Sunday, January 25, 2015

Project 365: Movies 16 - 23

16 / 365: Foxcatcher (2014)
© Sony Pictures Classics

Oh Foxcatcher. It was supposed to be so good. Halfway through, I even tried to convince myself it was a great movie, because, well... I'm supposed to think that right? Sadly, it falls flat in more than one way. But one big way is really enough.

Based on a true story (that I didn't know anything about), Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is an Olympic gold medalist in the sport of wrestling, as is his older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo). Dave is confident, grounded, and successful—everything Mark dreams of being, but is unable to obtain. Until he gets swept off his feet by a wealthy financier by the name of John du Pont (Steve Carrell). Du Pont is one of the wealthiest men in the country, and despite his eccentricities, he woos Mark with the prospect of training in a world class gym with world class athletes at his family estate, Foxcatcher Farms. Everything seems all well and good, until Du Pont's own delusions and influence on Mark become evermore troubling.

This movie is wrought with tension. From beginning to end, it is unrelenting. Which is fine, normally. My favorite film of last year, Whiplash, is the same way. The difference is, this is tense for literally no reason at all. Sure, the true story of the film ends tragically, and I didn't have any idea what would happen. That can be intense, right? Thanks to the filmmakers, however, the movie let me know from the beginning things wouldn't end well, and then proceeds to build up EVERY. SINGLE. SCENE as if a massacre is about to happen... ALL THE TIME AT EVERY MOMENT. Why? How hard was director, Bennett Miller, trying to work to make sure we knew John du Pont is a total psycho? He must have pulled a muscle straining so hard. Seriously, we get it. Give the actors a little breathing room and let them carry the drama and the intensity themselves—stop trying to bogart the damn scene, Miller!

Alright, I'm sorry. I'm getting a little overwrought. The movie starts really well, and there are scenes that made me think Yes, okay, now we're onto something. Even Carrell and his creepiness had me spellbound. But when I spend the last hour of the movie making an active list of "How is this going to end horribly for everyone?" in my head, you're failing to capture my attention. Instead, you're distracting me. Because when everything finally does boil over, everyone in the theater thought Yeah well duh. Absolutely nothing could be as horrible and terrifying as the movie was building it up to be, and it deserved more than that. I feel like I might be in the minority here about this multiple Oscar-nominated flick, but I just don't care. It could have been way better, and I blame the direction.

Rating: ★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

17 / 365: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
© Orion Pictures
This movie was the #74 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

Rating: ★★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Blu Ray
Seen Before: Yes

18 / 365: Paris is Burning (1990)
© Miramax

This fascinating documentary is a ballsy look at the 'ballroom' culture in Harlem during the 1980s. Today, we really know it as "drag queen" culture, but this is a subculture all its own. Our documentarian, Jennie Livingston, throws herself into this detailed world of imagined extravagance, hierarchy, self-made family units, and, most interestingly to me, vocabulary. The film follows several "houses," or groups of gay men and/or transgender women who identify themselves as part of a single family, almost like a street gang. The members are primarily Black or Latino or mixed, and to be a part of these houses, you have to walk in the Balls, or compete. There are "Legends" (the seasoned queens) and the "Children" (the inexperienced queens), part of families like the House of Xtravaganza, the House of St. Laurent, and the House of Ninja, just to name a few.

Now, I watch a lot of "RuPaul's Drag Race," so some of the vocab lessons weren't new to me. Throwing shade or Reading or Voguing... fascinating inventions within this culture, so layered in meaning and history, this documentary is a true examination of their origins. "Drag Race" brought these concepts into the mainstream, but this ballroom scene in Harlem is as far away from mainstream as you could possibly get. Livingston does a remarkable job in showcasing the glamour and the excitement and the dedication of these House members... while simultaneously shining a light on the tragedy within the community itself. These are not rich or glamorous people when they are outside of the Balls, and even they can't escape the ravages of poverty or AIDS.

I love documentaries that read like anthropological studies, especially of a world so foreign from my own. These men and women have their own language, their own traditions. An underground culture that existed hidden from the white-dominated opulence in Manhattan... these Queens created their own opulence in the ballroom competition circuit. This film is an absolute gem, and I understand now why it's considered a classic.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Netflix
Seen Before: No

19 / 365: Sleeping Beauty (2011)
© IFC Films

A great idea does not a good screenplay make. The movie appears to be about Lucy (Emily Browning), a young, delicate bird-of-a-college-student popping around various menial jobs. She answers a want ad, of sorts, to waitress for what can only be described as a high-end fetish club for wealthy men. She quickly gets promoted from eye-candy pouring goblets of wine to the main gig: voluntarily being placed in an unconscious state to allow old men to fondle her and/or sleep next to her and/or yell things at her without even her as a witness. Like Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse", except terrible, with literally no stakes or discernible plot.

It started out promising. Elements of grooming, pressing the importance of utmost discretion. Even the cinematography and direction seemed solid. But nothing could overcome how desperately obtuse Julia Leigh's script is. It's like there's a gag order on all of these characters. Like they're not allowed to talk, or ask questions, or even make sense. Unless they're going to just say something crude and gross. "Match a lipstick to the color of your labia." Oh yeah, okay. Sure, lady-who-seems-important-but-who-we-never-see-again. When your dialogue reminds me of Showgirls but without the laughs, you're not in a good place.

The screenplay is intentionally vague, with scenes that go on and on but say nothing. It was the great Gertrude Stein who said, There is no there there. I'm gonna assume she was talking about this. You wait, thinking things will come together, that there might be some reveal... but it never comes. Overly emotional scenes are heavy and wrought with feeling... and we have no idea why. Characters appear to know each other in some significant way, but hey, why explain the connection when not knowing can turn into a pointless guessing game? I mean, why show or tell us anything when we can just infer based on little to no clues? Each scene literally feels endless. Not in a boring way but in a... What the hell is going on? way. I've never given a movie more side-eye than I did this one.

It feels like a script someone from my Intermediate Screenwriting class in college was trying to beat out every week to no avail. Your pitch may have been solid, Julia, but you can't string together cohesive scenes to save your life. And no matter how much you try, Emily Browning's beautiful face isn't going to salvage your movie. Nice try though. D for effort.

Okay, I might have way too many thoughts about how this movie failed. Ideas with potential do that to me.

Rating: ★ / 5 stars
Watched: Netflix
Seen Before: No

20 / 365: The Heat (2013)
© 20th Century Fox

I missed this in the theaters, along with many movies in 2013, but I probably had more people prodding me to see The Heat more than any other. It didn't look too special to me, but the pairing of Sandra Bullock as a tight-ass, know-it-all FBI agent, and Melissa McCarthy as a foul-mouthed, disgusting Southie police detective can only be described as magic. Bullock's Agent Ashurn gets sent to Boston to work with local authorities to investigate a drug ring that appears to have a rising death toll. Ashburn gets reluctantly paired with McCarthy's Det. Mullins, and hilarity ensues.

The plot should matter, but honestly, it really doesn't. There were a few times when that annoyed me, like C'mon, ladies, we have a plot to progress, but in the end, they were funnier and more enjoyable than any murderous drug lords. Bullock can play a bitch in an almost eerily believable way, it's amazing we almost like her more that way. It is pretty satisfying watching the teacher's pet fall on her face once in awhile, and Bullock just nails that. Melissa McCarthy's brilliant comedic timing has been well-documented, but people really forget about Bullock. She cut her teeth in comedies as the ugly duckling, and only someone with that street cred can muss herself up as ridiculously as Bullock does in The Heat.

I also respect the movie for embracing its violent undertones. Where Bridesmaids committed to shitting in sinks, The Heat commits to blowing peoples' heads off—without abandoning the comedy, of course. Most of the movie, though, just feels like Bullock and McCarthy riffing with one another. Some of their choices I can't imagine were really written down anywhere. These two just take it and run with it. It's just too bad we may never see a sequel.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: HBOGo
Seen Before: No

© Sony Pictures

The recent sequel to the 2009 original, based on a children's book, this animated feature picks up right where the first left off. With the glitching "water into food" machine finally defeated, the world is now saved from monster food-weather! Phew! But our hero, Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader), and all his friends and family are told it's time to evacuate their island home for a very necessary clean-up by Flint's hero, inventor and owner of Live Corp, Chester V (Will Forte). Chester's questionable motives for 'helping' the island start to become clear when he recruits the starstruck Flint to help him find his lost machine, the FLDSMDFR. It doesn't help that the machine has begun to malfunction again, this time churning out food-animal hybrids that threaten to overrun the island.

Cloudy 2 is remarkably cute until you realize... it's a little boring. Something so odd and quirky and fun shouldn't be so uneventful. The third act picks up considerably, but it just takes too long to get there. Until that point, the focus is so firmly on being clever and tongue-in-cheek-y, it forgets to develop into a solid story. The first had far more character development and epic pacing. It was clever without relying solely on that to entertain. The same can't be true for the sequel.

Again, it gets better towards the end. Perhaps if it had a shorter run time, it wouldn't have been such a trial to get through. It's sad, because I'm pretty enamored with the animation, and the food-animals. I just... didn't care. Except for Berry the Strawberry. He might as well be a puppy. As far as I'm concerned, he carried the movie.

Rating: ★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Netflix
Seen Before: No

22 / 365: Snowpiercer (2013)
© Weinstein Company

Watching this a 2nd time was a remarkably different experience. I thought I'd actually like it a lot less, but it was pretty consistent from viewing to viewing, even with my picking it apart. In my opinion, this was the movie of the summer last year. Which is surprising, considering it had "art house limited run" written all over it. Snowpiercer is a post-apocalyptic story, based on a French graphic novel, where the undoing of the Earth was—wait for it!—global warming! It sounds silly, like the wind being evil in The Happening, but stick with me. The year is 2031, 17 years after the Earth freezes over due to our naive attempts to cool the warming planet. The only human survivors to are the thousands of people piled onto the Snowpiercer, a 100+ car train with a self-sustaining eco-system and an engine that will run forever, invented by a man who may as well be God, Wilford.

The catch is, that eco-system depends on a vastly deficient class system determined by placement on the train: the people in the front, and the people in the back. Ne'er the two shall meet. Curtis (Chris Evans) is our young hero who leads a revolt of the steerage passengers, overtaking the cars one by one until they reach the engine, having little idea what they will find on the way.

So much about this movie is perfect. The ominous beginnings, the character introductions, the incorporation of back story while telling us so much about the present. This is not easy to do, especially in what can essentially be described as an alien world. There is a lot to reveal, a lot to explain, and little time to do it. Tilda Swinton's turn as Mason, the 2nd in command on the train, is mesmerizing and freakish. The brutality these people endure, and the circumstances in which they survive, is traumatizing to watch, but it never loses its intrigue. We only get more and more curious, and it captivates us every single second.

I do have one huge problem, though. The ending was all wrong. I felt it the first time I saw it, but it was confirmed the 2nd time. It is literally nearly flawless until the very, very end. I can't even say it's disappointing. It's just... an odd and confounding choice. The movie says so much about humanity, about survival, and every actor gives it their fighting best, but the end keeps it from perfection. What is this trying to say? No matter how hard I try (and trust me, I have), it will never feel right. Does that mean I wouldn't recommend this movie to you? Hmm... no, but I would certainly warn you. I'm a person who won't forget the good just because of the bad, so despite its epilogue, Snowpiercer is worth your time.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Netflix
Seen Before: Yes

23 / 365: In a World... (2013)
© Sony Pictures

I'm drawn to any movie, fiction or doc, that focuses on voice over work. I find it utterly fascinating; always have, ever since I was a kid and watched the voice over actors for "Daria" do a TV special. If I had the skill, it would probably be my dream job. Anyways, I watched writer, director, and star Lake Bell promote this film a few years back, and I'm shocked it took me so long to see it.

There's something very Bridget Jones about this movie, then like it had a baby with a sports movie. Because you guys, the voice over world is cut-throat! Cathy Solomon (Bell) is a struggling vocal coach, unable to escape the shadow of her father, voice over legend Sam Soto. That is until she steps out on her own and begins to make waves after scoring a movie trailer gig. The movie is pretty simple, and I'm not even sure that it has a lot to say beyond the expected. At the same time, Cathy is a delightful, quirky female lead, carrying around a tape recorder to capture odd accents or the voices of girls who talk like babies. You want to see her win in this world where women aren't even invited to play.

The B-plot is also really strong. Michaela Watkins appears as Cathy's sister, Danni, and I need her to be in every movie right now. I adore her. She can do comedy and drama without breaking a sweat, and her chemistry with Lake Bell reminds me of my own sister. I'm going to start playing the "sister code" card as often as possible with her now. Cute, harmless, and full of adorable side characters. It reminds me of movies I'd watch in the 90's on VHS tape when I was home "sick" from school.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Netflix
Seen Before: No

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