Tuesday, March 31, 2015

AFI Top 100: #66 "Raiders of the Lost Ark"

Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark

There's something about watching a film geared towards the kid in all of us that remind us why we go to the movies in the first place. Yes, I said it: #66 on the AFI Top 100 list, Raiders of the Lost Ark, is a movie for kids. That is, kids of all ages. It is simultaneously timeless and a throwback to times long past, which is, I believe the recipe for nostalgia. There are very few films like this on our countdown list, and this Steven Spielberg directed starter for one of cinema's most successful trilogies (I refuse to accept Kingdom of the Crystal Skull actually happened) a non-stop thrill ride.

The first of (currently) four films about anthropologist & professor-by-day, adventurer-by...well, also day... Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), maybe cinema's coolest character. Set in 1936, Indy, as he's known to his friends, makes a habit of finding lost treasures for preservation rather than for profit. As a result, it's no surprise when the US Government hires him to track down the ancient Ark of the Covenant, a relic described in the Book of Exodus believed to house the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments... before the Nazis find it first! Indy embarks on a harrowing treasure hunt, using his cunning wit and knowledge to outsmart the occult-obsessed Nazis, who think that possessing the Ark will appease Hitler and make their army invincible.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Music Mondays: Of Monsters and Men "Crystals"

You guys, it's finally happening. This year, we're getting a new album from Of Monsters and Men, and now, there's a brand new track for us to all become obsessed with! Their debut album, My Head Is an Animal, may be one of my favorite albums so far this decade, and I've never heard a song of theirs I didn't like. I think we can expect many of the tracks from their new record, Beneath the Skin, to get overplayed on every soundtrack/movie trailer for the rest of this year (and next)... but until then, let's listen to the crap out of their new song, "Crystals"!

What do you say? New OMAM, I could not be more ecstatic about June 9th to get here. Also, it doesn't hurt that this lyric video features the most adorable bearded gentleman lip-syncing. Happy Monday!

Artist: Of Monsters and Men
Song: "Crystals" | download | stream
Album: Beneath the Skin

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Project 365: Movies 72 - 79

© Syndctd Entertainment

"Stone's Throw is a meeting place for a lot of different musical worlds."

Broken into chapters built around the evolution of Stone's Throw, it's founder, and the artists that made it great, this documentary is a love letter to an era of still burgeoning independent hip-hop--and a promise of things to come. A hodgepodge of offbeat recording footage (which highlights just how unconventional this label's approach to music really is), behind-the-scenes production footage, and passionate interviews & home videos combine to showcase everything that Stone's Throw is about.

Admittedly, this film doesn't cater to my personal musical tastes. However, I've always been fascinated by music history, even if the names aren't familiar and the song don't illicit strong memories. While much of the movie is spent examining the risks-that-paid-off that the label took on artists like Lootpack and MadLib, West Coast hip-hop artists, and many others who gave Stone's Throw street cred amid its avant garde roots... in my eyes, it's a film about the life and vision of label founder, Peanut Butter Wolf.

The story begins with Wolf hosting a house party, spinning records for... friends? Industry folks? Other artists? All of the above? We're then quickly transported to Wolf's childhood, growing up in San Francisco's South Bay, and we follow him along his journey of discovering hip-hop and the friends that would become his biggest influences. Mainly, the late Charles "Charizma" Hicks. His time as an artist is paramount to understanding his tactics as a producer, his loyalty to his artists, and his uncompromising commitment to the music. Huge names in the business, like Common, Kanye, and Mike D, give small, slivers of interviews throughout, but they never pull focus from our main star. In fact, they appear to revere Wolf--and Stone's Throw—as only musicians with unparalleled respect can.

It might sound trite to call the film "educational," but it really is. The way each interview delves into the layers of hip-hop, in a way I've never heard it described before, further peaked my curiosity. One issue that I could cite, which I admit will sound strange, is that each person or artist featured (as the middle portion traces the label's history through its series of main signees) deserves their own full length documentary. Instead, they're furtively squished into this relatively short feature, touched on and moved on from just quickly. For those "in the know" of that period and the music, this might be no problem at all. Yet for those of us looking to explore the new and rich world, it feels as if we're not really invited to the party, but rather, left to peer in through the window.

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

© Warner Brothers

This movie was the #67 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

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

74 / 365: Wild Strawberries (1957)
© Janus Films

A classic Swedish film, known there as Smultronstället, by Ingmar Bergman that was noticeably—and inexplicably—left out of my film school curriculum. I believe we were treated to The Seventh Seal instead. This was a recommendation from two Through the Reels readers (thanks Jonathan and Tom!) who gave me suggestions the other week of flicks I should make a point to tackle this year. (Feel free to head over to that post and suggest your own favs!)

A small, but deeply personal film, an old pedant professor, Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), reflects on a life he learns may have been meaningless as he travels to receive an honorary degree. He is served by his maid of 40 years, Agda (Jullan Kindahl), who aides him begrudgingly, and it shocks him to discover that his remaining family, his son and daughter-in-law, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), actually despise him. Marianne requests to drive with Borg on his journey to Lund, and together they embark on a road trip of discovery and acceptance. Along the way, they come across a group of playful 20-somethings--the female, Sara (Bibi Andersson), accompanied by two men who love her, reminds Borg of his childhood love. Naturally, he gives them all a ride and begins to recognize that the wise, charitable man he portrays to strangers does not match the aloof and hard man he's been to those dearest to him.

Bergman interjects their journey with Dali-esque dream sequences, the first of which is a barren land and a clock with no hands. Abrupt, stark intercutting of our protagonist with the empty, lifeless world around him. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, Borg walks through the shadows of his youth, observing a life of missed opportunities, lost loves, and chances for closeness that he'll never get back.

The simplicity—and... complexity?—of this film is inspiring. Humor is laced with sadness and melancholy, and characters speak with stark honesty. We're not laden with conversational subtext because that would be counterproductive to Borg's self-discovery, but at the same time, there is a so much we're not told. Borg revisits scenes from his past and experiences nightmares of what his life of loneliness has become, and we infer a tremendous amount about the man he was, and who he really wants to be. Stunning perfection, a true masterpiece. I will, without a doubt, explore more of Bergman's films this year. That is a promise.

Rating: ★★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Hulu Plus (Criterion)
Seen Before: No

75 / 365: Olympus Has Fallen (2013)
© FilmDistrict

How 'Hollywood' that two movies about essentially the same thing would come out in the same year. I will, forever and always, get this title confused with White House Down, and vice versa, but now I can say I at least saw one of them. Likely, from what I've gathered from friends, the better of the two—though that's not really saying much.

Following a tragedy of epic proportions, former Secret Service Agent, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler & on occasion, Gerard Butler's accent), no longer serves on the President of the United States' security detail. Once great friends with POTUS and the Presidential family, he now watches from afar—or rather, down the street—as President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) runs the country without Banning by his side. That is until one day! when terrorists infiltrate the White House beyond all feasibility and take President Asher and his Veep hostage, it's up to Banning and his White House know-how to swoop in and save the free world!

Suffice it to say, for being so exceptional, America certainly gets caught with its pants down. Sure, the implausible infiltration is so glaringly impossible, but IF—and that's a big IF—you can ignore that, there is a shiny, well choreographed action flick under here. Accepting how vulnerable we are to mediocre terrorist attacks is sort of a necessary suspension of disbelief, and once I was able to shirk off that "Oh yeah, right, like that could happen" feeling... this was a wildly good time. The movie certainly manages to side us quickly with Banning, which is imperative. We're treated to his ninja-like agility, cunning brutality, a bit of Scottish accent breaking through, and epic loyalty to the President and country served. AMERICAAA!!!! As the shredded stars and stripes float down off the flagpole of the near-demolished White House, all we can think is... *through clenched teeth* "Get those guys Banning, you go get 'em!! Do whatever it takes!!!!"

The unwavering, uncritical patriotism that kinda makes you sick to your stomach if you think too long about its implications is the true star of this movie. The massive budget and special effects certainly don't hurt the cause either. And right when you think, at the end of the film, that there's nowhere to go from here, its sequel gets announced. London, here we come!

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

76 / 365: My Dinner with Andre (1981)
© Janus Films

My first introduction to this movie was in high school, when I first saw the moving Waiting for Guffman, and the joke about the My Dinner With Andre action figures was semi-lost on me. I quickly learned what kind of movie this was, all while still avoiding actually sitting down to watch it. Perhaps the idea that it might be boring, or that it's simple premise would not be compelling enough kept me away. If you're not aware, the movie is about two old friends, friends who haven't seen each other in a very long time, catching up over dinner. It is a two hour dinner conversation, and to my surprise, I was very wrong. It's incredibly compelling—if you have to ability to just shut up and listen.

Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory play fictional versions of themselves; or rather, they play characters who share their names. Wally is a playwright living and working in New York City. He serves as our narrator, primarily at the bookends of the film. It opens on Wally venturing out in the city to meet Andre, a theater director recently returned from unknown adventures, for dinner, very clearly reluctantly. With hopes of getting in and out as quickly as possible, Wally finds his friend, at a restaurant downtown. He is determined to set himself at ease by asking questions of Andre, who answers them happily and with exuberant zest.

There are no time jumps in this dinner portion of the film, no cutaways to reenactments of the tall tales that Andre describes. We focus in tightly on each man, Andre speaking (usually) and Wally listening (usually). You can't help but feel as if you've experienced all of the stories that Andre describes... that you visited the forests or the deserts right alongside him, his descriptions are so visual and dynamic. He also, one might start to believe, as Wally does, that he might also be full of shit. Wally's attempts to ask silence-filling questions, strategically and self-consciously reacting with canned responses to every one of Andre's recounts, all of that starts to crumble when he stops acting... and starts listening.

For me, this is a movie about being present; about actually hearing people. Their dinner conversation is full of wonderful, philosophical arguments about freedom, happiness, and what we as human beings value in our lives, but there was something relateable about Wally's mindset going in—and how that changes as each course passes by. It takes time, but once he figures out he disagrees with the philosophies Andre is spouting, he is compelled to speak up. This happens to all of us, and we would all be better served if we conditioned ourselves to act and speak more honestly. This is the kind of movie we might call an "experiment" now, but when you watch it, it doesn't feel that way. It's low-budget and cost effective, but its script is, appropriately, play-like. Audiences may need to possess a bit of patience when tuning in for this, but if you do as Wally learns to do, you just might walk away with a new idea, opinion, or a better sense of self.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Hulu Plus (Criterion)
Seen Before: No

77 / 365: Top Five (2014)
© Paramount Pictures

Released last year, this was the long-awaited new feature written and directed by the talented Chris Rock. Littered with special guest stars, it becomes clear right away that Rock called in a lot of favors with friends in the business, and it pays off. Well, actually, it becomes a necessary distraction from the mediocre story, which is really only infused with purpose when it turns into a "spot the cameo" game. While Rock's direction was pretty solid, he unfortunately didn't give himself a lot to work with in the script department.

Comedian-turned-serious-actor, Andre Allen (Rock), is a long way from his roots as a struggling artist from New York. He's engaged to a reality TV star (Gabrielle Union), is mentally preparing for a nationally televised nuptial event, all while trying to focus on his new historical drama film about a slave uprising. He is back in New York and gets set up with reporter, Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), who is doing a story on him. Deciding he should revisit his old stomping grounds in what seems like an attempt to give his dull character some substance, Andre drags Chelsea around to meet family and friends—scenes that only serve to show how many people Rock knows in real life and who he could convince to spend an afternoon on set.

The trouble with this movie, despite its attempts at honest, observational humor, is that the story relies heavily on us feeling bad for Andre, which we absolutely do not. I know, success can be so crippling, and it's hard to get back to where you came from. An original concept, I'm sure. Maybe if Andre didn't seem so comfortable and happy with his limo and security detail, we might see how trapped he feels. We're encouraged to accept this idea that Andre wants so badly to be taken seriously, for his movie, titled Uprize, to be a success... but it's hard for us to believe his plight when he allowed his movie to be spelled like that.

Were there funny moments in Top Five? Yeah, mostly in the form of one-liners, which are better served in a stand-up routine. Chris Rock has wonderful chemistry with the people we know to be his friends off-screen--other greats of the comedy scene. But considering how dull each character is, how poorly developed they all are, no one gets to show their acting chops. Especially Rock.

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

78 / 365: Bright Eyes (1934)
© Fox Film Corporation

The moment you first see Shirley, in her aviator hat hitch-hiking to the airport, your heart breaks from cuteness, and it doesn't stop. At only 6 years old, this little dumpling was already a mighty actress. Bright Eyes was the first movie that was developed specifically for Shirley, and it features the oft-shown, too-adorable musical number, "On the Good Ship Lollipop." But believe it or not, the movie does have an actual plot!

Shirley plays young Shirley Blake, whose aviator father tragically died in flight before she ever got to know him. Now, she's become the unofficial mascot (and biggest Fly Boy fan-girl) of her father's former fleet co-pilots, who take pride in watching over her—no one more so than her godfather and surrogate father, Loop Merritt (James Dunn). Shirley's single mother, Mary (Lois Wilson), works near the airport as a housekeeper at the home of a snooty, ungrateful couple, whose only goals in life are raising their devil-child, Joy (Jane Withers), and waiting for their rich Uncle Ned (Charles Sellon) to kick the bucket and leave them all his money.

Unfortunately for them, Ned hates them, but loves little Shirley. Maybe because she and Mary are the only decent people in his crotchety existence. A series of events leads to Uncle Ned wanting to raise Shirley with all the benefits offered to Joy—while Loop's involvement in Shirley's life becomes more and more uncertain, and he as to fight to get her back.

I really can't even begin to describe how painfully cute Shirley is in this movie. She is really masterful, even at this young age. The highlights of the picture are absolutely her scenes with James Dunn, who is charismatic, loving, and gentle. I have existing qualms about the pacing of the story, which puts certain important plot points off a bit too long and glosses over scenes that could potentially have packed a bigger, more emotional punch. Though, really, who am I kidding? I'm not really sure I could handle more tears, or moments where I just want to bust through the screen, grab hold of Shirley's little hand, and punch everyone who is mean to her in the face. That's what she does to me. This is the start to an epic career, one of the best a child actor has ever had. Not her best movie, certainly, but it set the stage for everything to come. I might have to watch Wee Willie Winkie next.

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

79 / 365: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2015)
© Amplify

The Zellner Brothers, most known for their short film work, have released the epic story of Kumiko, the talk of last year's Sundance Film Festival and just maybe the most original story I've seen in a long time. I managed to catch a screening last week at the Nuart Theater here in Los Angeles, and was ecstatic to see that it's already cropping up in other theaters this week. The Zellners have constructed a masterful work of art, both in its composition as well as its originality. It is thought-provoking and challenges our perceptions of reality—how sometimes we must convince ourselves of fantastical truths in the face of insurmountable odds, or crippling loneliness.

Kumiko (brilliantly played by Rinko Kikuchi) is a lonely, ambivalent office worker living in Tokyo with her bunny rabbit, Bunzo. At 29, she's years past what her family and co-workers would consider marrying age, and the grind of her daily life offers a bleak view of her future. That is, until one day when she is treasure hunting on the beach, she comes across a grainy, near-destroyed VHS tape of the movie Fargo. She pops it in, and with so few moments still decipherable, she stops on a scene that shows Steve Buscemi burying a suitcase of money in the snow, along a fence in the middle of North Dakota. Fascinated, Kumiko begins to obsessively believe that she's stumbled upon evidence of a secret treasure. With her appropriately embroidered treasure map, she sets off for Fargo, determined to uncover her riches.

I have a hard time explaining how much I adore this movie. It is shocking and funny and sweet and heartbreaking all at once, and it is riddled with conflicting emotions. Maybe that's why I find it difficult to pinpoint what I feel about it. Kumiko is an intensely deep character, and Kikuchi embodies her feverish determination with such resonance and sympathy. As she stumbles towards her goal, she encounters a handful of equally vibrant personalities along the way, the most notable of which is a local Minnesota policeman, played by director and co-writer, David Zellner. His earnestness in attempting to help Kumiko, who is so blind to her own situation and the dangers of walking to Fargo, ND in the dead of winter, are some of the films best sequences. There is this scene, where he ever so gently and compassionately tries to explain to her that her treasure isn't real, through all the cultural and language barriers constructed between them... and holy god, is it a remarkable bit of storytelling.

Visually, Kumiko is breathtaking. The cinematography is often still and uncompromising before becoming manic, matching Kumiko's energy as she propels herself on this pilgrimage. We find ourselves rooting for her, championing her cause. That is, until we no longer can. Eventually, it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that you're watching a mentally ill woman embark on a wild goose chase. Our feelings of comradery shift to sympathy, then to concern. No amount of sense can be knocked into her, and as the audience, we wrestle with whether or not we even want it to.

Far and away, the best movie to discuss over dinner and drinks to come out this year. I truly believe everyone can and will walk away with completely different thoughts, be that of sympathy, happiness, sadness, or resolution. See Kumiko, I beg of you.

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

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

AFI Top 100: #67 "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Richard Burton & Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

I fear that I'm starting to get significantly behind in my AFI Top 100 journey (not the watching, just the reviewing), so I'm determined to play catch up in the coming weeks. How perfectly appropriate this past week, John and I sat down, just the two of us coming out of a trivial but nonetheless emotional argument, to endure two hours of one of the most traumatizing portrayals of a single relationship that has ever been written. Our #67 film was Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, adapted by Ernest Lehman and directed by Mike Nichols, based on the stage play of the same name by Edward Albee. I think it's safe to say that there isn't another movie like this, anywhere. A film where the subtext is in fact staggering, not just trying to be, and the emotional roller-coaster is almost crippling.

George (Richard Burton), a dispassionate associate professor of History lives on the New Carthage University campus in a small, modest house with his wife, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor). On this night, following a school faculty function, the couple returns home around midnight, and Martha informs George that she's invited over guests that they must now reluctantly entertain. Nick (George Segal) and his wife (Sandy Dennis), who is never named, but he affectionately calls "Honey."

Martha is the daughter of the school's President, and shares in her father's disappointment in Georgeshe doesn't hesitate to remind him or point out his despondent apathy. As Nick and Honey arrive, it doesn't take long (or that many drinks) for them to be draggedcrying, kicking, and screaminginto the darkness that is George and Martha's marriage. This, more than anything I've ever seen, is a horror story of the 20th century marriage.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Music Mondays: The Moffatts "Misery"

Do you all remember The Moffatts? If you don't, like apparently most of the world, they were a slowly rising boy band popular around the time of The Backstreet Boys, Hanson, and N*SYNC! The difference is that these guys didn't quite rise up in their level of fame. Like Hanson, though, they're a group of brothers (Scott, Clint, Bob, and Dave), but this lot hails from the great land of Canada.

Their first teen pop album, Chapter I: A New Beginning, was released in 1998, but it was this song on the Teaching Mrs. Tingle Motion Picture Soundtrack that made them a staple of my childhood. "Misery" was featured on the soundtrack, one of my all-time favorites, as well as the US release of their first record.

I struggled to pick my favorite song from Teaching Mrs. Tingle. Sometimes I feel like I'm the only person who was obsessed with that soundtrack, even though the movie was pretty lame. Anyone else out there a big Tingle soundtrack fan? Just me? Oh alright. In that case, check out "Misery" by The Moffats, one of my favorite boy band releases ever -- that actually rocks! Plus, is this video not the most 90's thing you've ever seen?

Artist: The Moffatts
Song: "Misery" | stream
Album(s): Chapter I: A New Beginning | Teaching Mrs. Tingle (soundtrack)

Friday, March 20, 2015

I will be the gladdest thing under the sun

That right there. That has been my expression every morning when I step out into the sunshine, and I take my little pup Gretchen and her short little Dachshund legs on a walk around our neighborhood. Being in Southern California, we don't experience the same kind of winter as the rest of the country. That doesn't mean, however, that winter hasn't been a grind. Work duties have increased, personal time has depleted, but I'm feeling optimistic and invigorated despite it all.

For weeks, I've been dreaming about the spring, and couldn't be happier that today marks its first official day. A vacation with the people I love the most is just around the corner, which might be the real reason there's been a bit more of a kick in my step recently. So in light of that, a little spring poetry on this happy, sunny Friday. And you're welcome for that picture of a smiling kitten in a hat box.

I will be the gladdest thing
    Under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers
    And not pick one.

I will look at cliffs and clouds
    With quiet eyes,
Watch the wind bow down the grass,
    And the grass rise.

And when lights begin to show
    Up from the town,
I will mark which must be mine,
    And then start down!

                   - Edna St. Vincent Millay, "Afternoon on a Hill"

(image via Yvette Inufio)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Project 365: Movies 65 - 71

65 / 365: A Farewell to Arms (1932)
© Paramount Pictures

Sensual with a desperate romanticism. Did I mention the sexual tension? Ernest Hemingway's famous WWI novel of the same name about romance on the front lines of war is brought to life on screen in a stunning way—primarily due to the chemistry between stars Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes. The film may have been made almost 85 years ago, but some things never get old.

The film version of Hemingway's story is set in Italy, centering on a nurse named Catherine Barkley (Hayes), who meets Lt. Frederic Henry (Cooper), a flirtatious and womanizing American ambulance driver. Despite it being strictly against the rules, their lust-at-first-sight blossoms into a true romance, one that must be kept secret at all costs. Except for the fact that they don't really try to hide it at all. Battle on the front lines, of course, separates them, but it's Henry's resentment as an enlisted man that threatens to keep them apart.

Gary Cooper may just be at his most handsome in this role, and the leniency of the pre-Code era means that he and Hayes get to act on all that tension right on camera. The story moves quickly, never really settling, and that's what I liked most about it. Director Frank Borzage doesn't get bogged down in details, but lets the soaring cinematography do the work. Some character issues arise, as they often do, though it's not really the fault of the movie, but rather this trope so popular in early cinema—not unlike novels or operas before it.

Despite its conveniently tragic ending, everything leading up to it is grand and spectacular. It's no wonder there hasn't been an adequate adaptation of this novel since.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: TV / Turner Classic Movies
Seen Before: No

66 / 365: Unforgiven (1992)
© Warner Brothers

This movie was the #68 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

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

67 / 365: The Last Five Years (2015)

Jason Robert Brown's two-person musical stage production is now a two-person movie musical that utilizes every song from its source material to tell the story of new—and lost—love. Cathy Hyatt (Anna Kendrick) is a struggling actress who meets up-and-coming novelist, Jamie Wellerstein (Jeremy Jordan), and they quickly fall in love. What makes this story unique, however, is that we experience their love from two perspectives: Jamie recounts their romance from start to finish; Cathy relives it from the end to the beginning. Oh, and it's all told through their singing of alternating solos.

I've seen multiple productions of this show, and it never ceases to amaze me how differently I can feel about these characters. Nothing changes in their songs—the lyrics are always the same, but something as simple as a look... or a pause... or the touch of a hand... can completely shift me from Team Jamie to Team Cathy—and back again. The best productions were the ones that found balance; the blame for the dissolution of their love lies with them both. Unfortunately, this film adaptation did not successfully balance their blame. In fact, it most certainly piled all the blame at Jamie's successful, two-timing feet.

Director Richard LaGravenese is an obvious fan of Brown's music. I feel similarly—this was my favorite show in high school, and I belted my heart out to every song of Cathy's... and swooned at original 'Jamie' Norbert Leo Butz' renditions of "The Schmuel Song" (which I'm ecstatic they kept in the movie) and "If I Didn't Believe In You." That being said, LaGravenese made a lot of amateur mistakes which bookend this otherwise emotional, touching, funny, and ultimately sad story. The film begins awkwardly, the camera distractedly swooping around a very still, singing Cathy, as if it were afraid to be still, too. The awkward "staging" choices continue when LaGravenese makes his actors bandy about on screen like they were running across a stage and playing to a full audience. The intimacy of the big screen is lost, because of this aversion to treat it like a movie, but it does, thankfully, get there eventually.

Once it finds its groove (about halfway through the 3rd song), Kendrick's charm carries it to the finish line. She's truly a natural, and she stands out as Cathy, giving the character little nuggets of sarcasm and irony that were certainly not written on the page. Jordan, while just as charming, doesn't ever really give Jamie more than what his lyrics and dialogue provide. A lot of that is due to the directorial choices, like focusing on Kendrick during Jordan's songs of emotional pleading. Sorry Jamie! Cathy looks so sad, we can't really hear you anymore, even though what you're saying might be true. That does a disservice not just to him, but the film, since he's quite literally 50% of it.

Despite all of that, I really enjoyed this movie I've been waiting a decade for. It's undeniably flawed, but for fans of the musical, watching the songs come to life with these two incredible singers will be more than enough.

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

68 / 365: Chungking Express (1994)
© Miramax

This is Wong Kar Wai's 1994 masterpiece, which has been referred to as the Pulp Fiction of Hong Kong, but that makes little sense to me. Instead, it feels more like Amelie... focusing on the powerful effect brief encounters can have on romantic and lovelorn souls. Told through a series of thinly related vignettes, though the second story is arguably far superior to the first.

Wong Kar Wai has a tendency to create two-dimensional people, whose dimensions are significantly more complete and realized than even the most complicated characters. They may appear singularly focused, but it is that focus that makes them shine the brightest, and makes us invest in their story. Such is the case with Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) as he mourns the loss of his longtime girlfriend by buying cans of pineapple all set to expire on the same date, May 1st, 1994—the date he'll accept that their love, too, has expired. His story is interspersed with that of a mysterious woman in a blonde wig (Brigitte Lin), whose own trials speak of intense loneliness.

In the second vignette, Cop 663 (Asia's sexiest man, Tony Chiu Wai Leung) sits alone in his apartment, humorously conversing with inanimate objects (a tattered dish rag, a bar of soap, a giant stuffed bear) in an attempt to console his aching heart. What gives this latter vignette a leg up on the first is the inclusion of Faye (Faye Wong), an eccentric girl who works at a fast food shop where Cop 663—and Cop 223 earlier in the film—often frequent. She blasts "California Dreamin" by The Mamas and the Papas, so frequently that it's practically its own character, and she falls haplessly in love with Leung. The remainder of the film uses comedy and melancholy to explore whether two people can find happiness in each other, especially if they are so used to dreaming about that happiness rather than actually attaining it.

I'd be hard-pressed to name a more visionary, modern director—whose stories can speak globally—than Wong Kar Wai. By utilizing sweeping, jarring cuts, flashing lights, and haunting voice overs, he builds a world that is both beautiful and heartbreaking. It's difficult to explain what makes Chungking Express so wonderful. Maybe it's the incorporation of popular American music in a foreign landscape, or perhaps, the strange and alluring script. Personally, I think it's simply how it portrays a universal understanding of the effects of a broken heart.

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

69 / 365: Bound By Flesh (2012)
© Sundance Selects

What I thought would be a fun, quirky documentary about a pair of conjoined twins turned out to be a fascinating, but dismal recounting of two lives destroyed by fame. Our subjects are the Hilton sisters, Daisy and Violet, who were born in 1908 in England and attached at the buttocks. While they shared a circulatory system, they were, in fact, bound only by flesh—no major organs. Their lives were tumultuous from the beginning, as they were sold by their traumatized mother to Mary Hilton, the woman who helped deliver them. Hilton saw an opportunity in showcasing these otherwise perfect looking children, and they were raised to perform, entertain, and primarily, be displayed.

Director Leslie Zemeckis cycles through their story chronologically, intermixing it with the history of the "sideshow" and how the carnival came to be in America. The "freaks" were the royalty of the carnival circuit between WWI and WWII, and Daisy and Violet Hilton were the crème de la crème. Biographers and historians, friends and distant relatives come together in this film to discuss the girls' neglect at the hands of Mary Hilton and their eventual handlers—how they were kept in a state of poverty while making up to $5000/week. Even when Hollywood came knocking during the Depression, their fame didn't mean freedom. That is, until at 23, when they fought for control of that freedom, both financially and personally.

The tragic truth is, however, that the freedom they so desired could not have been more crippling for them. Invigorated by life, love, and fame, they didn't realize how ill-equipped they were to live in the real world—or how unprepared they were to age in a time when "freaks" might no longer be in high demand. This is where the energy of the film begins to dissipate. The expectation for a happy ending is non-existent, yet as the story unfolds, the tragedy of the Hilton sisters situation is hammered home in an unsettling way.

Part of that might be due to some of the "talking head" interviews becoming repetitive near the end. Thankfully, new interviews, with people who knew them or knew of them, are incorporated constantly. Zemeckis never lets the film rest in one spot for too long. My favorite part is how she weaved sound bites from Daisy and Violet themselves all throughout, giving context into the mindset of two girls so dependent on each other. Overall, the display of memorabilia, images, footage, audio recordings, you name it—it all adds up to a well researched piece of biographical film-making.

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

70 / 365: 22 Jump Street (2014)

One of last year's big comedy sequels, the follow-up to 2012's very enjoyable 21 Jump Street remake, picks up right where police officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) left off. The success of their previous drug sting operation on a high school campus leads to the expansion of the undercover unit—and the insertion of the partners into similar roles, now at a local college. When Jenko and Schmidt begin to fall in with different crowds (the popular football team and expressive art scene, respectively), they realize very quickly that things aren't going to be exactly like last time. It doesn't take long for them to question their partnership, and the mystery and drug dealings they were sent there to uncover.

The story tries really hard to make every conversation's subtext be about Schmidt and Jenko's relationship as partners, to the point where it's not even subtext anymore. It becomes sickeningly aware of itself, every scene and action so obviously convenient. Nothing surprised me less than when the credits rolled and there were five names listed as writing the script. It's all over the place, the filmmakers didn't even attempt to keep the pacing even or the story consistent.

But I kept laughing, against my better judgment. I probably uttered "This is so stupid" through my own chuckling every five minutes. Does that mean it was good? ... Eh, not really. Hill and Tatum work together flawlessly, their report is effortless. Unfortunately, they're essentially given mindless, formulaic drivel to work with in terms of story and script. One thing I could say about the story in the positive, however, is that we're so distracted by the ridiculous shenanigans and banter that we don't really notice the main plot until we're surprised by the mystery's reveal. Mission accomplished, I guess?

If the closing credits are any indication, we might be able to avoid the endless number of sequels promised us, since we get to see, oh... 34 "joke" incarnations in quick succession. We're probably not that lucky, though. In the end, the most exciting moment of the movie for me was seeing H. John Benjamin's cameo as the football coach and immediately thinking of Coach McGuirk. Nothing else mattered after that.

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

71 / 365: The Core (2003)
© Paramount Pictures

What would happen if the core of the Earth stopped spinning? That is the question the The Core so bravely answers. After a series of unexplainable weather—and aviary—events, the World's Sexiest Science Professor, Dr. Josh Keyes (Aaron Eckhart), hypothesizes that the electro-magnetic field around the Earth is crumbling due to our halted core, which will inevitably kill every living thing on this planet. The solution? Dig deep into the Earth until we reach the Inner Core... and get it spinning again by setting off a series of perfectly timed nuclear bombs. Simple enough, right? After the typical amount of time spent scrambling to be taken seriously, Keyes finally convinces people to listen.

And hey, what a coincidence that the exact, uncrushable ship the Earth needs to solve this unsolvable problem already exists (made out of, what else?! Unobtainium!)—invented by a rogue scientist, Dr. Ed 'Braz' Brazzleton (Delroy Lindo), who, for reasons unclear to everyone watching, is not the most famous or sought after mind on the planet. That title instead belongs to Dr. Conrad Zimsky (Stanley Tucci), who has a rockin' head of hair, a tape recorder, and a smarmy, douchebag attitude. Oh, and Brazzleton also invented a pulsing laser that could bore through anything, including the Earth. Thank god for that guy, right? Everyone bands together to accelerate the project and beat the clock, and they're joined by navigational expert, astronaut-turned-terranaut, Maj. Rebecca Childs (Hilary Swank). Then, down through the Earth they go!

Doesn't all of this just sound majestic? It truly is delightful. What sets  this apart from other disaster movies of the same... flawed "science logic," though, is the acting talent. For The Core, they actually recruited good actors. Really good actors. It doesn't suffer from performers who chew the scenery or stumble through their techno-jargon. It's just a group of fairly skilled people playing adorably archetypal characters who came together to make a movie with an absurdly ridiculous (but still marvelous) premise.

A movie like this appeals to those of us from the "What if...?" school of thinking, who love to believe that mankind can accomplish the clearly impossible if the conditions were just right. Sure, Randall Munroe may run in at any moment and squash our dreams of visiting the iron core of our planet, but me? I enjoy living in a world where we can optimistically state that anything is possible. As a piece of cinema, a movie like Sunshine does this better and in a much more focused way, and The Core comes off more like Fantastic Voyage, almost beat for beat. But if you want to have a little bit of fun, isn't a crazy science fiction premise all you really need?

The Core is now up there with Volcano as one of my favorite sci-fi/natural disaster flicks.

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

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

15 Tattoo Artists You Need to Follow on Instagram

I may have sworn myself off of tattoos for at least a year (okay, I've adjusted my thinking... make that until at least June), but that doesn't mean that I don't spend my nights—and mornings, lunch and bathroom breaks!—drooling over incredible pieces of art from an array of remarkable tattoo artists out there.

So that means that, for the time being, I thought it befitting to share a few of my favorite tattoo artists with you. In a world where Instagram must be a total game-changer for artists (what a great way to distribute your online portfolio!), it is also a life-changer for anyone interested in getting a tattoo, but have no idea where to begin finding someone to do it. Even if you just delight in flipping through your Instagram every day, here are a few tattooers who will surely brighten your feed!

(NOTE: all images via each artist's Instagram pages)

Located: East River Tattoo (Brooklyn)

Why I Love Her: Aside from the fact that she's, well... a woman (over half of the artists on this list are!), no one does black and gray flowers quite like her. Her art is detailed to a dizzying degree, and I obsess over each picture she posts. My favorite on this list. If you live in Brooklyn, I envy your proximity.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

AFI Top 100: #68 "Unforgiven"

Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven (1992)

Coming at you a bit late, overdue from last week due to some weekend travel (and lack of internet!) Two Sundays past, we gathered a group of good friends for some good BBQ to watch a pretty darn good western. I can't believe how far we've gotten on this AFI Top 100 list, hitting #68: Unforgiven, actor-turned-director (and always tough guy) Clint Eastwood's first major award-winning film. Yes, yes, I know what you're thinking... he made a dozen or so pictures before this, but honestly, this is really the one that set him apart. One of only three westerns to win the Oscar for Best Picture, Eastwood took a chance on this script, written by David Webb Peoples (best known for action/sci-fi), about retribution and redemption in the Old West.

Our story begins with an inciting incident. In the Wyoming town of Big Whisky, the law is beginning to drown out the lawlessness of the surrounding land. That is until one night, a prostitute in the local brothel is badly cut up by two rowdy cowboys. Dissatisfied with how the Sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), chooses to punish the brutesthey're asked to hand over a couple of horses... lose property for, you know, damaging "property"the mother hen of the whorehouse, Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher), puts out a bounty on their heads: $1000 to whomever shoots them down.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Music Mondays: Fall Out Boy "American Beauty/American Psycho"

This album may have come out two months ago, but I spent this past weekend driving up (then down) the California, blasting this record the entire way. The album's title track, "American Beauty/American Psycho" by Fall Out Boy, is a prime stand-out among stand-outs (I'm also obsessing over their song "Uma Thurman"). Today's Monday selection is an attempt to infuse your day with energy, catchy hooks, and bit of head-banging, toe-tapping fun!

This video is also all kinds of perfect in my mind, it suits the song to a T. I'm not sure how intentional it was, but so many songs on this album appear to mention, casually or purposefully, iconic American movies. How can I not love that?

Listen to this song, then the album, because Fall Out Boy is so on their game this time around.

Artist: Fall Out Boy
Song: "American Beauty/American Psycho" | download
Album: American Beauty/American Psycho | stream

Friday, March 13, 2015

Wares & Things: Eggpicnic

It has been over two months since I posted a Wares & Things find, which means we're long overdue for some adorable, handmade pieces. Don't you think? Today's find is Eggpicnic, a fine art shop run by owner/artist Camila De Gregorio, which is located in Sydney, Australia (I swear, I keep coming across amazing artists Down Under, it might be time to plan a trip!)

The shop has original art of cartoon-ized people and animals (I'm obsessed with her "Bird" series!), as well as custom felt creations that look like her vision of wildlife. How perfect would that elephant or orangutan be in a nursery? I love the proportions--big head and skinny-stick legs--and of course, the button eyes.

And don't even get me started on how gorgeous the black cockatoo piece is below! I can imagine an animated movie in this style, it's just so lush and unique.

If I had to pick one thing, I would have to go with that orangutan. I mean, c'mon, that face! Which one is your favorite?

(all images via Eggpicnic -- this is not a sponsored post, just wares I found and love)

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Requesting Your Movie Recommendations!

Hi friends and loyal readers! This is a request for all you fellow movie lovers AND novices out there to help a girl out. As many of you know, I'm tackling the tough challenge of watching 365 Movies this year—and while I'm certainly counting movies that I've seen before, I'd ideally love to see as many new flicks as possible. But whether I've seen it or not, I'd love to have more recommendations!

That's where you come in. I would appreciate so-very-much-with-a-cherry-on-top your suggestions for movies I should see—or even movies you'd like to see me review—because I sense a rut coming on if I don't get a few new titles in the mix. As many as you can name, I'm curious to hear from you! Netflix, VUDU, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, and my local library (maybe even an old Blockbuster deep in the Valley) are all at my disposal, so name away!

They can be anything really, from any time period or any genre (except I get skerred watching graphic horror, so... keep that in mind!)—I'm eager to break out of my comfort zone of award-winning dramas or folksy documentaries to give something new a chance.

So please, I beg of you: Post a comment and give me your list of must-see movies, personal favorites, or even movies you hate that you think I'd enjoy reviewing! Those are always the most fun, right?

Lurkers awaken! You'd make my year of movie-watching so much more exciting, and it would be a great way to get to know you all better.

Oh, and I've recently compiled all of my reviews in an easy-to-navigate list from A-Z. You can find that list here, or by clicking on the "Reviews" button in the sidebar. I'm eager to see what will be added this year.

(image via Kevin LaCamera)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Project 365: Movies 58 - 64

58 / 365: Ida (2014)
© Music Box Films

The winner for Best Foreign Film at this year's Oscar ceremony is a delicate, sweet story about a young Novitiate (aka "nun in training") named Anna (played by the stunning Agata Trzebuchowska). Set in early 1960s Poland, Anna has spent her entire life at the convent, with little knowledge of her past. She is shocked that days before taking her vows, Mother Superior informs her that before moving forward, she must leave the convent to visit her long-lost Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Only then will she be able to take her vows with full knowledge of her history—and remove any doubts about her faith.

Anna sets off to meet the aunt she never knew she had, only to find that Wanda embodies the definition of "sin." She does, however, quickly inform Anna of a dark family secret: Anna isn't Anna at all, but rather Ida, the half-Jewish daughter of a family that perished during the time of the Nazi occupation. The story shifts steadily into a type of "road movie," as Wanda and Ida venture out to discover the truth about her parents' deaths.

On the surface, Ida couldn't be more simple. The characters seem like archetypes, inverse reflections of each other. Yet their relationship, surrounded by the stark history of post-World War II Poland, gives it added dimension. The 4:3 frame, black and white film; the quality of the picture... All of that, combined with the style, was reminiscent of early 1960s B&W European and American dramas. It does not feel like fiction, but rather, a long-lost documentary. The camera does not move with the action of the scene, which might be the most notable feature about it. It is fully stationary, as if set up in the corner or on the sidewalk attached to a tripod and left to roll. People come in and out of frame, giving the whole thing a relaxed tone.

Ida and Wanda go through a journey to learn about each other, which only causes them uncertainty about their own lives. It's never stated how devastated Poland was in the years after the war, but it doesn't have to be. We can see it, in how expansive, dead, and empty the Polish countryside is as these two women search for answers to Ida's past.

A beautiful film that trusts its audience and encourages us to be captivated without hammering its message down our throats. Highly recommended, especially if you're a fan of old cinema.

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

59 / 365: Tootsie (1982)
© Columbia Pictures

This movie was the #69 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Blu Ray
Seen Before: Yes

60 / 365: The Big Chill (1983)
© Columbia Pictures

I saw this movie years ago after my best friend would not stop obsessing over the original vinyl soundtrack her mom had just given her. The soundtrack that made some of the most popular songs of the time, well... popular, is in and of itself a very straight-forward movie. A group of seven former college friends, who took very different paths, reunite for an emotional weekend in South Carolina after the funeral of their friend who was thought to be the most likely to succeed.

The cast is unquestionably impressive. Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, Kevin Kline, William Hurt, Mary Kay Place, Tom Berenger, and Meg Tilly make up the collection of mourning friends. There is a familiarity between these people that feels almost impossible to fake. How they interact and reminisce about life outside of the film we're watching, about a history so rich with ups and downs, we couldn't possibly be expected to follow it all. And thankfully, we're not expected to. Writer/Director Lawrence Kasdan understood that his characters couldn't be confined into the limitations of two-film hours. They had to have experiences we didn't see, or issues we wouldn't understand, in order to gain insight into the people they've become. That, he does brilliantly, and he couldn't have asked for a group of people with better chemistry to pull it off.

My one issue with the story is the array of characterizations. It's not that they're stock characters or even stereotypical, really; more that it feels like each actor drew a card from a deck of "personal failings" and were asked to work that in somehow. Alcoholism, coke snorting, sexual dissatisfaction, promiscuity, workaholic... you name it, someone's got it. A certified rainbow of dismal adulthood. The fact that their lives have intersected at this exact moment, on this exact weekend, due to something no one wanted or expected lends itself to intense mystery and drama, but all together, it can come off feeling like convenience for story-sake.

I always remember The Big Chill being a better movie than it really is. The cast, again, cannot be faulted here. They're wonderful, and fascinating to watch. Yet we can never fully know them, and it's impossible not to feel like an outsider—never allowed to join in on the fun, or the tragedy. As a result, we can't ever fall into the film the way we should.

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

61 / 365: Chappie (2015)
© Columbia Pictures

Am I the only person that watched this trailer and thought "Oh my god, this is going to be like watching The Brave Little Toaster"? Hmm, I probably was. Maybe it's because I'm such a huge sap, but I walked into this film with a fist full of tissues expecting to have a big old cry. The creator of the brilliant District 9, Neill Blomkamp, once again combines a futuristic South African setting with story elements that are mechanical and biological—all while providing commentary on the world's social failings.

Crime in the city of Johannesburg has been quelled by the success of its new robotic police force. Emotionless and uncorrupted by human greed, these droid units bring peace to the city (apparently. I dunno, it all still looks pretty overrun by crime). Tetravaal, the corporation benefiting from this success, has only Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) to thank for developing them. His vision for expanding on his creation—programming a droid to experience consciousness, like a living person—isn't a welcome endeavor, however. Deon takes it upon himself to steal a droid stamped for incineration as his first test subject, but before he can make it home, he's abducted by gangsters who demand he programs a droid that will help them steal $20 million. The quirky gang, Ninja (Ninja), Yolandi (Yo-Landi Vasser), and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) stand witness as Deon installs his "consciousness" program into the droid... and watch him come to life, like a child learning to speak. Yolandi, in her strange, spritely voice, names him Chappie (voiced by Sharlto Copley).

While this is all happening, we meet Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), Deon's arch nemesis and co-worker at Tetravaal who is sitting on his own, unused and way-too-expensive, invention: a giant mega-robot more suitable to fight dinosaurs than criminals. His hatred for Deon is palpable, even if it stems from childish jealousy and doesn't really make any sense. He's our bad-guy, which is obvious by his mullet.

Here lies the problem: I'm very disappointed in this movie's brand of villain. The rest of the characters are dimensional and vibrant, but the villains are all petty and small, with an abundance of psychosis and not a bit of charisma. Chappie deserves better antagonists. The filmmakers spend so much time developing Chappie and his relationships with his human "family," there's no time for anyone else. The primary story, however, is strong and compelling enough to maintain its momentum, even if it does go a bit off the rails during the climactic battle with Moore's mega-bot.

If audiences have a hard time stomaching some of the elements of Chappie, I can understand why. I'm not in agreement, but I can see potential derision as a result of the (a) huge jump in feasible science from start to finish, and (b) the seemingly silly "gangster" persona Chappie adopts. Personally, I was actually fascinated by it, as well as the incorporation of Die Antwoord (Ninja & Yo-Landi) and the zef counter-culture movement. It says a lot about why Blomkamp chose not only to incorporate that style into Chappie's personality, but to frame his world that way.

While I prefer District 9 to Chappie, it's hard to deny that Copley gives Chappie so much heart, you can't help but want to see how his journey of consciousness ends.

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

62 / 365: RoboCop (2014)
© Columbia Pictures

Two "Cops as Robot" movies this week! I swear, that wasn't on purpose. I skipped out on the theatrical release of this film, a remake of the 1987 classic by Paul Verhoeven. Immediately, you have to expect something tamer by comparison, considering the PG-13 rating tacked on—if you've seen the original, you're probably wondering how something with such damn bloody carnage could be stripped down and still maintain any semblance of what made its inspiration such a wild ride. And sadly, your instincts aren't wrong.

The year is 2028, and (like the movie reviewed above), the world has begun to embrace the use of robotic droids in war zones to keep the peace and diminish crime. However, the American people aren't as sold on having these robots, created by the international conglomerate, OmniCorp, walking on home soil. OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) enlists his team to come up with a plan to "sell" the public on his creations—even if that means giving the people a face within the machine they can trust, and love.

Jump to the American city with the biggest crime rate, Detroit. Det. Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is critically injured by a group of thugs as retribution for... I don't know, "tricking" them as an undercover cop? I can't remember, that's how wishy-washy that whole thing is. Either way, Alex is at death's door, which makes him the perfect candidate for Sellars' project, led by Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman). What follows is the single best portion of the movie, and almost worth watching the entire thing for. Alex becomes RoboCop, almost completely machine, with just his head, lungs, heart, and a single hand connected by robotic parts. This reveal that he is not just a man in a suit, but rather, a deconstructed robot with a face, is very well-done. Kinnaman, who I loved in "The Killing," plays a similar, less smarmy role here. His energy is more playful than emotionless, which doesn't mesh well with the robot he becomes—particularly when he's conveniently stripped of his emotions by OmniCorp to keep him from getting distracted by unimportant things, like his family.

Sadly, the motivations for everyone involved are cloudy, and that's putting it lightly. We're given an interesting, compelling character in Murphy, but he's quickly watered down simply because the script says so, but for no reason other than to create stupid, conflicts with unsatisfying—if any—resolution. Sellars is a head-scratcher of a character, one who makes little to no sense. The only shining light here is Gary Oldman, who can do no wrong. The movie is sadly lacking in guts, both literally and figuratively, to the point where it's just boring CGI porn. Not even good CGI porn. Something like RoboCop and nary a single drop of blood? I just don't get it. It also aims for comedy with the terrible inclusion of Samuel L. Jackson as a Bill O'Reilly-esque TV show host, whose only purpose is to yell and point and tell us stuff we already know. A movie that could have been good comes off completely bland. Watch the original instead.

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

63 / 365: Electrick Children (2012)
© Phase 4 Films

I'm kind of a sucker for movies about sheltered people who go out and explore a new world. This little indie picture is about Rachel (Julia Garner), a 15-year-old fundamentalist Mormon living with her large family in a commune in rural Utah. It begins with her confession to her father, the preacher of the community, stating her devotion and belief in God's teachings. Since she's now considered an adult, her confessions are being recorded... on an old tape recorder, a piece of technology she's never seen. Transfixed, she finds the recorder in the basement and pops in a blue tape—the rock'n'roll sounds of the song "Hanging By the Telephone" ring out. Rachel is so overcome, she believes that God has come through the voice on the tape, impregnating her with the second coming of Christ.

Strangely enough, she does become pregnant. Her parents don't believe her story of immaculate conception, and blame her older brother Mr. Will (Liam Aiken) for sinning with their daughter. Her father (Billy Zane) casts Will out of the community, and arranges for Rachel to marry a young (willing) man as soon as possible. Desperate to seek out the true father of her baby (the Voice on the Tape), Rachel escapes in the dead of night and ventures over the mountains to Las Vegas to begin her search. Assuming any young man with a guitar could be her Saint, she runs into a rock band bumming around the bars. Clyde (Rory Culkin), a friend of the band's, takes a curious interest in this "prairie girl" and tries to expose her to everything this world has to offer.

Julia Garner is the shining light of this film. She's young and sweet, but underneath all of that, she's also a great little actress. There's something so earnest about her performance, you believe what she believes because she is so unwavering. Unfortunately, there's not a lot going on other than her own personal journey, which you wouldn't expect, since we spend plenty of time with Mr. Will, too. The world Rachel lives in is very small, and I looked forward to that world getting bigger. Strangely enough, though, even when she bursts out of it and ventures to the Land of Sin, the world that writer/director Rebecca Thomas created is still remarkably tiny.

The plot is full of coincidences and the message of the film feels ambivalent, at best. I adored watching Garner try to make something of her role, but the rest of the movie loses its magic by taking everything else at face value.

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

© American General Pictures

Scrolling through the TCM schedule last week, I took a chance on this little movie I'd never heard of, really only because the one-line description seemed intriguing. An old chauffeur cares for the adult children of his former master who all suffer from a genetic illness. My curiosity was certainly piqued, mainly because I just wanted to know what disease it was! Turns out, this B-movie by Jack Hill is a mega-cult classic, and tells the story of the Merrye children, whose father Titus has passed away, leaving them in the care of his trusty manservant and chauffeur, Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr). Each child suffers from a debilitating disease known only to this branch of the Merrye family, so understandably, it's been named for them.

Merrye Syndrome (or as I'm calling it, "Murderous Benjamin Button Syndrome") has cursed the family for generations as a result of inbreeding. The disease hits around the age of 10 and causes an 'age regression,' which affects the person socially, physically, and mentally resulting eventually in deformities—and violent insanity. Our film centers on the final generation, now adults only in the physical sense. Virginia (Jill Banner) is the youngest, and as a result, the oldest mentally since she's not as far along in the regression. Her older sister, Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), is sweetly angelic, except when she plays "Spider"—trapping unsuspecting people in her "web" (a net) and "stinging" them (stabbing them). The oldest sibling, Ralph (Sid Haig), is essentially a giant baby with a perverse fascination for voluptuous women. Leave it to trusty and loyal Bruno to cover up all their indiscretions all while hiding away in their dilapidated mansion on a hill. That is until their distant (and unsuspecting) cousins swing into town, ready to settle and take over the Merrye estate.

This movie is endlessly fascinating, creatively campy, and wildly mad. I had no idea it was even a horror film until the Masterpiece Theater-like opening began, and the story of this disturbed and cannibalistic family is recounted. Banner and Washburn are brilliant as the Merrye sisters—terrifying, psychotic, and strangely demure. Their sociopathy is counteracted by their innocence. Filmmaker Jack Hill constructs a gleeful horror comedy that's beautifully shot, with interesting and well-defined characters. Their quirks are strange and memorable, just like this movie. So happy I took a chance on this creepy, weird flick.

And what luck! You, too, can watch the entire thing here.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: TV / Turner Classic Movies
Seen Before: No
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