Sunday, February 1, 2015

Project 365: Movies 24 - 29

Click here to read other reviews from my Project 365.

24 / 365: Palo Alto (2013)
© Tribeca Films

I have a friend who I used to drive crazy by saying this, but... I'm gonna say it now: I feel like I wrote this movie. It's not great; it just so sounds like something I'd write. The melodrama, the student-teacher thing, the lack of a central conflict... it all screams Kim's first draft!

Which you'd think would make me love it, but alas, that's not the case. Rather, it made me want to watch it in the first place, and identify with certain things... but that's about it. The next generation of Coppola family filmmakers has her paws all over this little indie picture. Adapted and directed by Gia Coppola, based on James Franco's Palo Alto Stories collection, it is a simultaneously dull and abrasive look at modern teenage life. Multiple stories intertwine, taking place at a single suburban high school—not even one that screams "Palo Alto!"... it could literally be anywhere. 

Nothing is special about this place, or these people. We split our time between sweet, virginal soccer player, April (Emma Roberts), as she goes through the motions of what "teenage-hood" is supposed to look like—and the tumultuous friendship between Teddy (Jack Kilmer), the boy we all remember knowing in high school, and Fred (Nat Wolff), the boy we wish we didn't. These story lines constantly intersect, as acquaintances in school often do, but the spark of living, of life as a teenager, is just missing. We're reminded how hard it can be to be a teen, how hard it is watching other people be so cluelessly young, but we're given hardly anything else. Everyone appears to have given up already. Even our key adult, April's flirtatious soccer coach played by James Franco, has accepted his plain lot in life.

The conflict here might just be surviving high school, a noble pursuit. But Coppola doesn't provide enough meat in her story to root for any of these people. Instead, we find we're feeling bad for them right before looking away to check in on our Instagram feeds.

Rating: ★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Amazon Prime
Seen Before: No

© 20th Century Fox

This movie was the #73 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

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

26 / 365: Into the Woods (2014)
© Walt Disney Pictures

A small caveat: I did this musical in high school. Okay, I wasn't in it, but I was the Stage Manager. It holds a special place in my heart, because I think I met... oh, maybe 10 lifelong friends during that Fall production. In fact, I took one of those friends with me to see this, because, you know, nostalgia.

Anyways, it's important to disclose that, because it certainly affected my opinion. Into the Woods is the first major screen adaptation of the famous, 1986 stage musical by Stephen Sondheim, and Disney threw out all the stops by bringing together a remarkable cast—except for Johnny Depp, who was a terrible choice. It tells the fairytale-hybrid story of various people living in a kingdom who find themselves entering the deep dark woods with very specific goals in mind. We have the Baker and his Wife (Emily Blunt), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red (Lilla Crawford), Jack—of Beanstalk fame (Daniel Huttlestone), our standard Wicked Witch (Meryl Streep), and various other princes and princesses and peasants. The crux of the action is prompted by the Witch tasking the Baker and his Wife with finding four very specific objects, in return for giving them the ability to conceive a child.

From start to finish, Sondheim's music is given its full-throated day in the sun. I can even forgive the fact that the tempo was considerably slowed down so that our actors could perform it. The songs, in fact, are incredibly challenging to sing, even for the most seasoned performers. Anna Kendrick, Hollywood's musical darling, once again reminds us that she got her start on the Broadway stage, not on the big screen, and that makes me ever-more excited to see what she does with The Last Five Years, a personal favorite. Then there is Meryl Streep. A woman who could probably give it 50% at this point (we probably wouldn't even notice), but she still comes in batting 1000. She even channels the legend Bernadette Peters during certain belting measures and totally knocked me over.

It's not all perfect, though I can get swept away by singing, it's true. Disney clearly had a hand in neutering this show in a handful of ways. People who should die don't, and people who go blind regain their sight. At least, they're safe if you they are a character you can buy a figurine of in the Disney store. Otherwise, they're totally fair game. It doesn't destroy the film, I admit. If you didn't know any better, it all works remarkably well with the story—but you are left with a finale that feels just a sliver more bright. A very Disney approach to what is actually a dark musical. At the same time, this is a show that really benefits from the magic of cinema. The scope is so large, the magic so magical, it deserved an adaptation that could provide the bells and whistles it needed to turn witches into queens, and beans into beanstalks. And Disney did just that.

Oh, and just like in any stage production, "Agony" is still one of the funniest songs.

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

© Vice Films

Iranian. Vampire. Western. The first movie in a long time that I was fighting tooth and nail to see on the big screen. I'd heard buzz about it, and its female Iranian director, Ana Lily Amirpour, for half a year now. Shot entirely in black & white in the California desert (which is very obvious if you've ever driven through it), is set in a middle-of-nowhere, Iranian town, called Bad City. The place is full of deviants, pimps, and thieves, and we meet Arash (Arash Marandi), the one young man in town trying to rise above the rest, especially his drug-addled father, Hossein (Marshall Manesh). Behind all the depravity, however, bodies are piling up as an unknown menace begins attacking during the night.

In comes The Girl (Sheila Vand), likely my favorite on screen character in years. Dressed in a loosely flowing chador, akin to a Dracula cape, the Girl reveals herself to be a music-loving, skateboard riding, sneaker-wearing vampire trolling the streets to select her next victim. The best part is, we don't focus on her desperation to kill or maim or feed. In fact, it's the bad male element that she'll come after first, without all that tortured remorse. Arash and our vampire's lives intersect mid-way through the film, and not surprisingly, she's immediately taken with him. What follows is my favorite sequence of scenes as these two, lonely souls come together.

I didn't expect this movie to make me giddy with happiness. I expected some horror, plenty of blood, and maybe even some boredom—but never pure delight. But that's what I got. Maybe I'm just a romantic, our lovebirds' chemistry, so innocent and so sweet, completely sweeping me away. The music also drives every scene and sets a very distinct tone. Jumping from a Nino Rota-esque score to Iranian pop to American classic rock, Amirpour paints a picture that has elements of David Lynch, old spaghetti westerns, and my personal favorite, Elia Kazan. No one did troubled youth like Kazan. Regardless of the style hybriding, it all contributes to this vision of the Girl as the avenging guardian angel of Bad City.

My only qualm is a small one. This city, supposedly ridden with bad characters, seems awfully small the way that Amirpour presents it on screen. Maybe that's because we only ever see the same six people. No major crowds, just empty streets, with the same lone souls walking the night. Thankfully, each of these souls are memorable, and each share special scenes with our quiet, quirky vampire. My favorite being the young street urchin, when the Girl scares him into being a "good little boy." I can't wait to watch this movie again; it will absolutely be one that gets added to my collection so I can show anyone and everyone who will let me. Now, if only I could find the soundtrack...

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

28 / 365: R100 (2014)
© Grindhouse Films

This Japanese film came as the second part of a double feature with the previously reviewed movie, at the Cinefamily screening in Los Angeles' Silent Movie Theater. I was coming off a major high of Vampire fun, and couldn't wait to dive head first into this weird, nutty sado-masochistic comedy. Then the world's worst audience member sat down next to me. As she proceeded to yell at the screen and clap and cackle and ignore the pleas of everyone around her to BE QUIET, I tried to drown her out by sticking my ear-buds into my ears and focusing on the subtitles. That being said... my opinion of this movie might be negatively affected by this movie-going experience, the likes of which I've never experienced or witnessed before.

Now, to focus on R100. A comedic commentary on Japan's movie rating system, which restricts entry to movies with an "R15+" or "R18+", not unlike our [unfortunately] rarely used NC-17 stamp. This, my friends, is "R100": no admittance under 100 years old. It tells the story of Takafumi Katayama (Nao Ohmori), an ordinary man selling goods at a department store. His wife is in a coma, his young son is oblivious to their dull existence, and Katayama is desperate for excitement. He decides to sign a one-year, unbreakable contract to experience the Bondage Club, a unique society where a variety of dominatrices appear in members' daily lives. Play sessions are instigated, and Katayama is expected to take a 100% submissive role, no matter what.

Fun right? It's pretty odd, with a noir-ish tone, but even still, is relatively even-keeled until halfway through. Katayama goes about his day, only to be bombarded by random BDSM Queens dressed in thigh-highs and black leather, until he experiences true euphoria (represented in the film by a distortion of Katayama's face and a radiating sound wave emanating from his blissful expression.)

Then things get so bananas, I don't even know how to describe it. I expected it to be sort of like The Game, where things get too personal, or too close, or too out of hand. And that does happen, but then... other stuff happens, too—and it is completely indescribable. The wheels come off the bloody wagon, as if to say Don't expect closure, because you're not gonna get any, you masochistic freak. Intermixed with the insanity is the real comedy, though: a group of unsuspecting critics, watching the same movie we're watching, trying to make heads or tales of what the hell they're seeing. It is a spectacular insert, and certainly brought the LOLs. At the same time... I don't know that I'd ever want to watch it again. Despite how weird it all is, I can only shake my head with an Oh my god, what the fu—? and a chortle, or two, admittedly. I smell definite cult classic status in its future.

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

29 / 365: Salinger (2013)
© The Weinstein Company

An encompassing look at the life of infamous author, J.D. Salinger. A remarkable amount of work was done to collect interviews with people who knew him, who've studied him, or who've written about him. I wish the same amount of work had gone into putting the film together. Director Shane Salerno cuts fervently between Salinger's life story and an examination of his 'suggested' reclusiveness during his later years, piecing together a movie that is trying and unfocused.

Salerno's construction of the documentary certainly suggests his own fandom for the author, lifting him to a God-like status the same way that his rabid fans do. In other words, there's plenty of bias. Beginning with a reminder that Salinger has rarely been seen, photographed or interviewed in the forty years leading up to his death in 2010, it isn't long before we delve deeply into what led the man to right his seminal work, The Catcher in the Rye. Plenty of historical context is provided for what was going on during Salinger's formative years. At times, we forget we're watching a film about the author, and not a documentary about WWII. It's sensational when it shouldn't be, and distracts us from the real point of the film.

While the interviews continue, edited together frantically at times to give the story unnecessary edge and suspense, strange reenactments are incorporated—both of Salinger, and of the people that go in search of information on his life. It doesn't take long to recognize the struggle Salerno must have gone through, putting the film together. The interviews are compelling, sure—I was especially interested in his early romance with Oona O'Neill (even if the movie gives it more weight than it deserves), as well as the sequence of interviews with Joyce Maynard—but with so little footage of Salinger himself to propel the story forward, liberties are undeniably taken. I loathed the inserts of a shadowed "Salinger-esque" figure typing away at his typewriter in front of a movie theater sized projection screen, cigarette smoke billowing around him, as images of war, New York City, the 1960s, etc. spewed across the screen. It was heavy-handed, at best, though again... I sympathize with Salerno's [likely] belief that it was necessary. The film, as a result, feels bombastic and amateur. 

Salinger (the man) is undeniably fascinating. No matter what kind of movie, or book, or article you put together, that is something that will always bleed through. One thing the documentary attempts to do is dispel the idea that he is a recluse. Private, certainly, but nowhere near the level of Howard Hughes crazy the world painted him to be. The film is successful in this regard, and lifts the veil of mystery ever-so slightly. That being said, it doesn't focus on one thing long enough to do it justice. If you really want to know about Salinger, just read his stories and make up your own mind.

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

Click here to read other reviews from my Project 365.

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