarriage but he should be more sympathetic given the circumstances.

I thought the ending was brilliant as we wait to see who Termeh decides to stay with. That we don't find out really doesn't matter. All we need to know is that the separation is final and that they will all end up as losers, even the winner.


Grade: A

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Day 330 - Rampart

Rampart (2012) directed by Oren Moverman

In Rampart, Woody Harrelson plays one of the more unlikeable movie characters in recent memory. It isn't necessarily because he is such a bad guy (there have been plenty of awesome bad guys you root for) but because he is bad without a hint of awesome or coolness to go with it. The whole bad cop routine has been done to death, perhaps none better than Denzel Washington in Training Day, but in that film you're in awe of Denzel because he is such a badass. In Rampart you are disgusted by Harrelson's character Dave Brown who is just downright nasty and rotten to the core.

Here is a crooked cop who bends rules any which way he pleases and justifies his actions as doing "the people's dirty work." He is the poster boy of the beleaguered LAPD with Rodney King still fresh in people's minds. In fact, he spends most of the film under investigation for a King-like beatdown caught on tape and another incident involving a questionable use of deadly force. But doing the people's dirty work is just an excuse for Dave to run wild on the streets. At least Popeye Doyle acted the way he did to catch the bad guy. Here, Dave may very well be the bad guy. But again this isn't really why we dislike Dave. We dislike him because he is a drunkard, a womanizer, misogynistic, racist, homophobic, a bad husband, and a bad father. These are actual words said to him by his own daughter in a heart to heart talk.

There is no real central plot in the film. Rather it is a character study of a man heading into a downward spiral. His actions have finally started to catch up to him and he has nowhere to turn to. We can only sit back and watch him fall and what an ugly ride it is. It is a gripping look at such a fascinatingly pathetic individual.

If I had to describe Rampart in one word it would be gritty, which seems to be the word for a lot of the cop dramas I have seen such as Serpico and The French Connection. The tough and gritty feel of the cinematography matches Dave's character. The sun drenched washed out colors and hand held cameras reminded me a lot of scenes I've seen from The Shield which is a good thing.

Grade: B

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Day 329 - Point Blank

Point Blank (2011) directed by Fred Cavaye

The story is simple. A Parisian nurse is attacked at home and wakes up to find his pregnant wife kidnapped. The phone rings. He has three hours to help a wanted criminal escape from the hospital or his wife will be killed. It is the familiar genre of ordinary man thrust into extraordinary situation and soon the man finds himself in the middle of a murder conspiracy, chased by cops and bad guys alike, all while trying to save his wife. Point Blank is a nice little thriller that had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish, not even leaving me time to go to the kitchen to grab a snack.

The story doesn't waste any time getting started and once it does the action is fast and furious and gleefully thrilling. It is basically just one long chase movie. In one extended sequence the man spends so much time running you're not sure he's acting when he doubles over trying to catch his breath. And the film doesn't give you much time to catch your breath either as you're sprinting with him to the finale. At just 84 minutes long, Point Blank is a compact thriller that is over before you even know it.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Day 328 - A Single Man

A Single Man (2009) directed by Tom Ford

A Single Man features Colin Firth's greatest performance (yes, even better than his award winning role in The King's Speech), where he plays George Falconer, a gay college professor who grieves for the loss of his lover. It is a remarkably strong and touching performance where it is hard to tell where Firth ends and Falconer begins. He blends so perfectly into his role we forget we are watching a performance and not a real man who has suffered life's greatest loss, the death of a loved one.

The film opens with George laying in bed in a daze. There's spilt ink on the bed but doesn't seem to care or even notice. There is a dreamlike sequence where he sees his lover lying dead at the scene of the car crash that killed him eight months ago. You get the impression George has been this way for a while and this dreamlike feeling permeates throughout the film as we observe him sleepwalk through his daily routines while reminiscing on his time with his lover. But he is not sleepwalking. He has a clear purpose in mind today and that is to end his life. He pays extra compliments to his fellow people, teaches his last class, clears out his office and buys bullets for his gun, but perhaps life isn't as depressing as it may seem. A Single Man is a beautifully constructed film that showcases the pain of loss and the overbearing depression that follows.

In a lecture George talks about fear and prejudice. He is subtly talking about his own life as a gay man (I don't believe it is ever revealed if he is openly gay) which goes over the heads of his students save for one, a young man who seems more interested in George himself than what he is saying. He attempts to talk to George after class, commenting that perhaps all he needs is a friend. Everything in this film lies beneath the surface, the flirtations and George's depression under his stoic exterior. That is part of the beauty of A Single Man.

This is a magnificent film by first time director Tom Ford (who makes some pretty awesome sunglasses by the way) who crafts this film with a certain rhythm that eases the viewer into George's painful life. The set designs and costumes are all sharp as all films set from the 60's seem to be (see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). The musical score is perfect as well. Of course the film is highlighted by Firth who just owns the role.

Grade: A

Monday, March 12, 2012

Day 327 - Cutter's Way

Cutter's Way (1981) directed by Ivan Passer

The concept of Cutter's Way is not a new one, someone thinks someone's done something wrong but cannot prove it. Everyone likes uncovering a good mystery which is why these stories are so popular. In Manhattan Murder Mystery, Woody Allen has fun with it by making a comedy farce, but still understands the key component in making these films work, an unending sense of paranoia. Paranoia alone is enough to carry a mystery even with the absence of clues or facts which is at the heart of Cutter's Way. In the film, Richard Bone finds a dead woman and sees shadowy figure nearby who may or may not be J.J. Cord, a prominent member of the community. Bone's best friend Alex Cutter deduces that it must have been Cord and pursues the case with unwavering conviction.

Cutter is so convinced that Cord murdered the woman that we desperately want to believe it as well even though all we have to go by is Bone's brief look at a shadowy figure passing by him. Other than that one glance there is literally nothing else to go by, so why is Cutter so convinced? This film is actually more about the characters Cutter and Bone more so than the mystery itself. Cutter is a crippled Vietnam war vet who desperately needs something in his life and this mystery fills that hole. Bone doesn't necessarily believe it was Cord and just plays along with Cutter to humor him but quickly finds himself trapped in his web. What is interesting though is that as we progress further into the film we are never really any closer to solving the mystery but we are closer to realizing the extent of Cutter's paranoia and instability. Theoretically this should mean we should discount his theory but instead the opposite happens, we believe it even more. We, like Bone, will follow Cutter to the very end.

There are of course ambiguous moments that could lead us to believe that Cutter is right. When his house explodes with Cutter's wife in it we assume it is because Cord wants Cutter dead, but there is a perfectly reasonable and heartbreaking reason for this. Cutter's wife was depressed because of the years of neglect. Bone knows this because he was with her the night before. If you are Cutter what do you want to believe, that you drove your wife to suicide (and the arms of your best friend) or that your enemy killed her to get to you?

I also loved the ending as well which doesn't confirm anything one way or the other. Bone confronts Cord who doesn't say anything about it. Cutter comes crashing in (literally) and dies in Bone's arms. At this point Bone is convinced that Cutter was right all along or is he simply grieving for his dead friend? The closing shot is perfect as well when Bone says, "It really was you," and Cord just smugly replies, "So what if it was?" where Bone lifts up Cutter's gun and shoots. The end. What a great way to end it leaving the viewer to guess the meaning.

This film is notable for the great lead performances by Jeff Bridges and Bone and particularly John Heard as Cutter. It's kind of funny because an eccentric character like Cutter is someone you'd imagine an older Bridges playing. The film is also very well directed and presents the viewer with a dark world of constant paranoia and intrigue.

Grade: A-

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Day 326 - Hombre

Hombre (1967) directed by Martin Ritt

Hombre is a familiar western in the same vein as Stagecoach where a ragtag group of individuals must survive together as they are attacked by a gang of outlaws. There are the standard array of characters led of course by Hombre, or John Russell, played by the great Paul Newman. Russell is kind of like Tarzan, a white man raised by Apache Indians, which gives him a unique perspective of both sides of the fence. He is an Indian at heart and it shows in his general disgust towards his fellow passengers. In turn, they show him equal disdain when they find out he is Indian-raised, asking him to sit on top of the carriage (with the Mexican) rather than in it with the real whites. As with Stagecoach and other ensamble casts, the true conflict isn't with an external enemy but is rather within the group itself.

In Russell we also get the iconic lone wolf character in the same ilk of Ringo the Kid and Shane. I think as a general rule the more isolated and conflicted they are, the more you can count on them to do the right thing in the end. In the film, the group finds themselves holed up with a bag full of money that the bad guys want. The bad guys are holding Mrs. Favor hostage leaving her tied up in the open to dehydrate to death. Russell has little reason to help her. She is the one who told him to move to the back of the proverbial bus and her husband, Mr. Favor, stole that money from the Apache people that raised him! Going down to save her probably means death but of course he is the one to go down to save her, proving him to be the better man.

Hombre is a quietly strong film that has more meat to it than you'd imagine. There is the rare liberal bias towards Indians (even though their spokesman is a blue eyed white man) and the smart and challenging moral dilemmas the characters must face. The film is also very well acted showcasing a wide range of characters led of course by Newman.

Grade: B+

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Day 325 - John Carter

John Carter (2012) directed by Andrew Stanton

Let me start by saying John Carter has to be the most boring title for a movie ever. The guys at Disney couldn't think of something more clever or catchy then the main character's generic name? But I digress. At least the movie itself has more life to it than its namesake as it is your standard weekend movie popcorn fare. This is the second movie I've seen in the past year that blends western elements with sci-fi, the other being the mildy disappointing Cowboys & Aliens. Unlike that movie, John Carter kind of works because it is so absurd it makes sure to make a spectacle of itself ensuring that the audience will have some sort of fun watching it.

Indeed, this is one of the strangest action fantasy adventures I have seen. It thrusts a Civil War veteran into Mars which is in the midst of a civil war of its own. Despite the heavy sci-fi influences of aliens, floating aircrafts, teleporting machines and giant cities that can walk, the film plays out like a swords and sandals adventure. Despite the high tech weapons at hand everyone carries swords and fights like Spartans. John Carter spends most of his time shirtless in ancient Roman attire. Even the storyline is something straight out of a Greek myth, or at least a cross between Stargate, Star Wars and Clash of the Titans.

Without going into too much detail, John Carter suddenly finds himself on Mars where he is picked up by a local alien race with four arms and tusks called the Tharks. Because of his Earth muscles John Carter is able to jump to amazing heights in Mars's lower gravity making him seem like a super hero to them and is reluctantly adopted into their tribe. But the Thark are sort of outsiders to the civil war going on between two human races, Zodanga (bad guys) and Helium (good guys). Zodanga is headed by Sab Than who has acquired a powerful weapon that can destroy the whole planet. Helium is lead by Dejah Thoris, a beautiful princess. Naturally John Carter and Dejah Thoris have an affinity towards each other which leads him to fighting for the good guys. Oh, and behind the scenes are a clandestine godlike people who are pulling the strings to everything like in the Iliad.

It goes without saying the story is preposterous and overdone. It tries very hard to be an epic adventure, but comes out as a sort of cliched mess, but that's okay I suppose, as long as it satisfies a couple key components. Is there action? Is there adventure? Is there romance? Is there cool special effects? Is there moments of humor? Is it generally fun to watch? John Carter passes the test (barely) and by these standards is exactly what you'd expect out of it. The dialogue is very campy and can be cringe worthy but nothing too terrible. The CGI is decent but at times feels very artificial especially contrasted with the natural surroundings. The acting is quite poor. I honestly can't think of anything really constructive or critical to say about this film. Just look at the trailers and tell me that this movie can be anything better than decent? It's better than Cowboys & Aliens at least.

Grade: C+

Friday, March 9, 2012

Day 324 - The Wild Bunch

The Wild Bunch (1969) directed by Sam Peckinpah

"A man's got to have a code."
                           - Omar Little from The Wire

The Wild Bunch may very well be the best western I've ever seen right alongside Unforgiven and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. It is also one of the most violent, ugly and gritty pictures I've ever seen. This is not the romanticized vision of the west, but a cold hard one and probably one closer to how life really was. On top of it all, this film is wonderfully made with great cinematography and a variety of editing techniques. In short, it is a masterpiece.

The Wild Bunch refers to a gang of aging criminals in the twilight of the careers. They live by one code only and that is loyalty to each other and to hell with the rest of them. It may sound honorable and all that until you step back and realize what it really means. The film begins and opens with bloody shootouts with countless dead bodies including lots of innocent bystanders. Members of the Wild Bunch even use women as human shields. No one is safe. One of the most distinguishing features of the film is its sheer violence and the seemingly meaningless of it all. Was this Sam Peckinpah's response to the Vietnam War? Was it his way of saying that the old ways were ending? In the beginning of the movie we see a group of kids taking delight in torturing scorpions by throwing them into a pit of ants. In the end of the film it is a little kid that proudly kills the hero. It goes to show the passing down of violence from generation to generation, from the Wild Bunch, a group of retiring old men, to a group of kids. It is so easy and meaningless for them to kill, again perhaps referencing to the Vietnam War. Even beyond that it is eerily relavent in today's times as well.

The Wild Bunch come rolling into town looking for one final score with a robbery except that it is a set-up. A massive fifteen minute shootout ensues in an intense action sequence that feels very "modern" with its stylized violence and editing. This was one of the first films to use slow motion, something that is overdone to death these days, but even now forty years later, it still looks insanely cool in the film. The combination of mixing speeds and tempo in action sequences heightens all the action and "gives time an elastic quality never before seen in motion pictures up to that time." (thanks Wiki!)

The crew escape, having lost several members along the way. But all is for naught when the loot they steal turns out to be nothing but iron washers. They head on down towards Mexico looking for another job. We begin to slowly learn about the characters. There is the leader Pike Bishop who lives by his code. "When you side with a man, you stay with him, and if you can't do that you're like some animal. You're finished! We're finished! All of us!" There's his right hand man Dutch, brothers Lyle and Tector and Angel. They all have their distinct colorful personalities to make each one memorable. They are pursued by Deke Thornton, Pike's former partner released from prison in exchange for capturing him. Pike's code haunts him as he left Deke behind to be captured and it comes into play later when they let the Mexicans take Angel.

The crew winds up staying in Angel's old hometown where they devise a plan to steal a shipment of guns and ammo to sell to the Mexican Federal Army. Angel wants to keep one crate for himself to give to his town so it can defend itself. When the job is done (in another great set piece involving an exploding bridge), the Mexican general finds out and takes Angel prisoner. The scene is gut wrenching as we see Angel's helpless face and Dutch's cold reaction which haunts the group later. They have broken their own code and must rectify it. This leads to the final set-piece in a shootout that is so bloody and violent that it could give the end of Rambo IV a run for its money. One cannot help but think of the endings of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Bonnie and Clyde when watching the end of The Wild Bunch.

There are also a lot of great shots and editing techniques used throughout. Some of it actually reminded me of Sergio Leone as it uses bold camera movements that often focus on the faces. One such shot involves an extreme close up of a face that slowly zooms out to an extreme wide shot revealing a man on top of a cliff. Then it slowly zooms in to an extreme close up of another figure on an opposing cliff. I like these kind of weird looking shots. Of course I have already mentioned the action sequences. Everything about this film is great, from the epic storytelling to the memorable characters and the superb direction.

Grade: A

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Day 323 - Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies (1963) directed by Peter Brook

Lord of the Flies was one of the rare books that I actually read from start to finish during school so it was fun to watch a film of an important book that I knew. One of the things I remember most from the book was the heavy use of symbolism, such as the conch representing civilization, Piggy's specs representing intellectualism, Jack representing the darkness of men and so forth and was pleased to recognize these symbols in the film. I don't want to rehash a high school essay so instead I will just focus on the movie itself.

For those who are not familiar with the story, Lord of the Flies is about a group of young boys that find themselves stranded on a deserted island. They attempt to govern themselves to disastrous results, indicating the evil of human nature as they revert to savages. The film is a faithful adaptation to the novel in plot and feel particularly the latter half when things on the island start to turn for the worst. One of my pet peeves is child acting in serious movies, but the boys here (who were all just ordinary school children on set during their summer break) are generally pretty good. Perhaps one of the differences between the book and the film is the downplaying of some of the side characters. Naturally it would be difficult to give extensive screen time to every character of a novel in a 90 minute film, but the film does just fine focusing most of the time on Ralph, Jack and Piggy (as it should). Also lost in translation is some of the significance of the symbolism which is practically spelled out in the book, though again, the film does just fine in saying what it has to. Overall it is a fine adaptation of a great book and manages to capture some of its more intense moments well.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Day 322 - 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) directed by Christian Mungiu

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a horrifyingly powerful tale of an illegal abortion set in communist Romania in 1987. It is frighteningly realistic and matter of fact showing off not only the ugly side of the abortion debate but also of the cold harsh world it stems from. This is a repressed country where people do not have a choice and must go through the black market to get what they need, whether it is cigarettes, soap and even abortions. But this is not a pro or anti abortion movie. It does not take sides in the matter. It simply documents two people's journey to get what they feel they need. If anything it is an inditement to the ugly world they live in. However way you want to interpret it, it is deeply riveting.

What is notable about the film is that the main character is not pregnant character Gabita but her friend Otilia who does everything for her. Gabita is too scared, immature or incompetent to handle things on her own, so she begs Otilia to help her. Otilia raises the money, gets the hotel room that Gabita failed to secure, meets the doctor, pleads with the him when the job turns out to be more complicated than it is, and is required to do something so gut wrenching it might even be worse than the abortion itself. It is a true test of friendship. Whether or not Gabita is deserving of Otilia's loyalty is another matter, but she is there for her.

The black market doctor meets the two women in a hotel room where he carefully outlines what is to happen. He points out that this is not a simple job. It is dangerous and above all illegal and more complicated than Gabita initially led on. On the phone she said she was only two months pregnant. With just one touch of her stomach, he knows this is not the case. (Can you guess how far along she is?) This scene is meant to show Gabita's naivety and her desperation and also of the seriousness of the matter. It is a spellbinding scene that is simply three characters acting in front of one camera in a room. There is nothing fancy about the way this film is shot. There is just one camera and one shot per scene. There are no effects, no music or fancy editing. It may seem like a rudimentary and crude way to film a movie, but make no mistake about it, everything is precisely the way it should be from the camera movements to the lighting.

After the probe has been inserted all there is left to do is to wait. Otilia leaves the room for a bit to attend her boyfriend's mother's birthday party. It is an awkward scene where she must listen to people talk about trivial matters that neither she or the viewer cares about. Meanwhile in the back of our and her's mind is Gabita in the hotel room. The tension mounts to an almost unbearable state as we have to sit there and listen to these people talk. This is also when Otilia thinks about her relationship with her boyfriend and also her place in this repressed society. She can't get out of there fast enough.

When she returns to the hotel room, Gabita informs her that "it" is in the bathroom. She goes to it and crouches down on the floor. I almost want to turn away as she looks down. I'm praying for the camera not to pan down and I want to gag when it does. Otilia is given the task of disposing the fetus and so she carefully puts it into her purse and walks out. It is nerve wrecking.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a great film, but one I don't think I'll ever want to watch again.

Grade: A

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Day 321 - Yi Yi

Yi Yi (2000) directed by Edward Yang

Yi Yi is a critically acclaimed film that won a bunch of awards at prestigious film festivals back in 2000 so I was both excited and hesitant to watch it. I say hesitant because if it was really good then I'd have to do a super long blog entry about it but if I didn't really like it then I'd be afraid of looking like an idiot. I think I stepped around these films too gently in other posts, but I will try to be as honest as I can. I was pretty underwhelmed by Yi Yi. Perhaps I haven't given it enough thought and let it soak in or my expectations were just too high, but I didn't really see what the big deal was. That isn't to say I think this is a bad movie, it clearly isn't, but I wonder why this film could be so unanimously loved. Do all critics recognize something in films that casual watchers do not? How were they all so enthralled by a three hour minimalistic melodrama while I was sort of wondering if it would ever go anywhere?

Yi Yi begins with a wedding and ends with a funeral and in the middle is every day life in between. It follows the lives of a seemingly normal Taiwanese middle class family and they appear to be perfectly normal indeed. But when observing their lives we become acutely aware that even normal every day life is a messy affair. There doesn't have to be some artificial movie drama inserted into their lives for us to recognize their love, grief, sadness, anger, pain, stress, regret, joy and so forth. Human drama is exactly just that, human. What this film is saying is that every day life has enough moments in it to make a story compelling without adding in unnecessary touches. I guess my problem is that I don't necessarily agree, at least with regards to this film. I realize that I am probably being hypocritical since I've praised similar type movies like Still Walking but for whatever reason I couldn't really connect to Yi Yi in that way, which makes for a long, uneven, and at times boring experience. There were some parts that I simply didn't care at all about, like the man and his crazy ex-girlfriend and most of the teenage love triangle. But there were other parts that I cared a lot about such as NJ remicing with an old flame and basically anything with the young son Yang Yang.

There are some great scenes throughout but in my opinion came too few and far between. One of my favorite scenes involved NJ talking about his old relationship with his college sweetheart. They are walking the streets of Tokyo talking about how they first held hands in a similar spot while at the same time NJ's daughter is beginning her own romance and the two scenes cut back and forth between each other. All my other favorite moments involve Yang Yang including the heartfelt ending where he reads a message to his grandmother.

Anyways, it is tough to say I enjoyed this film because I don't really think I did. I did appreciate certain aspects of it but again, it's hard to say that I felt much throughout because I don't really think I did. I'm going to sound like a total moron here because I've already read professional critic reviews praising the direction and cinematography of the film; I guess I just sat through an entire three hour movie without really noticing that part. I guess I was just too focused on trying to like the story first.

Grade: C+

Monday, March 5, 2012

Day 320 - Dazed and Confused

Dazed and Confused (1993) directed by Richard Linklater

Dazed and Confused is essentially a poor man's American Graffiti. It is about high school kids on the last day of school in 1976 which means lots of partying, cruising, chasing girls, smoking weed, drinking beer and something missing from my generation, hazing. It is hard to describe a plot with so many characters and so many episodes, but just imagine it as a sort of coming of age story about kids being kids. There is a definite feel of nostalgia to the film and you don't have to be from the 70's to understand it. All you need is to have been a high school kid once yourself to make its story nearly universal and accessible to all. What separates it from George Lucas's classic is its heart. In American Graffiti we grow attached the kids in their night out. Here in Dazed and Confused the story is a little goofier focusing more on comedy than heart, but it still gets all the details right. The awkward first kiss, the last school dance, the first time getting drunk, late night shenanigans with friends, boys being boys will always be the same. The only thing that changes are the haircuts and the music.

Grade: B

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Day 319 - Little Shop of Horrors

Little Shop of Horrors (1960) directed by Roger Corman

Little Shop of Horrors was actually the very first musical I'd ever seen and I remember thinking "WTF? Are all broadway shows this weird?" It features a singing and dancing man eating plant whose catch phrase is a whiny "Feeeeeeeed me!" Yet I found myself laughing at and enjoying the offbeat comedy. Years later I would run across the 1986 musical comedy starring Rick Moranis and was gleefully delighted at its campy awesomeness. To me this story kicks the crap out of The Rocky Horror Picture Show as far as horror comedies go. I had no idea that the that the man eating plant went all the way back to 1960 with this campy low budget B movie. And of course it is awesome.

Seymour is a young loser who works at a florist shop who has been breeding a plant that he brings to the shop. The owner is unimpressed with the droopy looking thing and gives him one week to revitalize the plant or he's fired. Seymour tries everything, water, fertilizer, various plant foods, but nothing seems to work until he accidentally cuts his finger and drips some blood on it. Suddenly the plant springs to life and Seymour realizes this is no ordinary plant. It must feed on human blood. It starts off with just a drip of blood but soon enough Seymour finds he must feed it whole humans. Ridiculous? Yes. Preposterous? Yes. One hour of laughs and good times? Yes!

Little Shop of Horrors is billed as a comedy and treats it as such, taking nothing very seriously, though it isn't just the concept that is funny. This is actually pretty well written with clever punchlines and zany characters to catch your attention. Film buffs will be delighted to see a young Jack Nicholson in one of his earlier roles as a sort of sadomasochistic dental patient. My one complaint might be that this is not a musical, though that is only because of my fond memories of the broadway show and 1986 film it inspired. This original is fine as it is, that is to say a genuinely funny light hearted comedy deserving of its cult status.

Grade: B+