Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Project 365: Movies 95 - 98

95 / 365: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
© Warner Bros.

If you watched Road Warrior, and thought "This is great, but, you know, I wish there was less 'road' and less swears"... then this is the movie for you!

Immediately after watching Mad Max 2, drunk on the intoxicating musk of Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), we plowed right into Beyond Thunderdome, the last Mad Max film for us to tackle before the release of Fury Road in two weeks. George Miller continues—and admittedly, jacks up—the style of his previous movie by not only introducing new people into this bizarre, post-apocalyptic world; this time, he introduces an entire city, Bartertown, a lawful answer to a lawless land. Yet the citizens' depravity is surpassed only by their insatiable thirst for violence, represented wholly by the introduction of the Thunderdome — two men enter, one man leaves.

Max strolls a bit unknowingly into Bartertown at the start of the film, which takes place 15 years after the events of Road Warrior, where he is forced to relinquish his weapon stockpile at the door just to dig around in the muck to find the man who stole his wagon and camel. All well and good, but his penchant for throwing punches catches the eye of Aunty Entity (Tina Turner, fabulous!), the founder and ruler of Bartertown. The city is powered by the methane gas from pigs living underground, the power center controlled by the greatest mind, Master (Angelo Rossitto), and his muscle/protection, Blaster (Paul Larsson). Master-Blaster (as they're called) have started to challenge Entity's power, so she enlists Max to go beneath the city to instigate a fight that will lead he and Blaster into the Thunderdome.

Everything doesn't go according to plan, however, and Max is eventually banished from Bartertown, seeing Aunty Entity for the power-monger she really is. Everything leading up until this point had the heady mix of post-apocalyptic science fiction and Return of the Jedi-like fantasy. The underworld controlled by Master-Blaster is disgusting and intriguing, and so many opportunities are introduced when the Thunderdome comes into play. Is Max going to become a post-modern gladiator? Will Bartertown have parallels to ancient Rome? In short: NO. None of that happens. Which brings me to this...

Am I the only one that noticed this movie takes a huge shift once Max is sent away from Bartertown? So much so that I suddenly thought someone had turned off the movie, and started playing Hook. In fact, the more I watched, as Max gets rescued from the desert by a handful of Lost Boy wannabes and gets told a nursery rhyme/myth in Pidgin English... I became pretty damn convinced Hook completely ripped Beyond Thunderdome off. Some of the similarities are literally uncanny. Unfortunately for me, the movie never really recovers from this, simply because it just doesn't fit. The potential we see at the beginning never materializes as it becomes a movie for kids, with more slapstick than violence and the depletion of all the stakes. Thunderdome might bring the fun, on occasion, and it's responsible for maybe the greatest father-baby Halloween costume ever imagined, but it departs too much thematically from the previous Mad Max films to really make an impact. Now, bring on Fury Road!

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

96 / 365: The Spectacular Now (2013)
© A24

There's something magical that happens when a filmmaker creates an emotional drama using classic "teen movie" tropes in refreshing new ways. James Ponsoldt directed a story, based on the book by Tim Tharp, that examines the subtleties of teen romance, from the exploration of the physical to the concessions we make with our values to keep the person we think we love loving us back. A romance that doesn't start with fireworks, but with a crush, a compliment, and a hopeful promise—one that isn't laden with tragedy or sickness. The Spectacular Now feels like real life.

When Sutter (Miles Teller), a high school senior known to be the life of the party, gets dumped by his equally hard-partying girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larsen), he drowns his sorrows in booze and denial. That is until he meets Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a sweet but quiet sci-fi reading 'nice girl', when she finds him passed out on her front lawn. Drawn to her lack of confidence, Sutter takes it upon himself to show her sympathy and lift her up a bit, directing adoration towards her that he isn't able to give to Cassidy. Little does Sutter know that this act of charity is leading Aimee to fall for him hard, and might actually cause him to question his "live in the now" philosophy as they both explore the prospect of life after high school.

Shailene Woodley wears her teenage-hood so well, it might be the most relatable portrayal of a high school senior I've ever seen on screen. Hyperbole aside, every awkward giggle endeared her to me, and reminded me so much of myself. She is average but wonderful, like most of us were when we were young, and her naivete in young love is resoundingly heartbreaking. The casting of Miles Teller in the role of Sutter immediately grounds this movie in reality. He's not classically handsome, not the beefy quarterback falling for the nerdy girl with glasses. He's rough and flawed, wrestling with his own vices and pain while hiding behind his smile and charm. These two are a lovely reflection of the high school relationships you actually saw happening around you—or were in yourself.

I can't get out of my head the moments where Aimee apologizes in tears to Sutter when he is the one being selfish. How destroyed she is at the prospect of potentially losing this already fickle and insecure love. Woodley plays these scenes so beautifully, her shyness not an act, but a vulnerability, one that we watch Sutter take advantage of, unknowingly. He doesn't want to cause her pain, but he's reckless with her heart, and she allows him to be, because he's the only boy who's ever paid her any attention. All of that sounds overly dramatic, what wasn't high school? Wasn't it all just cripplingly emotional, the prospect of love and sex enough to make everything feel like life and death?

Woodley and Teller give this movie its life-breath. They are fascinating together, but just as compelling apart, despite some heavy handed moments. The film and their lives are messy, occasionally uneventful, but it never loses its hold on you. I adored this movie, one of my favorite teen dramas since Say Anything.

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

97 / 365: Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
© Fox Searchlight

The buzz surrounding the release of this film seemed to have a life of its own, sweeping past the qualities of the film and focusing steadily on the surprising performance of star, Elizabeth Olsen. In her feature film debut, Olsen plays a young woman named Martha, who escapes from a rural commune in the early morning hours, seemingly crippled by fear and anxiety. In what appears to be a last resort, she makes a call to her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who doesn't hesitate to pick her up and take her in.

At first, Lucy and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), do their best to appease Martha's paranoia and settle her restless mind with boat rides, swimming, and yuppie kale smoothies while on vacation at their expansive lake house. But Martha's deep-seated fears begin to wrestle with her hatred, anger, and insecurities, as memories of her time entrenched in the secret cult headed by the charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes) threaten to destroy her chance at freedom.

The film edges on being too subtle in its storytelling, interlacing Martha's introduction and indoctrination into the cult with her inability to adapt to life in the weeks following her escape. Writer/director, Sean Durkin (also in his feature directorial debut), makes every effort to make these switches as abrupt as possible, to the point where you're not sure what's reality and what's a demented memory. The prospect of the situations Martha had to endure aren't always starkly portrayed, but when they are, it crosses quickly over the line into disturbing. These reveals build upon Martha a stigma that her sister and brother-in-law never really see, because Martha never actually tells them. This, surprisingly, leads to an infuriating movie-watching experience.

Our sympathies for Martha are ebbed when she remains quiet about her experiences, and yet our hatred for her family begins to flow when they show her a similar lack of sympathy. It's a strange emotional cycle that might have paid off if it didn't diminish the characters on screen, particularly Lucy and Ted. Their inability to make any attempts at understanding Martha or her hidden past makes them seem petty and small, as they throw their hands up in the air exclaiming they don't know what to do anymore, never having really tried anything at all. They exist only to make Martha feel worse about herself and more ashamed of her past. While this might be purposeful, it makes the script feel lazy in its execution.

Elizabeth Olsen, however, rises above and beyond the flaws in the script and the dimensionless characters around her. She is the primary reason the film succeeds at all, riding the line between repulsion and adoration like a seasoned acting veteran. A special shout-out should be given to Hawkes, as well, even though his portrayal of Martha's cult leader is stunted by too little screen time. All of the ingredients are there to make a thrilling drama—sadly, the mixture just comes out a bit under-cooked.

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

98 / 365: Neighbors (2014)
© Universal Pictures

There are really two separate stories happening here. (1) A fraternity planning for the party of the century, and (2) a young married couple navigating their first year with a child. Fine on their own, but terrible when combined into one plot. The result is a trying and sociopathic comedy that makes almost everyone irredeemable. Max (Seth Rogen) and Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne) are struggling to stay cool in light of having just brought a new baby into this world. It's hard to really tell whether they were ever cool to begin with, but I suppose we're meant to believe they were because the script says so.

This challenge to 'not be lame' is put to the test when Delta Psi Beta takes over the house next door. Frat President, Teddy (Zac Efron), and his merry men could care less about the noise they're making, and Max and Kelly stupidly take it upon themselves to bring the fraternity down. They are just young enough to blend in with the party, but old enough that they have to try really, really hard at it. And they do, miserably—and embarrassingly—which is roughly 99% of the movie's comedy shtick. The other 1% is pot or poop humor, or both.

It rubs me the wrong way, watching the 'absurdity line' get crossed, because the movie didn't need it. It could have been much more straightforward than the trailers let on, and the characters are too real the majority of the time to be so stupid and so oblivious the rest of the time. Byrne and Rogen make an unsuspectingly nice modern, married couple. Their chemistry is the chemistry of a couple whose fire has dimmed, but their history, rapport, and the life they're building together illicit plenty of matured passion and excitement. It's that maturity that makes their attempts at immaturity in the face of their Frat enemies unbearable to watch, and impossible to believe.

While this movie had more to offer than I expected in terms of character relationships, it's marred by its gross attempts at humor. Lowest common denominator, just ahead of Million Ways to Die in the West. The fraternity brothers were marginally more developed than they probably even needed to be to accomplish the film's goals, but it's wasted, and doesn't make up for the fact that the blatant disregard for anyone's physical safety is completely ridiculous. I mean, what if Kelly sat down with her baby on one of those airbags?!?!  More often than not, I was too distracted and appalled to laugh. I love Zac Efron, but even his abs can't make me want to watch this again.

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

Monday, April 27, 2015

Music Mondays: Mirror Talk "Don't"

I missed my music post last week (for the first time ever!) due to travel, but as it turns out, I'm still obsessively listening to the music of Mirror Talk, who got featured three weeks ago with their Kate Bush cover, "This Woman's Work." Now, they don't just do covers of course, and this week, I wanted to share their song "Don't" off of their EP Infatuation.

I love their combination of 80s synth, 90s pop, and modern club dance anthems... it still blows my mind that they're not superstars! Enjoy this track, I know I have been.

Artist: Mirror Talk
Song: "Don't" | stream
Album: Infatuation

Friday, April 24, 2015

Project 365: Movies 87 - 94

87 / 365: Deep Impact (1998)
© Paramount Pictures

Just like how people always seem to mistake Striptease for Showgirls (for shame!), they also seem to confuse this movie with Armageddon. Granted, that might be because they both came out in the summer of 1998, and, moreover, are about the exact same thing. The difference here, however, is that a comet careening towards Earth and the survival of mankind is really all this movie is about. Sure, there is a human element to this, but it's also significantly more catastrophic and the stakes are immeasurably higher.

When a comet the size of Texas is discovered heading directly towards Earth, the governments around the world pool their resources to accomplish two tasks: send a mission of experienced astronauts to the comet to blow it to pieces, and build underground bunkers for a select population in case that mission fails. The film follows several unconnected individuals, all in high profile positions, who are pre-selected to go to The Ark—the expansive bunker that will ensure the continuation of life on this planet.

It seems unimportant to mention any of the actors... that Tea Leoni plays a reporter who follows the breaking of the story to its inevitable conclusion... or Robert Duvall as the veteran astronaut aboard the mission flight... or Elijah Wood as the amateur astronomer who first discovered the comet. No, I find it difficult to cite them as being more important than anything else in the film, because their stories seem so secondary. Not just to me, but to the film itself. The only stalwart individual in the movie is Morgan Freeman as the President of the United States—a somber portrayal of a powerful man who finds himself in a powerless position.

This isn't a review, or comparison, to Michael Bay's guilty pleasure, but it must be stated that Deep Impact really can stand on its own, and believe it or not, it actually holds up remarkably well. I attribute this to the following: higher stakes (as stated before) and the lack of stunt casting. A close third reason might also be its unwillingness to be distracted. Despite some weaknesses in the dialogue, the lottery plotline, to select those in the country designated to survive the impact, is undeniably tragic. And that is what sets this move apart. The effects are still impressive to this day, and the finale is simultaneously devastating and uplifting. For a disaster flick, it goes above and beyond.

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

88 / 365: The African Queen (1951)
© United Artists

This movie was the #65 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

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

89 / 365: Life Itself (2014)
© CNN Films

This entire Project 365 post was delayed a week while I tried to put together my thoughts on this movie. There is something so personal about what this documentary about film critic Roger Ebert accomplished, it goes above and beyond its subject matter. It touches on something in each film lover that can't be described in words. I'll do my best, but I fear that I might grossly understate the effect watching Life Itself had on me. It is not just a story about a man who loved movies with his whole heart, who gave his words and thoughts to the masses; it is also about triumphing over one's own mortality, and embracing the people and things that we love in order to find an impenetrable strength.

"The movies are like a machine that generates empathy." Chicago Sun-Times movie critic, Roger Ebert, expertly explains the power of cinema—and moreover, expressing the key reason why he loves and hates the films that come out of the medium. Directer Steve James gained unprecedented access to Ebert during the final year of his life, and in the process, constructs a seamless recount of his meteoric rise to fame and the effects of cancer during his final years of life. James jumps back and forth between a very ill, but hardly dispirited, Ebert recovering in his hospital room from a fractured hip, and meticulously researched "biography" footage. Structured to mirror Ebert's own autobiography of the same name, Life Itself manages to be restrained all while conveying a wealth of information.

One major focus, crafted using archival footage, quotes directly from Ebert's book, and interviews, is how Roger was at the forefront of the "democratization of film criticism." As an amateur film critic myself, and a former film studies undergrad, this spoke to the depths of my being. It's also my biggest takeaway from a life filled with takeaways. We all have a voice. We just have to use it. Roger used his to write and speak about movies in a way that presented him as an approachable—and relateable—intellectual. As a young person, I always connected to him for this. You'd never have seen film criticism pioneers Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris coming out with a book titled I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie! But that's what set Ebert apart from everyone else. He phrased things in a way that made you go "Yes! That's exactly what I think!" when you couldn't find the words to describe it yourself.

A huge chunk of the documentary, and appropriately so, focuses on Roger's competitive, infuriating, but boundless relationship with Chicago Tribune film critic, Gene Siskel. Their syndicated film review shows (beginning with "Sneak Previews" in 1975 and ending with "Siskel & Ebert" in 1999, upon Siskel's death) made them household names, and their phrase "Two Thumbs Up!" was the tagline of the nineties. As fans, we never really saw how tumultuous their friendship was, and the film beautifully shines a light on both man's strengths and failings.

In the end, I was most impressed with James' telling of Ebert's love for his wife Chaz, and the struggles he faced at the end; but I was most touched by Ebert's dedication to his lifelong love: the movies. He will be, forever and always, the Peoples' Critic.

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

© Unison Films

Do not watch this movie after the other perspective, Her. It is painfully self-aware, nail-on-the-head, and it paves the road for everything that happens later. It became glaringly obvious that I watched these in the wrong order after only a few minutes (though, admittedly, it supposedly wasn't supposed to matter). But what could I do? I soldiered on. Last week, I watched this story from Eleanor's (Jessica Chastain) perspective, and this time around, we follow her estranged husband, Conor (James McAvoy) through his own journey.

While the story struggles with being obtuse for no reason, I couldn't help but notice the shift in cinematography, in shot choices from one film to another. I thought there would be more recycled shots, but in fact, even scenes where Eleanor and Conor are together (i.e. shown in both films) there are shots that are different. The perspective is different, so there are noticeable changes in focus or angle. This was a delicate construction, and the highlight of writer/director Ned Benson's vision. Sadly, his characters still just couldn't get up off of the ground. Where Eleanor was aloof and confounding from her perspective, Conor is a loose canon who has unexplainable, ridiculous reactions to things. He also has terrible, terrible friends who say things like "We live in a world full of probablys" and never really seem to care what's going on with him. Yuck. Selfish, bitter, awful people. It makes him seem selfish and awful by proxy.

The glaring issue isn't even its biggest. This tragedy that appears to be hanging overhead... that we're never really told about, is what we all notice first. They've lost a child. We don't know exactly how old he was, or what happened. And we never really find out. We're just left to infer. It affects the entire story, so it seems completely insane to me that it's never addressed firsthand. But no, that's still not the biggest problem. That lies with the fact that the world of this movie (and as a result, all the versions of it) is a world where everyone says "NO." All the time, to everything. Nothing can happen, because no one allows it to. This is hugely detrimental, not just to our enjoyment of the film, but to the story itself. It feels like the movie is having a tantrum, too stubborn and indignant to realize we're all staring at it incomprehensively.

If you must watch these films, I implore you, watch this first; then Her. It makes so much more sense to see their world, the world Eleanor disappears from, and then follow her to discover where she goes. I wish I could say that my choice to experience their stories the other way around didn't affect how I felt about this one, but it did, negatively. Not enjoyable in the least, even in the moments where the puzzle pieces come together.

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

91 / 365: Network (1976)

This movie was the #64 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

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

92 / 365: The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008)
© eOne Films

My brother-in-law took a South Korean film class when he was getting his Masters and became a huge admirer of film director Kim Jee-Woon. When I did a call-out to readers last month for recommendations, he didn't hesitate to list nearly all of Kim's films. With more variety in genre than any filmmaker I've ever seen (with the exception of maybe Ang Lee), I was immediately drawn to this Korean western comedy. A twisted, tongue-in-cheek throwback to film classics about the American West—namely, Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The plot lines have a handful of similarities, Kim weaving together a story of an assassin, Park Chang-yi (Lee Byung-hun), aka "The Bad", who is hired to track down a treasure map making its way by train across the Manchurian desert. Unfortunately, the map is intercepted unknowingly by a clumsy thief, Yoon Tae-goo (Song Kang-ho), aka "The Weird", who finds himself stuck dangerously between Chang-yi and the bounty hunter tracking him, Park Do-won (Jung Woo-sung), aka "The Good." What follows is a stylized, wild ride, leading to a culmination of ego, skill, and well... stupidity.

Kim is clearly a masterful director. He perfectly cast each character, with Song Kang-ho, one of South Korea's biggest stars, rising above the rest. The comedy never wrestles with the action; they work congruently to keep the fast-paced story moving, and while the stakes seems really high for everyone, the film never takes itself too seriously. That makes the semi-excessive violence that much easier to stomach. The Lee Mo-gae's cinematography is what really grabbed my attention, though. The camera scoops and swivels, never settling, and against all logic, still manages to not be distracting. With so much activity, particularly when tracking each character during the epic train heist scene, telling the story with such clarity was a daunting task.

I adore American westerns so much, there is such beauty in seeing the genre through the eyes of other film industries. Kim might have nailed it with this one, incorporating all the best elements of the Old West with the action stylings of the Far East. Check this one out, it's too much fun to miss!

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

93 / 365: Jack Reacher (2012)
© Paramount Pictures

I really wanted to love this movie. Not just like it; love it. Before popping this on, I showed my family John Wick, which I reviewed earlier this year and enjoy more and more the more I watch it. Immediately, I was told "Oooh, you'll love Jack Reacher." I was hopeful. Expectations jolted too high, too soon? Yeah, that's probably it, or maybe the fact that this is, in reality, more mystery than action, which I found to be compelling right up until the moment it wasn't anymore.

The titular Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) slips into our story after a former army sniper is accused of going off the rails, shooting down five random pedestrians on a bustling city street. In custody, the accused man can only plea, "Get Jack Reacher." Previously with the military police but now completely off the grid, Reacher comes in to aide the prosecution, hoping to put the man away. That is until he meets the man's defense attorney, Helen (Rosamund Pike), and begins to uncover a massive cover-up that could spell innocence for the supposed killer.

Despite a dynamic and inciting kick-off, the film sadly lacks in personality, partially from its star, but mainly from the overarching mystery itself. Reacher is an interesting character, complex and mysterious, who is thrust into a plot that is only fractionally as exciting. It's engrossing until the reveals begin to unfold, and then it just becomes confounding. Not at first though! At first, it grabs you... but then you start to think about it, asking yourself questions like "Wait, why would these bad guys have done any of this?" or "Who is that person and why do they matter?" You know, those important questions that successful movies normally answer for you. Unfortunately, this one doesn't, because it assumes you're too impressed to even care.

Cruise has some great moments, mainly when he messes with townies that think they're so tough, but when all is said and done, the audience gets shafted by the mess of it all. And don't even get me started on who the hell Werner Herzog was trying to be! It all just takes me back to the fact that, if you want fun, mindless action, you're better off watching John Wick. Shoving a hapless mystery amid the action only serves to distract, especially when it doesn't impress us.

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

94 / 365: Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
© Warner Bros.

I'm in a time crunch now to catch up on all of director George Miller's Mad Max films before the release of the unbelievably cool looking Fury Road. After my experience with the first film, I figured the franchise could only go up from there. The second film in is the first sign of things to come in the franchise, the other-worldly, post-apocalyptic landscape has started to develop, and the "gasoline as a commodity" angle is put front and center. Automatically, the stakes seem higher and the film is granted a much-needed foundation, which was sorely lacking from the infinitely low-budget original.

Taking place years after the events of that film, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) roams the desert alone enforcing vigilante justice alongside his trusted canine, Dog. His trusted auto is quite literally out of gas, and he tracks down the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence), a quirky outcast capable of taking to the skies—and tracking down the gasoline stashes. In his venture to commandeer some fuel, Max runs into a group of bandits, led by The Humungus (Kjell Nilsson), and his sinister second in command, Wez (Vernon Wells). When he discovers a gasoline-rich makeshift town, he agrees to help them fight back Wez and the other bandits descending upon them. This all eventually leads to one of the most realistic, epic car chase sequences in cinema, as Max helms a tricked out oil tanker being pursued by violent savages.

It surprised me that Max is in fact the same character from the first movie. I really did think that the filmmakers would just scrap everything they did from the original, save the concept of the rogue Max patrolling the desolate outback... but no, he has the same righteous mentality as his previous self. Desperate to be left alone, but unable to stand idly by while good people are in peril.

More than anything, though, this film has structure. Sure, it's all a build up to the final chase scene, but it's expertly done. Miller works to invest us in Max' story, much more successfully this time around, and tonally, it's undeniably consistent. This is a violent, dusty, action film from start to finish, and I see so many of the best features of this in trailers for the new release. Miller really knows how to jack it up a notch when his budget allows, and despite some dismissive plot holes, Road Warrior comes out on top of the Mad Max universe—for now.

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

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Disappearing Act

I've committed a bit of a disappearing act this past week, as I returned from a revitalizing vacation and ventured back into the working world with no small amount of teetering hesitancy. That always means a significant amount of catch up, and less time to devote to focusing on my writing here. To be honest, I really needed it, the break from writing as well as working. Slowly but surely, though, I'm pooling my energies and getting back into gear, watching a slew of new movies, editing photos (Hawaii really is beautiful this time of year)... and of course, updating some new posts and reviews.

This is just a little call out to any of you out there, letting you know I haven't forgotten you. Expect more Project 365 posts coming your way—some incredible new and old movies that I saw for the first time, as as always, a crap-load of stinkers. ☺


(image via Bahar Ă–zdemir)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

AFI Top 100: #64 "Network"

Peter Finch in Network (1976)

Some stories take years to really resonate or "click," taking root with meaning as your life experience expands. That's how I feel about this past week's AFI Top 100 film, Network, coming in at #64 on our list. Another Best Picture nominee I saw out of pure obligation a decade-plus ago, never appreciating everything it said—and all that it accomplished. A stark and troubling satire of not only television, but of the cutthroat business of popularity through manipulation. An odd prequel of sorts to tales like Quiz Show and Nightcrawler.

The plot is intricate, but straight-forward. Unity Broadcasting System is a struggling network station (think ABC, NBC, CBS), whose news division is hemorrhaging money left and right. The head of the news division, Max Schumacher (William Holden) reluctantly gives close friend and aging news anchor, Howard Beale (Peter Finch), the boot, because his ratings just aren't cutting it anymore. Deciding not to go down without a fight, Beale hijacks his own broadcast to announce his own departure... and denounce all the "bullshit" in the world in a crazed, emotional tirade—that catapults his ratings through the roof.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Music Mondays: Koop "Koop Island Blues"

Happy Monday, from the lovely island of Kaua'i. I'm enjoying a cup of coffee overlooking Keoniloa Bay (and Shipwreck's Beach), sun rising directly in front of me in the east... and I couldn't feel more at peace. Today also happens to be my 29th birthday. :) Every time I find myself in such a relaxed state, I think of this song. "Koop Island Blues" by Koop, featuring Ane Brun. It is beachy, tropical, and leaves the subtle taste of mai tais in your mouth. It's also a tinge melancholy, but to be honest, I love that aspect, too. The premier track from their album Koop Islands, it deserves to be set on repeat.

I can't help share this song with you on this glorious Monday. I implore you to take a moment, close your eyes, and listen to the sounds of waves hitting the beach, while a tinkering of acid jazz rolls through the palm trees. You'll swear you were on the beach here in Hawai'i with me. Enjoy!


Artist: Koop
Song: "Koop Island Blues" | download | stream
Album: Koop Islands

Friday, April 10, 2015

Island Dreams of Palmed Beaches

The day has finally come, my patience has paid off. This morning, John and I hopped on a plane with my sister and brother-in-law on my first major vacation in years, this time to somewhere a bit more tropical: Hawai'i. More specifically, the island of Kauai. Seems appropriate, considering California has gotten a bit nippy in the last few days. Meaning it dropped into the "freezing" 50s.

I'll still be posting a little bit here and there, but check in on my Instagram for pics from our trip. I hope to come back with a little travel series, including pictures that I'm sure won't be terrible.

Aloha, everyone, and have a wonderful weekend!

(image via Hawaiian Days Collection, artist: Gill)

Thursday, April 9, 2015

AFI Top 100: #65 "The African Queen"

Katharine Hepburn & Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen (1951)

Finally, we've reached the "Humphrey Bogart" portion of our journey, my favorite actor of all time. Bogie is in four films on this AFI Top 100 list, and our #65 selection, The African Queen, is the only one that brought him the Academy Award for Best Actor. A harrowing shooting experience for cast and crew probably only overshadowed by the one for Apocalypse Now, in terms of location problems, illnesses, and overall set disasters in order to get the picture in the can.

The story of an uptight missionary, Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn), working in Northeastern Africa with her Reverend brother, Samuel (Robert Morley), who learns of the German occupation as World War I breaks out out in Europe. German troops now control their little corner of the continent and invade their small village with the help of other natives, burning it to the ground. Completely without hope and her brother dead from grief, Rose enlists the help of drunken riverboat captain, Charlie Allnut (Bogart), to escape the territoryand attack the German warship "Louisa" in the process.

Immediately the two butt heads, as Rose endures Samuel's gin-swilling while Samuel puts up with her self-righteous complaining... but the two come together to navigate the dangers of the river aboard Allnut's glorified tugboat, the dilapidated African Queen. It doesn't take long for Rose to impress him with her tenacity and determination, and she may be his only chance of survival.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Honey Honey, How You Thrill Me

I have a confession: I hate honey. Correction: I hated honey. I just never understood it, why people carried on and on about it as a "golden elixir" the way most people obsess about bacon. (omagah bacon...) I've realized though, in the past few years as my palette for tastes has matured, that I've started to discover a lot of new things. As a notoriously picky eater, this evolution has come as a bit of a revelation.

I'm also not talking about strange, exotic foods or flavors that most people don't experience, maybe, ever (like my mom's affection for cow tongue)... No no, I mean normal things that most people consider no-brainers in terms of top-notch yumminess. It started with jalapenos three years ago. Since then, I'm surprised how things I once despised (bell peppers, fish, cream cheese, cucumbers!)—and yes, I did try things, I wasn't that stubborn—that have grown on me more recently in unexpected ways.

Most recently, it's honey. Once considered by me to be overly sweet with a yucky 'blah' texture, everyone in my family experienced my aversion to the stuff. My sister even apologized to me for giving delicate jars of homegrown, local honey as favors for her wedding last summer. Of course, John and I walked away with a jar each, and immediately, I dropped them in the pantry, figuring I'd see them the next time we moved.

But I threw a little shin-dig a few weeks back where I prepared a slap-dash cheese and meat platter for the guests to enjoy. People drizzle things with honey, I remembered, because I see it on Pinterest all the time. Out came the honey (just for show, really), settling in nicely between the Gruyere, sliced pears, and French bread. Then it happened. I tried it, plopping some on my bread and Manchego and pear creation, because why not, right? I'm adventurous. You guys... FIREWORKS!

Most of you are probably thinking "Duh, honey is the most delicious thing in the world!" But for me, this felt hugely significant. I could feel my brain rejiggering to make sense of how something I'd considered so vile and unnecessary was now prompting an obsessive, desperate desire to have ALL THE HONEY EVER.

This life-changing honey is not overly sweet, which may have been what clinched it. Only lightly filtered so it still has texture, and it's got actual taste. Perfect, mind-blowing taste. Now... what else can I put honey on? I feel like a whole new world of foods has opened up to me!

(image via nastasiason)

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Project 365: Movies 80 - 86

80 / 365: Irma la Douce (1963)
© United Artists

Sometimes you just stumble across a wacky looking film as you're flipping channels, unable to look away but not really sure why. Director Billy Wilder reunites Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in Irma la Douce, based on the French musical of the same name. The end result is a quirky farce that banked on its stars' comedic chops, ignoring any need for sensibility or brevity.

Lemmon plays Nestor Patou, a naive cop recently transferred to Paris' red light district. A bit self-righteous and completely oblivious, he runs into the charming Irma (MacLaine) outside the Casanova Hotel, not realizing she's a prostitute. It doesn't take long however, once she's picked up by a gentleman caller, for Nestor to recognize the scene of debauchery surrounding him. He calls in a bust, again unaware that no one in the police force is interested in shutting this risky business down. One thing leads to another and Nestor gets canned from his job, eventually finding his way back to the Casanova Hotel.

Alright, I feel like getting to the point of this convoluted plot line is rather impossible to do quickly. So I'll jump ahead, which really is what the film does anyway. No time for dilly-dallying. Nestor's love and infatuation for Irma prompts him to take over as her boyfriend—or rather, her "pimp"—so she can take care of him and make every other girl on the block envious of everything she can provide. Desperate to save her from herself and this life of sin, however, Nestor decides it's in his best interest to put on the pimp front, but secretly find a job so he can afford to buy all of Irma's time—and keep her away from the lusts of other men. His plan? Disguise himself as a Lord only interested in playing cards, forking over 500 francs a night. What could go wrong, right?

This movie has so much going on, it doesn't even have time to be self-aware. Time passes so strangely in this world, which edges on fantasy and slapstick, and the editing aides the comedy completely. Lemmon and MacLaine replicate the exact oddball chemistry they shared in The Apartment, but this time, the story is cartoonish rather than human and touching. Between scenes of Nestor scaling the side of a building dressed as a foppish Lord and whole B-plots about Irma's champagne-swilling designer dog... I got a bit lost in the crazed energy of it all. There's so much personality, everywhere you look, no one really even feels like a person at all. That being said, Wilder constructs a visually beautiful film, and he was right to trust two incredible performers with the material. I just wish the material itself had a bit more depth to it. I guess that's what happens when you strip out all of the songs.

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

81 / 365: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
© Paramount Pictures

This movie was the #66 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

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

82 / 365: Tank Girl (1995)
© United Artists

How have I never seen Tank Girl? I can't help but wonder how many Tank Girl costumes I've seen every Halloween of my life, not knowing that's what they were. The year is 2033. A comet has crashed into Earth, and it hasn't rained in 11 years, causing the world to devolve into a lawless, desert wasteland. Human-eating mutants called "Rippers" ravage the coutryside, and evil mega-corp, Water and Power, has taken control of, well.... the water and power supply. In sweeps our heroine, Rebecca a.k.a. "Tank Girl" (Lori Petty), to save the day with her sassy, bitchy wit. Oh, and her unwillingness to bend to the authority of W+P's CEO, Kesslee (Malcolm McDowell).

Even after she's taken captive by W+P for siphoning their water, losing her lover and friends in the process, she never breaks. Except for out. She breaks out, using her smart aleck mouth like ninja swords, and makes friends along the way with another prisoner, dubbed Jet Girl (Naomi Watts). Together, they steal a tank and a jet (duh) and bust out to take down W+P once and for all! Even if that means joining up with the aforementioned Ripper gang. Sex, guns, violence, nudity, and one-liners are peppered throughout, drenching the set design in pop and punk culture.

The bombastic comic strip opening credits set the style, which return consistently during the film as still images and animated sequences with a side of onomatopoeia. It was all brilliantly incorporated, leveraged to provide back story or context—as well as to showcase way-too-expensive action scenes or exteriors that were significantly cheaper in 2D/cartoon form. Petty as Tank Girl is an absolute superstar. Lori Petty, where have you been? How is it possible that I missed her in this clearly iconic, career-defining role? She's not alone, either—the acting talent is only elevated by the art direction and the film's energy-infused script. It doesn't take itself seriously at any point, and that is its magic.

Tank Girl's magic comes from the fact that she never really acknowledges the severity of her situation, or lets the state of the world get to her. Instead, she seems to be having a grand ole time, antagonizing anyone with a gun and giving the middle finger to those who claim authority. She'll steal your weapons, make a clever quip and spit in your face, all while looking like a bad-ass. Sometimes I wish every movie could have this same, unadulterated fun.

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

© Unison Films

I mentioned this film as one of my top picks to see in Fall 2014—unfortunately, I missed it in its theatrical release, which according to the movie's description, might have been a good thing. The concept is a unique achievement: a very human story about loss, love, and recovery told from two perspectives—a woman's (Her), and then her husband's (Him). Each perspective is its own, singular full length film, and the director, Ned Benson, made a third full length feature combining their stories (Them). A fascinating endeavor, to be sure, but the subject matter might just be too simple and too human (read: boring) to hold viewers' interest for three whole movies.

In an attempt to determine whether all three were worth a look, this week, I tackled Her, which focuses on Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain), an unhappy woman who attempts to take her own life at the start of the film. Her attempt is unsuccessful, and for a time, she moves back home with her parents and younger, adult sister. Little is known about the cause of her grief, but it becomes clear that she has recently suffered a great loss. No one really speaks to her about it, nor does she speak of it herself. That is, until her husband, Conor (James McAvoy), comes looking for her. Soon, we begin to experience flashbacks to a happier time when Eleanor and Conor's love first began, and are left to explore whether or not their love can endure.

At one point, one of the character's says "Tragedy is a foreign country"... which sounds deep, until you realize it doesn't make any sense. Tragedy is maybe a foreign language, especially for those unfamiliar with it, but it's certainly nothing like a country. There are a lot of lines and moments like this, attempts to absorb us in a character's tragedy, reveal ideas to us that have never been revealed before, but unfortunately, those attempts fall short. Eleanor could well be a very interesting character, but she's cold and sullen, completely unwilling to meet Conor—or the audience—halfway.

Perhaps this issue is solved in the film showcasing both sides; she might seem less aloof or selfish when paired with her more vibrant husband. However, in a film that's all about her (we do get a few brief scenes where we can enjoy McAvoy trying to pronounce a hard "R"), the majority of the time, we just watch her cycle through the various stages of grief without ever really experiencing them with her. A simpler, more believable film about loss than, say, In the Bedroom, but far less compelling. We'll see what Him has to say.

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

84 / 365: Red 2 (2013)
© Summit Entertainment

I don't really think I even have enough of an opinion about this movie to grant it a full-length review. The less-than-stellar sequel to 2010's wildly funny Red, we once again find ourselves in the company of Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), former assassin and second-attempt retiree, who is now desperately trying to protect the woman he loves, Sarah (Mary Louise Parker), from any and all possible dangers. Meaning they live a boring life walking around Costco for fun. Then Frank's former partner, Marvin (John Malkovich), shows up and declares that, of course, there's danger afoot. Frank is skeptical and Sarah is ecstatic, and when the bullets start raining down around them, they flee to Paris to figure out the mystery of why the government now thinks they're international terrorists.

There's a concerted effort in this film, like the former, to remind you that this is based on a graphic novel. But the similarities stop at the art direction. The story is absurdly basic and the characters have morphed into cartoonish weirdos, with the comedic element reduced to just above the lowest common denominator (i.e. just above fart jokes). The action is riotous and the weapons are shiny, which is what kept me focused until the very end. I respected the first film for not being completely predictable, but Red 2 couldn't even manage that. Perhaps if any of these characters, particularly Frank or Sarah, had any development at all, we might be having a different discussion.

For being so playful and purposefully silly, everyone is too stilted to really enjoy. They're the exact same as they always were, and they make the same jokes they've always made. The only light was Anthony Hopkins walking around with dementia, but even there, the comedy was tired. Not worth a second watch, but possibly worth catching for free if you just want something with explosions playing in the background.

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

85 / 365: The DUFF (2015)
© CBS Films

We are long overdue for a clear-headed teen movie to tackle actual subjects of our time, mainly the effect social networks can have on the already cloistered environment that is high school. Loosely based on the book by Kody Keplinger, the story centers on a cult horror movie obsessed high school girl, Bianca (Mae Whitman), whose two best friends are some of the hottest girls in school. Bianca's next door neighbor and former sleepover pal, Wesley (Robbie Amell), is the school's machismo poster child and quarterback of the football team, and he doesn't hesitate to give her a hard time for her basic looks. But it's alright, he declares, every group has to have one: the "designated ugly fat friend," or the DUFF.

Horrified and disgusted at his assessment, it isn't long before Bianca realizes that everything he's said is true... and it's up to her to change her image before she's stuck as the DUFF forever. Naturally, she enlists Wesley's help to makeover her look and attitude, and he takes her under his wing, despite his hateful, reality show wannabe girlfriend, Madison (played by Bella Thorne), constantly hovering and plotting. Madison tries hard to reach Regina George status, but just isn't quite evil or smart enough.

Yes, there are about to be lots of little throwbacks to classic nineties/noughts rom-coms in this review. Reason being is we really haven't been treated to a good one since. Even a now-classic like Mean Girls is really in a class of its own, more parody in the vein of Heathers and Clueless than an attempt to highlight classic but relateable teen experiences.

The most delightful surprise of this flick was in fact Amell's portrayal of Wesley, the jock-turned-love-interest. The set up implies you're going to have to endure a Peter Facinelli from Can't Hardly Wait knock-off, all brawn and brain-dead sexism, but instead you get a sweet, near-3-dimensional hybrid of Freddie Prinze Jr. from She's All That and Joseph Gordon-Levitt from 10 Things. Wes morphs part-way through the film into someone you'd actually be happy to know. He's honest, helpful, and vulnerable, rubbing away at Bianca's tough, sarcastic exterior until she allows herself to be just as vulnerable.

So The Duff really becomes everything that Not Another Teen Movie makes fun off/pays homage to, all while still infusing our modern, social (read: online) obsessions into every main and sub-story line. There are points in the movie where I had a hard time suspending disbelief (like how Bianca would never act the way she does in public during that scene in Love Culture, leading to that compromising viral video), but the handling of the material makes up for it. The world feels realistic despite some fantastical elements. Bianca's beautiful friends are still actually her friends—supportive, caring, and most importantly, forgiving.

I truly believe most people walked out of this movie thinking the same thing: that they were the DUFF in high school. It's kind of hard not to, the way the movie portrays Bianca, and for me, it was impossible not to relate to her, all the way down to her know-it-all, frumpy, movie-loving ways. Hard to say if this will find cult status (probably not), but it's a fresh approach to an old story, one that I'll sign up to watch every damn time.

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

© Lionsgate

Probably the most successful young adult novel-turned-movie franchise out there, this is the first sequel to 2012's The Hunger Games, the sci-fi/fantasy tale about a post-apocalyptic world where the population of Panem is divided into twelve districts, and two children are selected every year from each to fight to the death as entertainment for the wealthy central Capital. Immediately following the events of the first film, our heroes have won the 74th Annual Hunger Games. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) return to District 12 to resume what is left of their lives. That is until rumblings of an uprising begin, and the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) fights to destroy the following that's growing around Katniss as a symbol for the revolution. Which might mean destroying Katniss and everyone she loves in the process.

The film inherently solves the pacing problem that the original source material suffered from. Our main storyline (the actual Hunger Games) doesn't come into play until nearly halfway through the novel. The film, understanding the need for the opening "Victors Tour" to be kept brief, where Katniss and Peeta file through each District merely to be applauded for not dying, the film manages to incorporate plenty of necessary information while still hurrying to the main event. The Quarter Quell's significance is a huge shock in the book, but not in the film (oh, uh, spoiler alert?) When everyone first read the book, there was no indication that anyone we cared about would be returning to the Games. However, considering how impossible it is to keep secret plot twists out of movie trailers these days, Katniss and Peeta jumping back into the battle ring was a no-brainer, so it put the Games front and center.

No point in drawing out the obvious, right? The filmmakers served that reveal and transition well, understanding that they were revealing news to the characters, less so to us. There was also clarity surrounding the film's finale events, which (for me) were remarkably hard to visualize from reading it on the page. For that reason alone, I was delighted by how this movie turned out. There were more touching moments, usually involving Elizabeth Banks as Effie (probably the most complex character in the story) or the stoic, but lovable Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). It's visually stunning, fun, with super high stakes, and the last of what I consider the cohesive portion of this futuristic tale. Not as good as the original film, but certainly better than the one (or two?) that follows.

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

Monday, April 6, 2015

Music Mondays: Mirror Talk "This Woman's Work"

There's nothing like discovering a new, phenomenal band by accident. This past Friday, I went to my third KITTEN concert (you've all heard me talk about them ad nauseam), and in the mix of three opening acts—none of whom I was looking forward to, silly me—a beacon of light emerged. LA-based New Wave/synth-pop/R&B group, Mirror Talk, took to the stage, between the trying-too-hard Aquadolls and the talented-I-guess? Dear Boy.... and completely stole the whole show.

They opened with today's Music Monday selection, a cover of the classic Kate Bush track "This Woman's Work." Now, we've all heard countless covers of this song. Maxwell's version might be almost as famous now as the original! But honestly... I've never heard any version as beautiful as Mirror Talk's. During the show, they hooked me right away, and delved right into their original material, which was pulsing with a George Michael meets Phil Collins meets Bowie energy.

Frontman, Court Alexander, was downright hypnotic, and I was shocked to discover that this incredible quartet doesn't even have a huge following! Their first major EP, Infatuation, came out in late 2013, and their newest EP, 1997, is set to be released on May 19th. Consider me a fan for life. Now, I must spread the Mirror Talk love. Expect them to re-appear in this weekly series, probably not too long from now. Check out this track, it will inspire you to listen to everything else they've recorded!

Artist: Mirror Talk
Song: "This Woman's Work" [Kate Bush cover] | stream
Album: n/a

Friday, April 3, 2015

If ever there were a spring day so perfect...

... so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze. — Billy Collins, "Today"

I've been distracted of late by an upcoming vacation. A tropical destination awaits, and I'm giddy with anticipation, eagerness, and anxiousness. It's been several years since my last real adventure, and I don't quite know how to contain myself, but in a week's time, I'll be laying beach side amid the palm trees. I'll just have to remember to pull out my camera every once in awhile.

In the meantime, I'm trying my best to exercise patience, but it is beginning to feel fruitless. I've even had difficulty focusing on watching movies, that's how distracted the prospect of travel makes me. We're heading into a holiday weekend, for some, and while I will be using these next few days to prep for my trip, I hope that everyone finds just a little bit of sunshine and eases into their happy place, even if just for a little while.

Happy weekend, all! xx

(image via Sinjun Strom)

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

5 Ways to Stop Spinning Your Wheels and Get (Little) Things Done

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about this. We've all been there, working tirelessly to accomplish something and then realizing we've made no progress at all. It can be disheartening, and many of us (myself included) are prone to giving up. I've seen many articles talk about this in the "big picture" sense, about following our passions and achieving our goals... And that's great. But what about the little things? The day to day?

What are some ways we can snap ourselves back into focus and not waste time? For me, I find I spin my wheels with countless things. Reading a book, where it's been 45 minutes and it feels like I haven't finished a page. Or a work project with loose deadlines that I can't get leverage on, no matter how hard I think I'm pushing myself. Even listening to music, I can get into a rut of replaying a song over and over, not even realizing I've listened to the same thing for 3 hours. Most recently, it happened with my cross stitching, and when tackling a pile of pending movie reviews.

It's a rut, but it can be conquered. Here are a few [probably] obvious things that might help when you're struggling to cross that finish line.

1. Move.
No, I don't mean stand up and stretch. Instead, I mean stand up, grab your book/laptop/painting/whatever, and move to a different place. Maybe it's outside, or a nearby coffee shop, or even from the couch to the floor—it doesn't matter. The change in your body's position and your perspective on your space will tweak, reinvigorating your juices and giving you renewed focus. It's also the best cure if you're starting to get fatigued.

2. Eat or Drink Something While You Work.
This can be a slippery slope for those might eat mindlessly, but hear me out. I know that when I'm grinding along, repetitive motions like typing or turning the page can be lulling. By taking a second, walking to the kitchen or break room, and coming back with a cup of coffee or glass of wine (my favorite) to enjoy in my space, the senses are jolted. Give your hands, your eyes, your head a break from the task at hand every time you reach for a sip. Even if it's just a moment, grabbing a pinch of almonds can break the monotony that might be holding you back from progress.

3. Put Your Phone in the Other Room.
Ah, the phone, my kryptonite. The answer to my procrastination, wheel-spinning woes. When I'm trying to get something done, my smart phone needs to be nowhere in sight. Amazing the things we can accomplish when we're not tempted by our FB or Instagram feeds. Keep it out of reach and its pull will be far less tempting.

4. I Was Kidding Before. Stretch.
It's been proven time and time again. Nothing keeps your body and mind from atrophying like a good, deep stretch. By giving yourself a moment to ensure your blood is pumping and your back is sufficiently cracked, you'll not only massage those muscles, you'll be more comfortable in your space.

5. Ask For Help.
It might sound strange, but oftentimes, there is a reason we're being held up. Usually, it's something we're not even conscious of. Maybe our work project has an unanswered question that's thrown a wrench in our momentum. Maybe that opinion piece you're writing needs an outside perspective. Or maybe, we just need the help of our friends to suggest new and interesting things that could peak our interest. Other people are a great asset—when we're in a rut, even talking it through with someone else can rev your engine more than anything else could. Besides, you might get extra encouragement and a renewed sense of accomplishment.

Hey, it couldn't hurt, right?

Alright. Now to take my own advice and start crossing off that To-Do List. xx

(image via Giulia Bellato)
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