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

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