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

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