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

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