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

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