Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Project 365: Movies 50 - 57

50 / 365: Reality Bites (1994)
© Universal Studios

When I told everyone I was watching Reality Bites this week for the very first time, they all said the same thing: "How have you never seen that?!" I honestly don't know. I think part of me—the part that grew up as a kid in the 90's—always assumed I had. It was one of my college roommates' favorite movies, and she'd watch it on her computer all the time. The music was more than familiar to me, but despite all of that... I'd never actually watched it.

The film centers around a group of friends who graduate from college and face the daunting question: What's next? Lelaina (Winona Ryder) is an aspiring filmmaker who snags a job like many just-out-of-film-school kids do: getting coffee for people on set. In Lelaina's case, it's the set of a cheesy local talk show. Her roommate Vickie (Janeane Garofalo) is reluctantly rising in the ranks at the Gap store she works at, and their friend Sammy (Steve Zahn) goes back and forth about whether he's accepted his homosexuality. The real drama comes from Lelaina's relationship with best friend, Troy (Ethan Hawke), a perpetual slacker musician who goes around teasing her attempts at being grown up. He might as well be pulling her pony-tails.

Lelaina takes her new adulthood very seriously, and the audience witnesses that recognizable struggle between taking any job you can get (I mean, you gotta eat, right?) and compromising your creative values. It's a magical and terrifying time, one that I remember all too well. Between each character's personal drama, social comedy, and Lelaina's budding relationship with Michael (Ben Stiller), a video exec who actually has perspective on his seasoned adulthood... Lelaina documents everything on camera as it unfolds before her.

I really adored this movie. I see it differently now, as I venture out of my twenties, than I would have as a teen or college kid. I find myself understanding Michael's logical choices over Troy's emotional waverings, and wish Lelaina would scream at Troy for being such a dick rather than finding herself drawn to him. But haven't we all felt that "despite ourselves" connection with someone who probably doesn't deserve us? The style feels dated now, like the first season of "The Real World," but that's sort of the beauty of it.

And how else can you cap off a movie like this than with Lisa Loeb's "Stay"? Litter some "My Sharona" in there, and now you're speaking my language.

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

51 / 365: John Wick (2014)
© Summit Entertainment

Spoiler alert: the dog dies. Actually, it's not really a spoiler, so much as the entire point of the story. If you're anything like me, though, you'll need to be told that upfront and often in order to make it through to the other side. And believe me when I say, there is no revenge movie more satisfying than John Wick and its titular character's vendetta to track down the motherf***ers who stole his car... and killed his dog. He has, in my opinion, the only logical response. Kill. Everyone. Crystal clear motivation.

Keanu Reeves plays our John Wick, a quiet man who we meet just following the death of his wife. Soon after her passing, a puppy is delivered to his doorstep. Turns out, this little pup is from his wife, who did not want him to grieve alone. (I know, I just... I know). He loves the puppy, that is until a group of young Russian thugs spot John one day in his 1969 Mustang... and decide they want to take the car. One thing leads to another, and... they kill the dog and steal the car and leave the seemingly helpless John Wick to mourn another loss. The young thugs, led by Iosef (Theon Greyjoy!), the son of Russian mobster Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), is a complete idiot though, and doesn't realize he messed with the world's deadliest man. He, along with everyone else who stand in Wick's way, have literally nowhere to hide.

The opening scenes with John and the puppy are remarkably heavy-handed, but I couldn't care less. I get that they're trying to make us love this puppy. But we love it the second we see the crate sitting on the porch, movie, you don't have to try so hard! I bawled like a baby, and then, well, Wick takes care of everything. It's such a simple plot, and that's what makes it so amazing and fun. It doesn't even seem like our world—rather, it seems like some fantasy, hyper-realized city where everyone is a hit-man and there's an entire culture of crime rules and regulations. I found it endlessly fascinating, the mythology swirling beneath the surface. The action was also spectacular, and the choreography and stunts were standing ovation-worthy. Keanu Reeves pulls out a great performance that is surprisingly understated, despite the fact that he's bringing down the hammer of justice, splitting skulls.

Don't mess with John Wick, ya'll. I'm now eagerly anticipating the prospect of sequels.

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

52 / 365: Here Comes the Navy (1934)
© Warner Brothers

Amazing the movies we'll choose to watch just because they're on a list we're trying to 'tackle.' These past 7 months, we may have been watching every AFI Top 100 film, but for the past 15 years, I've been on a personal mission to see all the movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar—since 1927. I managed to catch an older flick this month, one that's eluded me for years. Here Comes the Navy, starring little-tough-guy, James Cagney, didn't win in 1934 (that honor went to It Happened One Night), aaaaand now I know why.

Cagney plays C.J. "Chesty" O'Conner, an city iron worker who loses his flirtatious girlfriend to a naval officer named Biff (Pat O'Brien). Unable to get over his bruised ego, he joins the Navy on a whim with the hopes of being placed on the USS Arizona... just to mess with Biff, who is also stationed there. The motivation is flimsy, at best, but there is plenty of comedy watching Chesty try to bend to authority, considering it chaps his ass so much. He despises the military and hates following orders, which makes him look more like an asshole than someone we'd ever want to root for.

He ends up meeting Biff's sister, Dorothy (Gloria Stuart, aka Old Rose!), and falls for her immediately. She respects men who have honor, and Chesty has a lot of growing to do before she'll consider him husband material. The rest of the film vacillates between Chesty making a mess of his situation and then being a savior, which causes everything to seem disjointed. The only thing I found interesting about this movie is the fact that it was filmed—and takes place—during peace time. No war, just practice maneuvers. Strangely, I enjoyed watching a movie set in the military that wasn't about battle.

Unfortunately, there wasn't really anything else this movie had to offer. In the words of my boyfriend, John: "This movie is 'eh'."

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

53 / 365: What We Do In the Shadows (2015)
© Unison Films

The mockumentary genre is seriously lacking in today's movie landscape, and one that had previously been bogarted by Christopher Guest—until now. The lovely lads who created "Flight of the Conchords" made and star in this new fake documentary about a group of four vampires living in a shabby mansion in New Zealand. Viago (Taika Waititi) is the clean-freak, Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) is the undead Fabio, Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is the relatively young 183-year-old who hates chores, and Petyr (Ben Fransham) is the ancient Nosferatu.

A documentary crew wears crosses for protection and tracks the flatmates as they share their little stories of luring in prey, trying to get into clubs, and the pitfalls of having no reflection. The movie builds to an annual Masquerade Ball, which has the friends all kinds of excited. Taika Waititi as Viago is cinema's most adorable vampire. He also speaks to the OCD in all of us when he tries to get his flatmates to put goddamn newspapers down before bloodying up the place. Petyr steals every scene, even though he never speaks. The deadpan interviews are hysterical, and the awkward, all-too-human interactions are very reminiscent of the Conchord roots.

I wanted to give this brilliant concept-of-a-movie the highest of scores, I really did. It's brilliance isn't marred at all, it is still a riotous comedy mixed with bloody gore—but it's also a 90 minute movie that clearly should have been 20-30 minutes shorter. Shots are quite literally repeated 3-5 times, mostly the B-roll under 'talking head' interviews, but it's noticeable. Really noticeable. Like they didn't have enough coverage to fill a whole movie, so they had to really stretch it. It's a minor complaint, and I anticipate most people won't care, but it had to be acknowledged.

Despite that one qualm, I sense a future cult favorite, if there ever was one. It is endlessly quotable.

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

54 / 365: Citizenfour (2014)

The recent Oscar winner for Best Documentary became available this week on HBOGo, so it took maybe until I could drag my butt home from work before I plopped down to watch it. Upfront confession: I fell asleep in the middle of it. That may or may not have affected my opinion of it overall, but I will go forward with this review and give you the details.

An unprecedented look at political history unfolding in real time, documentary filmmaker, Laura Poitras, joins forces with investigative journalist, Glenn Greenwald, to travel to Hong Kong in 2013 after receiving anonymous letters from a government whistleblower known only as "Citizen Four." This man turned out to be NSA analyst, Edward Snowden, and Poitras documents him in his hideout at a Hong Kong hotel as he leaks information to Greenwald about secret, non-discriminate wiretapping and a program called PRISM, which collects all the data.

My first thought was "Where are the fancy, flashy infographics? Let's punch this thing up a little!" But as I watched it, and fell deeper into the rabbit hole of this political gray area, I realized that 'flash' was the last thing this documentary needed. My main issue with this story is that even though I consider myself very savvy as it relates to analyst lingo (I'm dating an analyst, as it were), even I got lost in the 'metadata' and 'algorithm' talk—and I understood it! It edged on boring more than once, and I consider that a downside.

What is compelling about the film, to me, is not the subject matter. That is important, yes, and in many ways, reads like a horror film where the threat is our personal privacy... Even still, I wasn't drawn in my that. Instead, I was impressed with Poitras' access. Her foresight that this was a story worth covering. It would be like if Woodward and Bernstein had a camera with them and documented every conversation and interaction with Deep Throat during the Watergate scandal. To see it play out and build to what we already knew would happen, it was quite remarkable. Not my favorite documentary of the year, by far, but probably the most important for our society as a whole.

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

55 / 365: White Bird in a Blizzard (2014)
© Magnolia Pictures

A movie based on a young adult novel that doesn't have mythical elements! I forgot those existed. Unfortunately, it runs more in the vein of Twilight or Unbecoming of Mara Dyer than it does, say Judy Blume's Forever. When are we going to get that adaptation? Never mind, moving on...

The year is 1988, and Kat Connors (Shailene Woodley) is a budding high school beauty. When she's not hanging out with her token black and/or token gay friend at the mall, she's recounting her tormented relationship with her beautiful mother, Eve (Eva Green). Eve disappeared suddenly one day, and her passive father Brock (Christopher Meloni), has been in a haze ever since. Kat remembers Eve's crippling beauty and dissatisfaction with life, marriage, and motherhood, all the while living her normal teenage life and dating her teenage good-for-nothing boyfriend. Every once in awhile, she pauses to scrap away at the mystery of Eve, especially when she has inexplicable, "caught in a blizzard" dreams. But that only lasts for a second, because really, she didn't care enough about her mom to really dwell.

All of it is remarkably predictable. It doesn't even try not to be, but then suddenly, right near the end, it tries really, really hard. The energy is all over the place, and so are the character traits. Not even their motivations—simply the people that they are. The writer apparently couldn't decide who he wanted these people to be, or how he wanted them to even feel about each other. This leads to Kat loving then hating either parent within the same breath, then going to get her rocks off with whatever guy will answer the door. So much for loyalty. Even I lost interest, and found myself wondering for way too long about how long it must have taken Shailene to crimp all that hair.

The action unfolds sloppily and climaxes with such nonchalance, I almost missed it. Writer/director Gregg Araki aches so hard to say something important, stringing along the mystery of Eve's disappearance, but it gets lost in its own flawed character development. The movie really says it best, to take a direct quote from Kat: "You just scratch the surface, and then... there's just more surface."

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

56 / 365: Stand By Me (1986)
© Columbia Pictures

After a full week of watching movies I'd never seen, I was aching for something familiar. Something that would make me feel all warm and nostalgic on a rainy Saturday night. I decided on Stand By Me, which strangely enough, reminds me of my sister. I've never seen a more more times by accident than I have this one. It played every day one summer in my sister's bedroom, and I'd stroll past to hear her quoting each line, start to finish. I can't help but love this film and consider it one of the best of the '80s, maybe even ever.

The story is about Gordie LaChance (Richard Dreyfus), a writer who, upon hearing of the death of an old friend, recounts a summer weekend in 1959 when his 12-year-old self (Wil Wheaton), and his band of friends, Chris (River Phoenix), Teddy (Corey Feldman), and Verne (Jerry O'Connell), go on a hike through the Oregon countryside in search of the dead body of a missing boy. Based on a short story called The Body by Stephen King, we explore the lives of these young boys through their interactions with each other and how they navigate through this journey together.

These are kids. Actual kids. And they are remarkable young actors. Their performances aren't stunted, or cliche, or irritating. They embody these characters, enough to make you believe they're just playing themselves. The friendship between Gordie and Chris is touching and honest, and the gravity of the film's plot is never lost on these guys. But the magic of the movie is how it incorporates the fun and games. The campfire sequence is a classic for a reason and has some of the greatest standalone quotes ("If I could have one food for the rest of my life? That's easy. PEZ. Cherry-flavored PEZ. No question about it."). Every passing scene reveals one gem after another, and it's impossible not to wish you were out in the woods with them, laughing, fighting, and holding onto the last remnants of childhood.

Stand By Me is director Rob Reiner's most perfect film. I don't know that a movie exists about the bond between a group of young characters quite like this one. It's a wild and exciting adventure, at least in the eyes of our hero—but more than anything, it's about friendship. The kind that we all look for, sometimes for the rest of our lives.

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

57 / 365: Maps to the Stars (2015)
© Focus World

If there was ever a movie to make you (a) never want to work in the movies, (b) despise celebrities, and (c) get the f*** out of Hollywood, this movie is it. Director David Cronenberg's new film, which is in theaters and on demand now, is a test for your ability to endure a cast of characters so unlikable and not grimace every three seconds. I'll attempt to explain the plot:

Julianne Moore does her best Tara Reid impression as aged starlet Havana Segrand, and she is by far the only acceptable-ish thing about the movie. And that's not saying much. The rest of the plot reads like a logline to a Lifetime movie — a story of desperation, neglect, schizophrenia, and incest, which might be interesting to read about after the fact, but is truly dismal to watch. Havana gets massage therapy from new age guru, Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) to deal with her hallucinations of her dead and way-more-famous mother, around the same time she hires creepy burn-victim, Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) as her new "chore whore."

Weiss is dealing with his own narcissistic, drug addicted, pre-teen heartthrob son, Benjie (Evan Bird), and we're all forced to watch their stories intersect unfathomably. Robert Pattinson is in there somewhere arbitrarily as an important-to-Agatha-but-not-to-us chauffeur, as is Olivia Williams as Benjie's wine-swilling "momager." I honestly couldn't keep track of everyone, and really, neither could Cronenberg. Not a single soul is redeemable or defensible, and all we're left with is a bad taste in our mouths.

It feels less like anything by Cronenberg than it does Richard Kelly (read: Southland Tales). Moore may have just walked away with an Oscar, yet it really puts things into perspective watching her fart on a toilet lamenting about how the Vicodin has blocked her up, all while Mia Wasikowska stands uncomfortably in the doorway. Oh, and I could go for the rest of my life without hearing someone ask seductively, "My holes, are my holes better?" It sounds like something Nomi Malone would say.

Please don't see this movie. Cronenberg might be tempted to make more like it.

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

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