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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