Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Project 365: Movies 42 - 49

42 / 365: Horns (2014)
© Dimension Films

This is a Grimm fairy tale of sorts, one that is steeped in overt Christian dogma. But don't let that fool you into thinking it's something heavy and self-righteous. Instead, it has the bones of a whodunnit thriller and the limbs of a bizarre comedy-fantasy all rolled into one single movie. Not horror, like I'm sure many people thought it would be, though there are moments it attempts to go there before pulling back again. My feeling is that many viewers hated this, but for me, I appreciated the restraint. Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, slips into this starring role that seems a bit more up his alley than the one that made him famous.

Radcliffe plays Ig Perrish, a young man accused of murdering his longtime girlfriend, Merrin (Juno Temple), who becomes the focus of scorn and hatred in his small town. One morning, he wakes up to find horns sprouting from his skull. That much was expected (it is called Horns), but the clincher is that the residents who are out for his blood start confessing to and acting upon their deepest, most destructive secrets. Presumably, the horns pool evil and bring out the worst in everybody; or perhaps, shows people for what they really are.

The oddball sequences keep coming, at a pace that mars the main plot at times. Ig is an interesting character, and his remarkable little love story is even more so—unfortunately, that part gets a bit hard to see when the snakes and CGI take over. Not to mention Heather Graham coming in a chewing the scenery to bits. But despite the momentary flaws, I found the direction really strong and the film beautifully shot. I connected with Ig and his love, Merrin, and while the horn plot line aided in giving the movie a very American Psycho, is-this-really-happening? feel, the movie is, at its core, a small town murder mystery. Of course, one with a fiery, fantastical element that certainly brings the strange. Revenge really is all-consuming...

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

43 / 365: A Clockwork Orange (1971)
© Warner Brothers

This movie was the #70 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

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

44 / 365: Song of the Sea (2014)

About a month ago, I saw a little film called The Secret of Kells, which I found delightful enough. I was determined to catch the filmmaker, Tomm Moore's, most recent Oscar-nominated animated feature while it was still in theaters, so I jumped at the chance to see Song of the Sea when a couple of showings cropped up nearby. Take a second to watch the trailer. Seriously, do it, you'll want to see it too.

Tomm Moore's fully hand-drawn story spirals color and pattern and wisps of details as it recounts a tale stemming from Irish and Scottish legend: a legend of the Selkies, women who walk the land as humans but swim the sea as seals. Our story focuses on Saoirse (Lucy O'Connell), a mute six-year-old girl and the last of the Selkies, being raised by her single father (Brendan Gleeson) and ignored by her older brother, Ben. The one-sided rivalry between Ben and Saoirse—he feeds on his resentment because he blames her for their mother's death—eventually leads to his discovery of her magical origin... and the role she's meant to play in saving the remnants of the mystical world.

This may be a fantasy, but it's really about a family, and a relationship between siblings when a tragedy is constantly hanging overhead. Their evolution as brother and sister is the story. Everything else is secondary, but it is hardly nothing. Moore constructs a nearly flawless movie, one like I've never seen before. His feature, The Secret of Kells, was similarly beautiful, stylistically, but it didn't have the heart that this one does. By the end, my heart had nearly burst from love for little Saoirse and the endlessly loyal Ben.

By far, the best animated feature of 2014, if not the last few years. It is pure magic, and precious without sacrificing its storytelling for that warm, fuzzy feeling. Even though, yes, that feeling is there, too. I walked away pondering the themes, the implications... it actually reminded me of my feelings walking out of Pan's Labyrinth—so many incredible possibilities, all of them adding layer upon layer of meaning. Do yourself a favor and see this movie. Now.

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

45 / 365: Still Alice (2014)
© Sony Pictures Classics

In the week leading up to the 87th Academy Awards, I attempted to do my due diligence and see a handful more movies that just might walk away with a statue. And I—along with the rest of the world—knew that Julianne Moore was a sure thing for her role in Still Alice.

The film has a singular focus: Alice Howland (Moore), a brilliant linguistics professor at Columbia, and her discovery, then acceptance, of a debilitating diagnosis. Alice has early-onset Alzheimer's, and there is nothing she can do to stop its destruction of her brain or her memories. She attempts to keep a handle on her life for as long as possible, all while her husband (Alec Baldwin) and three grown children (Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, and Hunter Parrish) come to terms with losing her in very different ways.

The incredible thing that the filmmakers did was develop a character strong enough to do anything—except overcome this. You can't help but admire a character like Alice who doesn't fall into a state of perpetual or destructive denial when it would be so easy. Her strength is both impressive and useless, and it is quite literally crippling to watch. The apologies from other people in Alice's life are what hit the hardest... there are no encouraging words or rallies of strength... but rather, a resigned "I'm so sorry" that steals away any semblance of hope.

That being said, Still Alice isn't impossible to endure. It also isn't perfect, since it suffers from its singular focus by being a bit too shallow, at times, especially with the side characters. The subject matter is exhaustively heavy, but Julianne Moore's performance is too relatable to any of us with loved ones stricken with this illness to be ignored. It is the perfect reminder of what is lost at the hands of a disease so unrelenting, but one that, hopefully someday, will have a cure.

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

46 / 365: The Producers (1967)
© Embassy Pictures

Before Mel Brooks gave us a tap-dancing Frankenstein monster, or a wide-cracking black cowboy, he gave us the not-so-quiet tale of Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), a pair of slimy fools who ban together to steal millions by producing a Broadway flop. Adapted seven ways since Sunday, this little movie will always be the original masterpiece.

Bialystock enlists Bloom, a lowly tax accountant, to join him in producing a sure-fire, close-by-page-four, Broadway musical by the name of "Springtime for Hitler." Their con is (I guess?) simple enough, as Bialystock uses his creepy, comb-over charm to woo the money out of little old ladies' pockets. He promises them all 50%, or 100%, on a musical that will never need to pay out, and he and Bloom walk away with all that cash in hand.

But first, they have to get to opening night, which is where this movie really hits its stride. Zero and Wilder are masters of the uncomfortable and awkward, and every scene highlights this—from their first run in with the play's writer, Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars), to their recruitment of flamboyant director, Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett)... all the way to the open casting call to find their perfect Hitler.

To say this movie is funny is a gross understatement. It is sharp and witty and completely ridiculous in a way only Mel Brooks has been able to master. Without The Producers, there would be no Brooks, no High Anxiety, no History of the World Part 1... and the world would be a much sadder place—and significantly less quotable.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: TV / Turner Classic Movies
Seen Before: Yes

47 / 365: Boyhood (2014)
© IFC Films

There are two movies who were battling it out for Oscar's big prize this year: Boyhood, and the film reviewed below, Birdman (which ultimately took the prize). Both were included in my Top 10 of 2014 list, and I gave them a second viewing on Saturday before the ceremony, just to see how my feelings about them might have changed—if they had at all. Turns out, I actually liked Boyhood more during the second go-around.

Boyhood is a film about growing up—quite literally a coming of age story. There is no pinnacle to reach or battleground to face; our hero simply goes from being a child to being a young adult, right before our eyes. His life is achingly basic, and it captivates us for that very reason. Ellar Coltraine plays Mason, who ages from 6 to 18 during the course of the film. By now, we should all be aware of the 12-year shooting schedule that made us all take note of the movie in the first place. But is it enough to keep it flying high so we can't see its flaws? No, unfortunately not. It still feels aimless, a bit, and even though that seems intentional, it doesn't pick the pacing up like it needs to.

This difference between this viewing and the last is that I liked Mason more. He grew on me, as did the rest of his family. I felt like I was revisiting old friends, rather than meeting them anew, and that took away from the challenge of sticking with them all through the slog of everyday life.

I saw so many movies from 2014 after posting my Top 10 list that it became clear very quickly that Boyhood would no longer be on it if I were to write it again. While the film might be good, exceptional in many ways, I don't love it enough to say that I'd choose to watch it again, or even share it with friends. And that is always the biggest indicator of best movies, is it not?

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: VUDU
Seen Before: Yes

© Fox Searchlight

Like I stated in my review for Boyhood above, I gave Birdman a quick re-watch to determine if this likely Best Picture winner (which surprise surprise, it did end up winning) really stacked up to the best in my book.

This comedy-drama tackles a gimmick of sorts as it recounts a tale of Michael Keaton-doppelganger, Riggan (played by Keaton), once the blockbuster King for playing superhero "Birdman" in multiple films who now can't be taken seriously as an actor by anyone. Inner demons, actual demons, and ego haunt Riggan as he tries to direct, write, and star in a new play on Broadway.

I said previously that the ensemble in this film is the best best of the year, and I still believe that. I"m impressed with the vision for the movie, but after seeing it a second time, I found that I didn't enjoy it more—in fact, I enjoyed it a bit less. I found the scenes less compelling, the motivations less justified; the acting still bowled me over, and Emma Stone stood out more this go-around than before as Riggan's gloomy daughter, Sam. Interesting how our perceptions tweak.

Writer/Director Alejandro Iñárritu made a memorable film, that much is certain. His work has never connected with me in the long run, and that trend really continues here. Regardless, it's still his best movie to date (maybe at least equal directorially to Amores Perros), and he weaved just the right of comedy into a plot that desperately needed it. The Academy's Best Picture of the Year... but not mine. That prize goes to Whiplash, which I will be watching again as soon as humanly possible.

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

49 / 365: Forbidden Planet (1956)

There is a very specific genre that existed in the 1950s called "Science Fiction." No, not "Sci-Fi" as we know it today. It's a strange, absurdist vision of the future, and it was remarkable. I caught a showing of Forbidden Planet this weekend, and I was reminded how much I love this genre, and how influential it was in our modern "fanboy" culture.

The story itself is similar to many of the time. A group of space adventurers, led by Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen), travel to a distant planet, one that should have a small colony of scientists and researchers. They go to investigate when the signal from the research team ceases, only to find two survivors: Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his strange young daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis). Oh, and their robot helper, Robby the Robot (likely one of the most famous robots in movie history). The team must push to find answers into the disappearance of Morbius' colony... not expecting to find the scientist keeping a secret of his own.

Like other movies in this genre, the story incorporates a naive interpretation of space—and science. However, unlike many of the movies cranked out at the same time, Forbidden Planet built a spectacular vision of technology and robotics... and space monsters. The execution was also fantastic. The script is still a bit stilted, and the characters are distracted at times by frivolous things (i.e. kissing?), but despite all of that, Forbidden Planet ranks with the best of 50's Sci-Fi, up there with Them! and The Incredible Shrinking Man. An absolute must-see for any movie fan, the epitome of pre-space age cinema!

Rating: ★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: TV / Turner Classic Movies
Seen Before: Yes

Monday, February 23, 2015

Music Mondays: Wardell "Opossum"

This selection for Music Monday is a unique find. I stumbled across this song by Wardell, "Opossum," when I was scrolling through Instagram. It was an Instagram hole, actually, and probably the least logical path to find new music, but there you go. One of the celebrities I follow tagged their friend, Sasha Spielberg, and so I devoured her feed for, hmm... a couple hours.

Anyways, it turns out, this daughter of director Steven Spielberg is in a band with her brother Theo. That band is Wardell. Their music has a indie pop feel, and when I heard this track they put out in 2011, I did everything I could to find more music. Turns out, their first full album, which includes "Opossum," was released digitally two weeks ago. I just had to share my newfound love with you. Check them out, I think they're going to be big.

Artist: Wardell
Song: "Opossum" | download
Album: Love / Idleness

Sunday, February 22, 2015

AFI Top 100: #70 "A Clockwork Orange"

Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Before pressing "play" on our AFI Top 100 movie this week, I made a point to tell myself that no matter how I felt about it after this viewing, my feelings would be decidedly different than the first time I saw it. There is something about the #70 movie, A Clockwork Orange, that demands multiple viewings. It's hard and traumatizing while still being thoughtful and sarcastic. Director Stanley Kubrick creates motifs of brutality, teen boredom, and a perverse future in this film adaptation of Anthony Burgess' dystopian novel. It is also a vibrant experiment in language.

Set in London in an unknown future (one that seems to be a hybrid of British and Russian idiosyncrasies), Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his collection of brutal friends, or droogs, spend their days cutting school and their nights wandering the streets, battling other gangs, each other, and innocent victims unlucky enough to cross their paths. They steal, rape, and torture, all while waxing philosophically as if they're in a Shakespearean comedy. Alex and the droogs lack any notion of compassion for anyone or anything, other than themselves of course. Our story takes a shift when Alex is apprehended and imprisoned, before being transitioned into a rehabilitation program meant to strip him of the ability to do bad things.

Friday, February 20, 2015

My 2015 Oscar Predictions!

© Timothy A Clary

This weekend, the 87th Annual Academy Awards will be airing, and the streets of LA are all in 'prep mode'... and so am I. A little Oscar party celebration is in the works, and I can't wait to watch the show. I didn't see every single film nominated this year, but I managed to see all the movies in the big categories, including Best Picture. I'm taking part in two Oscar pools this year, even though I'm hardly confident about all my choices. But hey! Where's the fun in not playing just because you're unsure?

For my picks, it's always a battle between going with my heart and going with my head. I know what the Vegas odds look like, and I usually know better than to buck the odds, especially if I have a crisp $5 bill at stake. But most times, by Sunday night, I'll throw my hands in the hair and say "Screw it, I'm picking my favorite!".... which promptly makes me lose the pool by, you know... that one category.

Needless to say, in this, my own personal spot to blog, I get to share both selections without marring my chances at winning the pot. I marked a ✓ to indicate what I think will win, and a ♥ to mark what I wish would win. I'd happily lose my fiver to see a Whiplash upset. What? A girl can dream, can't she?

What about you? Did you fill in your Oscar predictions? See mine below and let me know who you're rooting for!

• American Sniper
✓ Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
• Boyhood
• The Grand Budapest Hotel
• The Imitation Game
• Selma
• The Theory of Everything
♥ Whiplash

• Steve Carell, "Foxcatcher"
• Bradley Cooper, "American Sniper"
• Benedict Cumberbatch, "The Imitation Game"
• Michael Keaton, "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)"
✓♥ Eddie Redmayne, "The Theory of Everything"

• Marion Cotillard, "Two Days, One Night"
✓ Julianne Moore, "Still Alice"
• Felicity Jones, "The Theory of Everything"
♥ Rosamund Pike, "Gone Girl"
• Reese Witherspoon, "Wild"

• Robert Duvall, "The Judge"
• Ethan Hawke, "Boyhood"
• Edward Norton, "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)"
• Mark Ruffalo, "Foxcatcher"
✓♥ J.K. Simmons, "Whiplash"

✓ Patricia Arquette, "Boyhood"
• Laura Dern, "Wild"
• Keira Knightley, "The Imitation Game"
♥ Emma Stone, "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)"
• Meryl Streep, "Into the Woods"

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Food & Lib: The One Up

I'm noticing a trend of adult nostalgia restaurants opening along Ventura Blvd. Perhaps this is a response to the hipster locales growing in popularity, but regardless of the reason, the prospect of going out for dinner or to get a drink becomes evermore exciting when there is something offered that seems catered just to you.

That's how The One Up in Sherman Oaks feels to me. For different reasons, probably, than other fans of this new restaurant & arcade, which has created a hybrid rustic, adult haven and 80's throwback nostalgia. The colorful and quirky interior houses a massive bar to the left of the entrance, with shelves and drawers of books, trinkets, and pop art teetering above a counter lined with turquoise blue cassette tapes.

John and I hopped over during lunch on this recent holiday weekend right when the place opened at 12-noon. The tables and seating are purposefully slapdash and mis-matched, big leather couches and curved sofas lined beneath the side windows. Neon lighting beams cult favorite quotes from popular '80s movies and songs, too, which admittedly, made me feel all the feels.

The menu is pretty expansive, ranging from Americana to Vietnamese and fusion of everything in between. I debated about getting an appetizer of Cap'n Crunch Chicken Wings, just to give them a try, but I decided to leave it for another time and order my main dish instead.

Let me just say right now, if you love burgers, you've gotta try one from this menu. They have slider options so you can try all of them if you inevitably can't decide (John and I did that when we came by for Happy Hour a few months ago), but this time, I knew exactly what I wanted: the Jalapeno Whiz Burger. Fried jalapenos w/ a drippy, gooey provolone "cheese whiz" sauce... it is positively to die for. Just scroll down and tell me that's not the yummiest burger you've seen in a long time?

Like I said, it is messy. I learned really quickly that the more sauce I could get to drip out onto my plate, the more sauce I'd have to dip my hand-cut garlic potato fries in. It was a win-win!

John decided on the Neapolitan Burger (pictured immediately above), which is just as ooey-gooey with its burrata topping as mine was with the whiz sauce. The fries are also a must have side.

The best thing about this place is that you can grab a beer, order your food, and then hop over to one of the couches (if they're available!) to check out the movies that they show in constant rotation around the restaurant. Different flicks screen on every television (there are currently three), and they play on repeat every two-ish hours. When we were there, they were showing Back to the Future, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and The Goonies. (When we were there a few months ago, they were screening Big Trouble in Little China and Weird Science, so the '80s movie love runs strong with the One Up crowd.

Then... there's the game room. Just through to the back section of the restaurant, you pass through the bar (order your drink first and they'll bring it to you wherever you are in the back) and you'll come to a line of perfectly retro-fitted arcade consoles. Vertical, horizontal, and Street Fight Plus options... each arcade housing hundreds of classic 8-bit games, ranging from Donkey Kong Jr. to Dig Dug to Gun Smoke. So just like I was in heaven with the '80s movies playing out front, the boyfriend found his mecca standing in front of a console in the back.

The best part? The games are FREE. No quarter slots, so worries... just you, the game(s), and - if you're like me - dying over and over and over again. Click here to check out the lists of games they have right now. The only time you have to give up your spot at the controls is if there's a line to play... then you have to be a good sport and step away if it's GAME OVER. For me, that would be every 60 seconds! But if you go during an off-hour, mid-day or at Happy Hour, you won't have any trouble wasting away an hour reminiscing over all the old classics.

The One Up's space is not only fun, it's beautiful. The staff is nice and accommodating, and it struck me that this would be the perfect place to hold a birthday celebration or get-together. They even mentioned to me that the entire back room can be rented out, so I'm already planning something that could bring all my friends together to enjoy a good drink, crazy-amazing and messy food, and a couple (or a lot) of games.

Place: The One Up
Neighborhood: Sherman Oaks (Ventura Blvd)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

MY TOP FIVE: Sexiest Movies

The movie box office this weekend was dominated by the phenomenon that is Fifty Shades of Grey, and regardless of your feelings about that particular movie (I shared my thoughts on Sunday), everyone loves a good sexy movie. The hope is that when you go to a movie that promises passion and chemistry (maybe even a little romance), it will actually deliver.

I saw a dozen or so articles this past week that touted "__ Movies Sexier Than Fifty Shades of Grey" with lists of, well... kinda pathetic recommendations. Movies that were romantic and mainstream, and a bit vanilla—not really sexy. That got me thinking about what I consider to be My Top Five Sexiest Movies, of which I had plenty to choose from. Movies that, and this goes without saying, I would recommend any day over Fifty Shades (not to add any hate!) if you're looking for something a bit more titillating.

Give these amazingly sexy movies a watch, and you'll know what I'm talking about:

5. Bound (1996)

Coming right out of her legendary performance in likely the least sexy movie of all time, Showgirls, Gina Gershon stars with cartoon-trapped-in-a-woman's-body, Jennifer Tilly, in the steamy crime thriller, Bound. This is the Wachowskis back when they were simply "The Wachowski Brothers" in their first directorial venture, and they knocked it out of the park. Violet (Tilly) plays the dutiful stay-at-home girlfriend to Caesar (Joe Pantoliano), a rough and brutal mafia goon. Complacent with life, Violent meets Corky (Gershon), an ex-con who drops by their apartment to perform some much needed plumbing work. No really!

Much to Violent's surprise, Corky's masculine energy pulls her in and they begin a heated, secret affair. Not only that, they decide to ban together to steal millions from Caesar's mob ties. The realistic lesbian love sequences are the reason Bound takes a place on this list. No fluff, no cheesy exaggerations... just the seductive pair that is Tilly and Gershon. I think every woman walked out of this movie wishing Gina Gershon would show up at their door with her toolbox.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Music Mondays: White Lies "Death"

Remember when I said a few weeks ago that I was now obsessed with the music in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night? You don't? Well, I am. Particularly the first scene where our two leads listen to music in her underground apartment. That song, after hardly any sleuthing, turns out to be "Death" by British rock band White Lies, and today's Music Monday selection.

This band, and the song, are completely new to me. But sometimes, there are just those tracks that connect with you, even if it's just because the lyrics or melody generate images of something you love. Those are my favorite songs, and the ones that stick with me the longest. My favorite artists have always been discoveries from film or TV (I found last week's artist, Elisa, the same way). Now, this song from my new favorite vampire movie has introduced me to a whole collection of songs by White Lies off of their 2009 debut album To Lose My Life... —"Death" is an upbeat anthem that influenced not only one of the best flicks, but the best scene, from last year's movies.

As I await the inevitable release of the Girl Walks Home Alone at Night collector's vinyl, "Death" will remain on digital repeat. I hope you'll give it a listenor come back to it, once you see the movie for yourself. Sometimes it's better to experience a song first accompanied by some great visuals. But I promise you this: you won't be able to get it out from under your skin, and you'll be in love by the first note.

Artist: White Lies
Song: "Death" | download | stream
Album: To Lose My Life...

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Project 365: Movies 37 - 41

37 / 365: Gymkata (1985)

Thank god for epically bad movies. We watch movies like Hell Comes to Frogtown and Monkey Shines to remind us not to take everything so seriously all the time, and Gymkata swept in this week to do just that. This movie takes the same approach as Esther Williams pictures in the 1950s did: create a plot around an actor's singular skill, and hammer that skill into every scene, no matter how awkward. For Esther, it was swimming... for Gymkata star Kurt Thomas, it's gymnastics.

Thomas plays Jonathan Cabot, a world-renowned gymnast that the government enlists to infiltrate the dangerous nation of Parmistan (teehee) to participate in the brutal and dangerous competition called "The Game." It's really just 'the most dangerous game,' only really silly. Anyways, if Jonathan can manage a victory, the US will be able to come into the country and build the very necessary "star wars" site to do... I'm not sure what. Anyways, he must combine his gymnastics skills with eastern martial arts if he has any hope of surviving, much less winning! He is paired with a Parmistan princess named Rubali (Tetchie Agbayani) because she's good with knives or something. It's alright, you can snicker. I know I am.

This movie is so hysterically wonderful and bad, I delighted in every second of it. Gymnastics come into play in inconceivable ways, and thank god there is a pommel horse strategically placed in that town square when Jonathan needs it to battle a hundred crazy Parmistanians! The acting is masterful and I chortled every time Richard Norton came on screen. Oh, and see that picture above of the man with the eagle? Yeah, I can't even explain that to you, but it's easily my favorite shot in the entire movie. Kurt Thomas' tumbling and acrobatic skills are a national treasure. Wars and dictators could be stopped with the sheer power of his rope-climbing.

Watch Gymkata with 15 friends, just like I did, and you'll experience real-life MST3K commentary.

Rating: ★½ / 5 stars
Bad Movie Score: 3.5 / 5
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

38 / 365: Saving Private Ryan (1998)
© DreamWorks

This movie was the #71 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

Rating: ★★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: VUDU
Seen Before: Yes

39 / 365: Nymphomaniac: Vol. 2 (2014)
© Magnolia Pictures

A continuation of my review last week for the Nymphomaniac films takes us to Volume II. Our story picks right up as narrator and nympho Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) recounts her life story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). He participates in her story-telling by philosophically tacking on complex meaning to basic or crude sexual experiences (i.e. knot-making, church, classical music, etc.) The shift from Young Joe to Older Joe isn't quick... time passes, but nonetheless, I lamented seeing Joe age, even though I knew it had to happen. I'd grown accustomed to Stacy Martin as our flawed heroine. Charlotte Gainsbourg is rougher, with harder edges. We're reminded that such a life could only serve to wreck your demeanor, much as Young Joe tried to avoid that.

I enjoyed this film less, overall. The first volume was more fun, the second more desperate. It finds itself again about halfway through—the first half paces differently than the rest, including the first volume, but Joe picks her story back up and we get to meet more characters. And Joe's sequences with P show a nice evolution in this broken character, and they are very touching.... at first.

We spend the entire movie waiting to see how Joe ended up in that alleyway, beaten all to hell... and nothing could have prepared me for the reveal. Shocking and sad that her life led to this point, yet she had a savior in Seligman. The message-laden ending conversation between Joe and Seligman is a bit on the nose, but Joe has the wherewithal to point that out too, so it's alright. That is, until the very last scene, which I thought was so absurdly unnecessary, it completely changes everything I felt about the movie leading up to it. Unfortunate, because you really think that Von Trier is going to keep with this dynamic he's set up, that he'd respect it, but it was not to be.

The more I think about how the movie ended, the more it angers me. Regardless of the fact that these were meant to be one continuous feature, the mere act of splitting them up means I get to judge them separately. And they are very different. For anyone interested in watching both Nyphomaniac films, know that they are both remarkably good, albeit shocking. If nudity makes you uncomfortable, just... don't watch it with your mother. But you've been warned about the final scene, which will leave a bad taste in your mouth.

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

40 / 365: Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)
© Focus Features

I read these books, cover to cover, in Spring 2012. They are indescribably bad. Why did I read them, you might ask? On the surface, this is my kind of melodrama/romance. Were it not for every word written on the page by author (I use the term loosely) E. L. James, it might have been something remotely readable. Which is why when they announced a film adaptation that same year, I was struck with this feeling: No matter what they do, it has to be better than the source material.

On opening night, I joined a collection of fans and haters to see what all the fuss was about and if my prediction was true. Most people know the back-story by now about how the books came to be (Twilight fan fiction that went viral), so on to the "plot." Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a virginal college senior who finds herself interviewing the youngest and most eligible bachelor in Seattle, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for the school paper. Never mind how she got that gig. She's mousey and bang-y (meaning she has bangs, not like... she's bangable—I mean, yes, she is if you consider the rest of the—oh forget it) and Mr. Grey intimidates her with his piercing stare and penthouse office view. Eventually he tracks her down at her job stocking hardware shelves and suggestively asks to buy masking tape and the rest is history.

The main focus of the story is the reveal that Christian is into BDSM play, a Dominant looking for a submissive. No romance for him, he declares, yet all I see is romance with his piano playing, gift-giving, helicopter flying actions. He's a jerk because he's "complicated," which his back story attempts to explain. The movie and he make a big fuss about Ana's decision to sign a contract to essentially become his sex slave, all the while they're getting down and dirty in his playroom anyways, contract be damned. Here lies the problem...

No, not the violence against women. That gives this movie and its source book way too much credit, even if it does show explicitly what an abusive relationship looks like. The problem is, it's bad BDSM. Yes, meaning there is good BDSM out there, which relies wholly on trust, not possession and obsession.  The movie, though, has no plot, and that is my problem. The first book didn't either, but thankfully, the screenwriter scrapped out all the other garbage and left us with the bare bones of what could be the only feasibly watchable adaptation of the book. The book was nearly impossible to endure, what with Ana's embarrassing internal monologue and indecisive weirdness... All of that got nixed and we're just left with stunning art direction, a spectacular soundtrack, and the occasional sexy moment. I wish there were more sexy moments, but alas, there may have been 2 out of like... 12 scenes that actually accomplished this. For being so risque, this BDSM play is pretty boring.

In the end, though, my prediction was true. I don't know what people who didn't read the books will think, but know this: Anyone who read them knows that trying to make something amazing out of the mountain of drivel that is this trilogy is a tall order. The screenwriter, Kelly Marcel, deserves an award for merely attempting it. The script suffers a bit from fighting so hard to be good and watchable while still incorporating fan "Easter eggs" that were better left excluded. But she made characters that were more likable, more relatable, and less obnoxious than the ones James created, and that's saying something. And in the end, Ana comes out on top, this time around, at least. While I'm sure Marcel would have loved to change... everything else, her hands were tied. Ha! wink wink.

See it, don't see it... it won't really matter, because no matter what, you're gonna get two more. Don't fight it, just try to find the fun. And the funny.

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

41 / 365: Virunga (2014)
© Netflix

Virunga is not just a documentary—it's a public awareness film. A nominee for the Best Documentary Oscar this year, it recounts the complex history of the instability and ravaged nation of the Congo in an expertly, yet curtly visual way. And that's just the first five minutes. Then you're introduced to Virunga National Park in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Rangers who have been enlisted to protect the land, the wildlife, and the park's natural resources from the endless onslaught of poachers, powerful rebel groups, and international commerce.

Filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel traveled to the Congo with the intention of following around specific individuals risking their lives to protect Virunga, but what he got was so much more. Upon his arrival, conflict with the M23 Rebellion flared up and British oil company Soco International began a campaign to drill in Virunga's south eastern Lake Edward. Von Einsiedel quickly enlists the participation of investigative journalist Mélanie Gouby, as well as staff at Virunga National Park, including gorilla handler, André Bauma, Chief Warden Emmanuel de Merode, and Park Ranger Rodrigue Katembo.

The film glitters with stunning cinematography and photography, so much so that it feels at times like you are watching "Planet Earth," before you're brought back to the realities of a war-torn country. There is so much upheaval, and von Einsiedel manages to capture so much of the turmoil while still gripping hold of why these men (130 of whom have died to protect Virunga) do what they do. The sequences with André Bauma and his orphaned gorillas are heartbreaking, adorable, and full of hope.

There is a cry for help within this documentary that can't be ignored. The attention paid to it can only help the cause to protect the National Park, and I'm grateful that everyone who participated in the making of this film knew how important a story it was to share with the world.

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

Saturday, February 14, 2015

AFI Top 100: #71 "Saving Private Ryan"

Tom Sizemore & Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Submitting this really late this week. I've been trying to get better about finishing these earlier, but alas, I keep getting distracted, mostly by work. But press on, we must! Some in our movie group dreaded coming to this week's film, even though it is considered one of the best war films ever made. We've gotten to #71 on our AFI Top 100 adventure, Saving Private Ryan. I understand where the hesitation comes from, of course. Director Steven Spielberg wholly outdid himself in his this endeavor, presenting an unfiltered, unromantic view of combat during the second World War. That, however, does not make it easy to watch.

Our film takes place during the Ally invasion of Normandy, France in June 1044, as we follow a company of American soldiers directly after they survive the battle on Omaha Beach. This battle opens the action of the filmit was the bloodiest campaign of the war and the single most important push to move Allied troops into Europe, known as D-Day. The true crux of this story begins at the War Department when a series of three death notifications are written all to the same woman, Mrs. Ryan, informing her that three of her sons have died in battle on the same day. When the Military Chief of Staff is notified that Mrs. Ryan has a fourth son who just parachuted into Normandy, he orders that a company is sent to extract and bring him home.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Food & Lib: Ledlow LA, Downtown

Before hopping into the Rock 'n' Roll Flea Market, which I posted about last week, I met my friend Jason for brunch at nearby Ledlow in Downtown Los Angeles. The area is less than familiar to me, so when Jason suggested this quiet, corner spot on 4th & Main, I jumped at the chance.

The day was beyond beautiful, a perfect sunny and cool southern California morning. The glass-encased restaurant reflected sunlight and the street scene back out at us as we strolled past the outdoor seating area, framed in vined greenery. I frequently think about all these SoCal dining spots lose half their seating to rain... oh, maybe 10 times per year. What a perfect place to eat outside.

I say that, of course, as Jason and I waltz straight inside Ledlow and take a seat in a comfortable booth... not outside. Hey, what can I say? We're so spoiled with beautiful sunny days and open-air dining, we wholly take it for granted. ;)

The interior of Ledlow was simple and airy. The sunlight bouncing through the windows cascaded around, filling the room that was lined on the opposite side with mirrors. All of the light bulbs were dim and flickering, Edison-style, since the daylight was plenty bright. Sparse market lights hung high above the tables, and I snapped some pictures until—of course—I was distracted by the display of flaky, baked goods at the entrance.

Snug in our booth, I ordered myself a frothy latte and we chatted about trying to work out and eat better and all that stuff that should wait until after you've finished your high calorie drinks. Same goes for breakfast sandwiches.

I've been a little obsessed with croissant breakfast sandwiches lately, so when I saw that Ledlow had one on their brunch menu, it was a no-brainer. When it came out, I thought, Aww, it's so tiny. Yeah, I was completely wrong. It filled me up so fast, I felt more than satisfied. The croissant was flaky and buttery—their pastries and baked goods are absolutely something to write home about. The country ham was just the right amount of salty, and so thinly sliced, I thought I may have been gifted some prosciutto.

Jason ordered their Avocado & Cream Cheese Toast, which went to the top of my "must do this at home, it's so easy!" list.

I'd love to return to this little spot to try out their dinner menu, which has some of my favorite things to try (i.e. Moules Frites!). It also has selections that I know John would be ecstatic to order, but I would be a bit afraid to give a taste (like Beef Tongue!)

If you're near 4th & Main, don't hesitate to stop in at this spot, even if just to order a drink at their epic, well-stocked bar. The staff was lovely and we felt so relaxed, I could have lounged there all day, had we not had a date with the Flea Market just a block away.

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