Weekly Round-Up: April 10-16, 2016

Last week, I saw:

  • The Avengers (2012) – Epic superhero tale bringing together Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America (each of whom had their own films) with Black Widow and Hawk-Eye to save the world from invaders. It got kind of spacey for me, but I liked how much time we got with Black Widow over the other characters, who we presumably know (if we’ve kept up with the MCU). RECOMMENDED.
  • Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967) – Slow-cooking erotic tale about a young woman who falls in love with a middle-aged man, and they spend a lot of the movie in their apartments. Wikipedia says this movie was controversial for its time (which I can understand), but the narrative wasn’t exactly groundbreaking even if its explicit content was. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • The Jungle Book (2016) – Gorgeous visuals bring the classic story to life in a whole new dimension as the jungles of India are animated to spectacular detail. My favorite parts of this film were how it differed from the Disney classic, particularly in the savagery of villain Shere Khan and the sweeping narrative (making it feel more flowing and less episodic). RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week?

Weekly Round-Up: February 14-20, 2016

Still chugging along to catch up with Oscar nominees. A highlight of this week was the Countdown to Zootopia programming at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, CA. For the two weeks leading up to the release of Walt Disney Animation Studios’s newest film Zootopia, other contemporary Disney films will be shown accompanied by Q&A with cast & crew. Amazing opportunity not only to see some modern masterpieces back on the big screen, but to hear firsthand from the talent that helped bring us these contemporary classics!

This week, I saw:

  • Room (2015) – At its best, this dark drama is an emotional tour de force with exceptional film-making. At its worst, it’s another boring family drama. There is some terrific stuff in the middle, so I’d still call this RECOMMENDED even though it runs a bit dull.
  • Meet the Robinsons (2007) – While not the critical and financial powerhouse of other modern Disney fare like Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph, this sleeper hit has deservedly grown a strong following. Equal parts screwball comedy, mystery, and sci-fi, this inspirational story follows a young scientist trying to find a home. RECOMMENDED.
  • The Kid (1921) – My favorite Chaplin film. The Tramp becomes a de facto guardian for a presumably orphan boy, and a father’s love is put to the test when the state begins to intervene. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Frozen (2013) – Another new Disney classic, a twisty and stunningly animated story about a young queen who flees her kingdom and her daring sister who tries to bring her back. I’m not the first person to say this, but “Let It Go” is one of the best musical numbers of any film, animated or live-action. REQUIRED.
  • V/H/S (2012) – My friend recommended this horror anthology film (available on Netflix!). The premise is a band of hoodlums find a house full of tapes containing disturbing footage, and the bulk of this film is the content of those tapes. Some stories are pretty interesting, others boring, but they are so action-focused there isn’t much room for logical character motivation. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Tangled (2010) – Yet another contemporary Disney masterpiece, this adaptation of the Rapunzel fairy tale brings to life the terrific male co-star Flynn Rider, who has emerged as one of my favorite Disney characters. Like “Let It Go” from Frozen, the “I See the Light” musical sequence is captivating. As Disney’s 50th animated film, it does feel like a perfect blend of classic Disney storytelling with lush computer animation. REQUIRED.

What did you see last week?

Weekly Round-Up: January 03-09, 2016

Happy New Year! Now that we’re post-holidays, we get back to “ordinary time” and a more regular cadence of movie-watching. 🙂

Last week, I saw:

  • In Cold Blood (1967) – Genuinely creepy, though occasionally slow crime drama. This was especially fun to watch as I’d just finished the In Cold Blood novel days earlier. RECOMMENDED.
  • Inside Out (2015) – First time watching this with audio commentary by Pete Docter & Ronnie del Carmen. Really enjoyable, with lots of tidbits and occasional meanderings (like calling up Bill Hader and Michael Giacchino mid-way). REQUIRED.
  • Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991) – Love her or hate her (I fall into the camp of the former), Madonna is a true tour de force of entertainment and this documentary is a terrific look into her insane lifestyle. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Music of the Heart (1940) – My first film viewing from the Rita Hayworth set I was gifted over the holidays, this is a charming musical comedy (with unexpected racism) about a talented singer on the verge of deportation, who finds refuge among the immigrants of the Lower East Side. RECOMMENDED.
  • Silver Linings Playbook (2012) – One of my favorite contemporary films. Genuinely moving and tremendously uplifting romantic comedy-drama. REQUIRED.
  • The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) – I hadn’t gotten around to finishing this (despite several attempts) until this viewing – glad I had, as this musical comedy is a menagerie of satirical characters, particularly an evangelical “consumer rights advocate” and the indecisive Texas governor. I’m surprised this hasn’t become a cult classic a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Little Shop of Horrors, as this film similarly blends raunchy comedy with sweet, earnest characters. RECOMMENDED.

Also, honorable mentions for Mad Max (the original) and Capote, both of which I started but couldn’t finish.

What did you see last week?

Fall Movies to be Thankful For

I have a very hard time watching, in good conscience, any non-horror movies during the month of October. And of course the Christmas season de facto starting on Black Friday (me? I start a little earlier), leaving only 3-4 weeks per year of true “fall,” unencumbered by other holidays.

To celebrate, here’s a list of fall movies to be thankful for, this and every year:

  1. Dressed to Kill (1980). While this film doesn’t scream “FALL,” it certainly takes place during this time of year – as explicitly as seeing a personal calendar for November 1980. We also get snippets of this through the costume design, including memorable moments with a glove (pro tip: how to pick someone up at the art museum). And don’t forget to buy turkey!
  2. Harold and Maude (1971). Unlike Dressed to Kill, this movie does scream “FALL,” from its gorgeous oranges and tans to its acoustic guitar-driven soundtrack by Cat Stevens to more scarves than you can possibly imagine. I jokingly wrote last year that this is “the ultimate Pumpkin Spice Latte movie,” and that sentiment still rings true.
  3. Rushmore (1998). Wes Anderson’s second movie covers mostly the (literal and seasonal) fall of its protagonist, Max Fischer, as he adjusts to a new school and new adult figures in his life. It all culminates to  a warm January as the pieces of his life come together.
  4. Silver Linings Playbook (2012). In this excellent film largely rooted in family, it is interesting how holidays take a back seat and are more incidental to the timeline. A “date” between Pat and Tiffany takes place on Halloween, a fateful night in which Tiffany agrees to help Pat contact his estranged wife, only to later leverage this into a bargain where he must join her in a couples dance competition. The following weeks, between Halloween and Christmas, solidify their unique relationship.

What are your must-see fall movies? Reply in the Comments below!


The Impossible (2012)

Disaster movies usually have a two-pronged challenge: to make a believable film, and to make an effective film. The surprisingly good The Impossible achieves both, through amazingly realistic sets and special effects and through the intense family drama of the narrative.

It recounts the true story of a Spanish family of tourists in Thailand for Christmas 2004, right as the devastating tsunami that affected thousands hit the shores. These scenes, which actually hit pretty early on the film, are very frightening and come about as close as I can possibly imagine the true experience of living through a tragedy like that could be. The sheer force of water plunging characters below, paired with the pounding sound design (with one character momentarily deafened) contribute to the sense of horror that these characters, and real people, had to face.

In addition to the sheer technical feat of successfully recreating such a massive and devastating event, The Impossible succeeds by telling the story of a disaster so well. Like with other mass tragedies, such as the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima, and many others, it is nearly impossible for any of us to fathom the loss and devastation behind the staggering numbers of fatalities. The Impossible doesn’t try to do that. It follows in the tradition of other great disaster movies by focusing on a handful of people, in this instance a family, making the tragedy something we can relate to and empathize with.

This is also where the movie gets its strong suit. Sure, it’s about the tsunami and the devastating effect it has on Asia, but the disaster is over 30 minutes into the film. The bulk of it, and the emotional punch of this film, is how this family and those affected in a broader sense, deal with this catastrophe. The Impossible is, at its core, a testament to the ability of a family to maintain hope and love in the most dire of circumstances. It is a less hyperbolic version of Poltergeist (a movie which I frankly don’t like), to test the love of a family against true, devastating events.

We get great performances all around, especially from Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and fresh face Tom Holland as the family’s eldest son. The Impossible is definitely one of the better movies of 2012 and serves as a nice spiritual companion to Beasts of the Southern Wild as a film about disaster and how the human spirit maintains strength even when facing the most dire of circumstances.

More Thoughts on Simon Killer (2012)

Almost 24 hours after experiencing this juggernaut of a film, I am still reeling from the intense aftershocks of Simon Killer. There are several (and spoiler-heavy) ideas I’d like to explore further, and I do welcome any messages/comments you may have!

First: the costume design. I know, I know – I’m not typically the kind of person to pay attention to this, and I am not remotely a fashionista in my real life. But I couldn’t help noticing that, for most of the film, Simon wore colorful hoodies (red, blue, etc) under a black jacket. This seemed to be his “standard” outfit. In the handful of scenes in which he pursues Marianne’s clients (whom he is blackmailing), however, he dresses differently, often like the men – whether in a nice pea coat or more formal wear.

This can either be taken as just Simon dressing differently, that in these instances he is not the person he typically is, by acting out in such a bizarre and manipulative manner. Though I think it is another layer of the film’s overall motif of men exploiting and mistreating women; by literally using his prostitute/girlfriend Marianne as a tool to generate wealth for himself, he is arguably doing the same thing Marianne’s clients are; exploiting her for his own selfish needs. This establishes a strong thematic parallel, and provides us with an earlier cue that Simon has the potential for some real damage.

Second: Simon and Sophie at the club. This excellent scene, appropriately dubbed by LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yrself Clean,” begins with Simon doing his slightly awkward, but believable and frequently-seen dance moves, as he pulls Sophie toward him to dance. For a solid four minutes or so, the camera stays in place as we him bop around, as Sophie moves in and out of the shot, and eventually Sophie’s roommate joins them and Simon begins to make out with her.

This moment in the film is so particularly striking because we presumed from the opening monologue and Simon’s apparent heartbreak that he’s a good guy and wouldn’t pull anything weird just to get close to a girl – especially when he claims he himself was cheated on. But in this scene we are stuck watching what we don’t want to see, Simon cheating on Marianne, and even then Simon kind of cheats on Sophie by kissing her roommate. It is unsettling to see how easy it is for him to move from woman to woman, especially when Simon is a character whose side we’ve been on this whole time.

Third: Simon at the airport. I still am not sure what to make of this scene, and will be paying close attention when I rewatch this film. When Simon is being questioned by customs at the airport, not only are we shocked to find out he has been there over 90 days (as we’ve only spent a few days with him, as far as we can tell) but his usual story of being a fresh graduate of neuroscience has flipped to Sophie’s experience, as a student of French literature.

Like with the costume design, this could simply be a blip – it could show that Simon has lost his cool, he is so mentally confounded that he has lost recollection of his own experiences and is purely temporal in his consciousness.

My opinion, however, is that it is another instance of him thinking on his feet and making things up – this is just the first time he’s claimed this story, that’s why he’s so nervous. For all we know, his story he’s been monologuing all this time is just as phony, and we the audience just take for granted that our narrator and protagonist is telling the truth.

Anyway, just wanted to share these thoughts with you all! Anybody else see Simon Killer? Any specific scenes or themes stick out to you which you’d like to discuss?

Simon Killer (2012)

I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: thank God for Spring Breakers. If I hadn’t seen that PCP trip of a film in theaters, I would have never been exposed to the trailer for Simon Killer, a knockout psychosexual thriller in the proud tradition of Blue Velvet and Shame.

Told almost as a modern-day version of the novel In a Lonely PlaceSimon Killer places us with a young American man fresh upon arrival in Paris (or so he says). He is struggling with getting over his ex, and falls in love with a French prostitute, also with (literal) scars. As seen in the trailer (so no spoilers), the two devise a scheme to blackmail her clients for cash. This doesn’t quite work out.

The narrative, though, is secondary to the extraordinary and wholly disturbing vision that is presented to us. The sex scenes, while erotic, are almost joyless, with Simon’s lovers’ heads often out of the shot, giving us a view of Simon leering at their nude bodies, or forcing them to turn around and face the opposite way, further dehumanizing his sexual partners.

The unique experience of this film is further developed through the contrast of highly cinematic, “fake”-feeling camera work with exceptionally neorealistic dialogue and acting. The very long shots feel as if we could be there watching live, but with the slight disconnect of a perfectly framed angle, or smooth turns bridging opposite characters or ends of the room.

The focal point of the film, of course, is Simon himself, delivered in a fantastic performance by Brady Corbet (who you may recognize from Thirteen). He is nearly impossible to take your eyes off of, and gives a remarkably rich and believable portrayal of a womanizer, criminal, and yes, killer.

Simon Killer is also extraordinary in how much it takes us by surprise – we rarely get films, either studio or independent, which places us with your everyday man who has the potential to kill. Recalling earlier events, I can now look back and see how we were given clues that Simon could be a criminal all along, but an audience is often unwilling to accept that our narrator, our door to this experience, is capable of such terrible acts. We share in his experience but don’t want to bear the guilt of his actions. The film lets off a chilling conclusion and a sense of fluidity, that these events have likely happened before and will probably happen again.

Simon Killer is a shining (?) dark spot in a year of film that was largely optimistic and happy-go-lucky. It offers a very fresh take on the traditional narrative and gives us an unforgettable cinematic experience.

The Hunger Games (2012)

I can’t even begin to say what a great surprise The Hunger Games was. Having recently finished the novel, I had concerns over how the film would adapt the first-person narrative, filled with introspection by the protagonist Katniss Everdeen and flashbacks to earlier in her life. What’s great about the movie: they didn’t try to do that.

Instead, we have a remarkably directed, almost dreamlike flow through the story. The film travels briskly from scene to scene, organically blending in backstory that is easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention. Rather than filling in the exposition through explanation, as the novel does, we are given the dystopic scenario and the formation of the Hunger Games through news broadcasts of the current year’s Games. None of this feels forced or even too heavily reinforced.

The Hunger Games is the rare film for children / young adults that trusts that the audience is an intelligent and mature one. It counts on the audience to pay attention, as names and details fly by in quick succession. There is very little sweet or sugarcoated about this world, and the movie doesn’t bother to dwell on that. The color palette is filled with bleak greys and blacks, with some very intense sequences of violence (which honestly made me wonder how on earth this movie scraped past an R rating and instead earned a PG-13).

In addition to its disturbing content, this film is also noteworthy for its strong performances. Jennifer Lawrence (as always!) is fantastic as the lead character, and pairs well with her semi-love interest Josh Hutcherson, who also gives a well-restrained and believable performance.

Following in the tradition of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, The Hunger Games is so effective because it feels as authentic as it possibly could. Given the fantastical elements that are embedded in the story, everything else, from the characters’ dialogue, the scenery, and even the wobbly first-person camera work, ring true.

The Hunger Games is an excellent start to what I hope will be a solid film series. It is such an unusual concept for a major studio to pursue, and I welcome its confidence to present a film experience that is disturbing, harsh, and most importantly, believable.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is unique in that it demands a second viewing, despite being a simple, minimalist narrative built more on nuances and the passage of time than a mind trip piece like Donnie Darko.

It starts at a deliberately slow pace, telling of a young man entering high school shy and friendless, and eventually becomes accepted into a hip and interesting social circle. Some of it feels a little too on the Juno side, constantly name-dropping “cool” bands as an initial means to bring the characters together. While this plot device gets old fast, it does feel authentic albeit tiring by the end. We get it, you make each other mix tapes.

What the film does very well is represent the frustrations of ourselves, our loved ones, and the choices we make. The characters fight, experiment with drugs, and fall in love with the wrong people. There is a powerful quote that, when it comes to romance, “we accept what we think we deserve.”

Flashes like this are when the movie works at its best; at its core, it is really a tragic story, and these people don’t have any meaning in their lives beyond that which they create for themselves. We see these people as fully developed, flawed human beings, whose past actions shape their behavior in the present.

A disturbing revelation at the end explains the protagonist (excellently played by newcomer Logan Lerman) and the weight he has carried for years. Even before his past is explained, his acting choices make it clear that there is something terribly wrong. We also get superb and well-rounded performances from Emma Watson (despite her so-so American accent) and Ezra Miller as the two mentor figures who take Lerman’s character in.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a powerful existentialist look at the adolescent experience. It has a slow start and falls into some high school movie cliche, but the insight it provides is unmatched by most other films about youth.