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

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