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

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