Weekly Round-Up: June 12-18, 2016

Last week, I saw:

  • Finding Nemo (2003) – First time watching with Cine-Explore, a terrific commentary-esque feature with visual pop-ups including concept art and storyboards. The filmmaker’s insights on the parallels between father Marlin and son Nemo’s journeys were particularly compelling. REQUIRED.
  • Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) – This story of an aging actress and her dedicated assistant started off an an engaging foot, but I grew tired of these unlikable characters and scenes of wraparound dialogue that didn’t progress the story in a meaningful way. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • The Damned Don’t Cry! (1950) – I love a good Joan Crawford vs. the world flick as much as the next guy, but this quasi-noir was a tough Doll to swallow. Joan Crawford goes from complacent, impoverished housewife to confident, sizzling seductress seemingly overnight… really? NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Female Trouble (1974) – Wacky John Waters tale of a disturbed young lady who balances being a mother with a rise to stardom as a violent supermodel. Not sure if I like this as much as Pink Flamingos, but still an outrageously fun time. Special shout-out to the theme song, sung by Divine herself! RECOMMENDED.
  • Mommie Dearest (1981) – One of my absolute favorite, could-watch-this-everyday kind of movies, and finally got to see it on the big screen. Terrific audience, shrieking with laughter at all the right times and even reciting entire scenes of poetic dialogue back at the screen. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Finding Dory (2016) – This immensely worthy sequel is more painful, devastating, and emotionally satisfying than its predecessor. An absolute knockout. REQUIRED.

What did you see last week?


Weekly Round-Up: May 22-28, 2016

This week had limited viewings (I kept falling asleep!), but I managed to get through:

  • X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) – Dizzying (in a good way) trip through time as Wolverine is sent back to the 1970s to prevent Mystique from committing a political assassination. I’m not sure how all the timelines fit together (the events from the first set of X-Men movies don’t fit with what apparently went down in the 1970s) but it’s a decent enough popcorn flick. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966) – This later “Elvis in Hawaii” film has weaker music, less joy, and feels deflated compared to the earlier Blue Hawaii (which I loved). Elvis pairs up with a buddy to start a helicopter charter business, but early-30s Elvis seems over the kooky escapades his character is forced into, delivering an unenthusiastic performance. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Troll 2 (1990) – This classic “so-bad-it’s-good” movie features a family on an exchange program to vacation in Nilbog (“Goblin” backwards!) as their son (who has visions of his late grandfather) tries to warn them of the impending danger before it’s too late. Troll 2 also boasts a wonderfully over-the-top performance of Deborah Reed as Creedence, “mother” of the trolls and part-time seductress. RECOMMENDED.

Also, honorable mention for Thank Your Lucky Stars (which I’ve seen before and adore) and Taste of Cherry, both of which I started and fell asleep during.

What did you see last week?

Weekly Round-Up: May 01-07, 2016

Last week, I saw:

  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – Possibly the greatest superhero film ever made, this episode features the First Avenger under pressure from a staggering bureaucracy, as the threat of a mysterious figure looms closer. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Carnival of Souls (1962) – Occasionally spooky mystery/horror about a young woman who apparently survives a car accident, then moves to Utah where she is pursued by, and drawn to, the undead. There were some interesting shots, but this mostly felt like typical “B” movie material to me. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • The Good Dinosaur (2015) – I love the most recent Pixar film, and got a ton out of the audio commentary by director Peter Sohn and other members of the creative team. Their discussion of how this film, with less dialogue, presented a greater “acting” challenge for the animators was particularly insightful. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – This film clicked with me much better this time around, through its likable characters and now-iconic soundtrack. While this is certainly part of the MCU, it feels so accessible since it starts (mostly) from scratch with (mostly) new characters to the saga. RECOMMENDED.
  • Selena (1997) – Well-rounded, terrifically cinematic biopic of the late Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla. Jennifer Lopez shines in the title role in a deservedly star-making performance. RECOMMENDED.
  • Joy (2015) – This played even worse on home video than it did in the movie theaters. The sum of Joy‘s parts is significantly greater than the whole, which is a soppy convoluted mess. The scenes of Joy Magnano at QVC are still cinema magic, however. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • The Jungle Book (2016) – The latest Disney live-action film also improved for me upon a second viewing, with a greater appreciation for the adaptation of narrative elements from the animated classic into live-action. I’m still knocked out by the outstanding visual effects. RECOMMENDED.
  • The Revenant (2015) – The worthier winner among the Best Picture nominees, I was reminded how this film is true, challenging, innovative art. Tom Hardy almost steals the show as the monster Fitzgerald, but Leo’s performance acting mostly solo, and pretending to be brutally mauled by a bear, is nothing short of astonishing. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is The Big Sleep of superhero movies. Its main character takes on a seemingly straightforward assignment, and is plunged headfirst into a confusing, arguably convoluted, mystery. No one can be trusted as the lead navigates through a dark, unsettling landscape of mystery, intrigue, and danger. They are also among the strongest in their respective genres: The Big Sleep as one of the great film noirs, and The Winter Soldier as possibly the best superhero film.

Like the first chapter of Cap’s story, The First Avenger, the strongest asset is its lead character. Steve Rogers / Captain America found himself surviving long past World War II era into the present-day, but fortunately the “fish out of water” jokes were mostly contained within the previous film The Avengers, allowing a more serious assessment of Cap’s situation. He is no longer the war hero on the front lines, but a piece of a broader bureaucratic puzzle struggling with differing agendas with partners, reporting to a cryptic Director, and the growing dread that his way of life is no longer relevant 70 years after his own time.

Tragedy strikes early on, and Cap finds himself on the run as a perceived threat, and partners up with Agent Romanoff (Black Widow) to unscramble the threat. Their detective work draws them deeper and deeper into a dark conspiracy, and find supposed allies are not what they seem. The narrative gets even more clouded as a figure from Rogers’s past resurfaces as a nightmarish killing machine.

This is one of the more compelling elements of The Winter Soldier: the harsh imprints left by a traumatic wartime experience. It creates emotionless, heartless monsters of some, while others (like Steve’s friend Sam Wilson, later Falcon) turn this experience into support, by leading counseling groups for soldiers facing PTSD. Excellent foils are created between war veterans, ranging from light to the very dark.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is Marvel storytelling at the top of its game, with stunningly shot action sequences and a mind-boggling yet exhilarating tale of bureaucracy, conspiracy, and heroism in the modern age.

Weekly Round-Up: October 18-24, 2015

Witches of Eastwick

My ambition when I started this blog in college was to write essays about every movie, good or bad, that I see – but given the sheer volume of films I regularly plow through, plus the tough spot of forcing myself to write about movies I may simply not care enough about, I quickly realized this was an impossible dream.

A more manageable alternative is to write quick, high-level takes on my movie views. The ones that strike greater thought and introspection will certainly warrant a lengthier blog post (sooner or later), but this way I can stay engaged with the community on a more regular basis.

It’s almost Halloween so of course the horror/thriller movies are ramping up and will carry over into next week — but from this past week, I watched (in addition to a disc of Dark Shadows, which I’m slowly but steadily working through):

  • The Witches of Eastwick (1987) – Fun, darkly outrageous (but still classy) comedy. Strong acting across the board. RECOMMENDED.
  • What We Do in the Shadows (2014) – Very clever mockumentary about contemporary vampires and werewolves. RECOMMENDED.
  • The Wicker Man (1973) – Genuinely chilling horror mystery/thriller that builds up to a terrifying climax and doesn’t let go. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week?

Two Days, One Night (2014)

A labor union as defined as “an organization of wage earners […] for mutual aid and protection and for dealing collectively with employers.” The intension is that workers look out for one another, as one unified body for egalitarian treatment.

The Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night pushes this institution in a different direction. Sandra, a worker in a solar panel factory, recovers from a sick leave only to find out her sixteen co-workers, when presented a choice between laying her off and earning raises for themselves, voted for her termination. This tragic irony lays the foundation for the entire film, as Sandra is left with no choice but to contact her colleagues, one by one, and convince them to keep her in the work force, and vote against their own raises.

As the film unfolds, and Sandra encounters more of her colleagues – calling them on the phone, meeting them at their homes, in local parks – the concept of union and teamwork does decay, not out of malicious self-interest but of each individual’s obligations to others. Nearly everyone she contacts needs the raise, for unselfish reasons: to send their children to school, to pay off debts, to build a better life. Sandra’s journey evolves from need, borderline desperation, to one of empathy. Her added visibility into her co-workers’ lives only contributes to her sense of union and community with them.

Two Days, One Night doesn’t even have a real villain; their foreman, Jean-Marc, is often a scapegoat for instigating the initial conflict and manipulating the workers’ vote, but when Sandra confronts him about it, he denies any such involvement – and he is completely believable.

In a way, Two Days, One Night reminded me of Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out. Both involve one individual, drifting throughout his or her community, with the real narrative shaped by their treatment of the protagonist. Indeed, the most compelling moments of this film were the reactions of the “others;” what immediately comes to mind is a very moving scene of Sandra’s co-worker breaking down in front of her, overcome with guilt for how he’d voted, vowing to support her in the next ballot.

Without spoiling, the ending of the film works on an emotional level, reflecting Sandra’s own evolution, while makes less sense within the narrative. The desperation her character feels due to her situation, and her obvious love for her family, make the final scenes not 100% clear – even though they do flow from the emotional-journey perspective.

While I wouldn’t consider it one of the best films in the Criterion Collection (and I probably won’t pick this one up myself), it is a worthwhile viewing particularly for its complex moral/political conflicts.

American Sniper (2014)

It would be easy to make a film turning all soldiers into heroes. That’s why it’s been done so many times in the past. It’s maybe even easier to play the cynic, critiquing the chaos and senselessness before and on the battlefield. It is a difficult, and challenging, task to develop soldiers into flawed heroes. There are men and women who may not always make the best decisions, but who sacrifice so much in the process, sometimes even themselves, and are heroes nonetheless. This is the story of an American Sniper.

This film takes no time to get going. We are immediately plunged into an unknown location, undefined situation, with only the familiar face of Bradley Cooper as our anchor. Less than 10 minutes in, he is faced with a horrifyingly difficult decision as the action pulls back into decades earlier, into Cooper’s real-life character Chris Kyle’s childhood.

It is through these flashback sequences thatdirector Clint Eastwood makes some of his boldest choices, by elevating the macho Texas cowboy persona into something respectable and decent. It’s easy enough, especially for blue state filmmakers, to mock and degrade anyone from the south, and everything about that culture. Chris Kyle, growing up with guns and at first becoming a rodeo cowboy, is the contemporary Texas man. He is presented to us as just that, not some bumbling inbred hillbilly. When his life comes to a possible dead end, he does the patriotic thing and joins the military – without a whit of filmmaker’s cynicism or condescension.

His experiences which follow balance the delicate line of reverence with objectivity. We see firsthand the physical sacrifices made by these soldiers, and the emotional sacrifices left back home. He is not always there for his family, and even when he is physically back home, he’s not truly “there.” Overseas, his skilled combat earns him praise from his peers, but also chastisement from his supervisors, fearing he might be getting carried away.

It’s easy enough to play the cynic, however. Whether that comes as a real-life politician commenting on the progress of war, or we as an audience member, completely separated from the situation unfolding before us. When lives are on the line and the end in sight is murky at best, the right answer is never crystal clear.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, which came as wholly unexpected but immensely powerful to me. There has been a great deal of criticism around this movie, very little of which I think comes from people who have actually seen it. American Sniper is no propaganda, no mindless patriotic trash. This is a wonderfully composed film, acknowledging one man’s choices while still granting him the respect he deserves. This is compelling, challenging filmmaking at some of its finest.

Into the Woods (2014)

Into the Woods, the long-awaited adaptation of the now-classic Sondheim musical, is one of the finest contemporary movie musicals, and arguably the best since the instant classic Chicago (also by director Rob Marshall). Marshall translates an incredibly difficult work from stage to screen, and makes bold, fascinating choices to bring this story to an entirely new medium.

The original Broadway production featured flat, storybook-esque set panels which rose to reveal the dark and prickly woods, but still within mostly the same frame of vision – the focus, of course, less on the realism of a physical set and more on the narrative and raw emotion transpiring onstage. For film, though, a much more literal telling is required, and the flat cottages of the main characters are fleshed out into believable, three-dimensional, sweeping environments.

This more formal, concrete element is where Marshall’s directing chops are really illuminated. The choices he makes, given the sharply different setting, are fascinating in how they subtly convey the story. Within the Baker’s shop, for instance, the shots of the Witch are mostly facing the doorway (the outside world) while the shots of the Baker and his Wife are facing inside; this decision implying the Witch’s role as both the couple’s gateway to the outside world, as well as their obstacle from it (by physically blocking the doorway), told purely through visuals.

The careful planning in constructing each scene makes me eager to revisit this work; with so many engaging character interactions and little moments of power plays and bartering, there is undoubtedly a great deal more to discover within this piece.

Upon immediate viewing, however, it is clear how pitch-perfect the casting choices were. Emily Blunt, in the finest performance I’ve seen her give, is a revelation as the Baker’s Wife, Anna Kendrick plays a genuine heartfelt Cinderella, and Meryl Streep is a captivating, often hilarious Witch. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen are hilariously over-the-top as Cinderella’s and Rapunzel’s princes, in a borderline obscene duet of sexual frustration whilst prancing around waterfalls.

Which brings us to an interesting point – Disney’s adaptation of this piece was prematurely criticized for lightening up the original’s darker themes for mass consumption by a more general audience. These fears, in my opinion, were in vain; while children may not pick up on the sexual subtext of the princes’ duet, romantic infidelity, or predatory strangers, these darker ideas certainly come through in the film version. Without spoiling, I truly applaud the changes from the musical to film; the work ends with a different finale song, leaving a very different tone and ultimate effect than the musical does.

This movie marks such an important moment for Disney. The adult themes are not ideas Disney films have really gone into, and certainly not regarding the fairy-tale characters they are so known for. Journeying into such territory, in addition to adapting such a complex, ambitious show, is a fantastic step for the Studios and would be a wonderful sign of things to come. This is truly one of the best movies of the year.