Saturday, May 30, 2015

AFI Top 100: #60 "Duck Soup"

Zeppo, Groucho, Chico, & Harpo Marx in Duck Soup (1933)

The last of the Marx Brothers oeuvre to be featured on the AFI Top 100 list, the last film to feature "brother #4", Zeppo Marx, Duck Soup, clocks in at #60. A political satire combined with classic screwball tropes, this movie is likely the true litmus test for your love or hatred for this brand of riotous comedy. You will undoubtedly sway one way or another on the spectrum.

The film's plot centers around the bankrupt country of Freedonia, whose richest citizen, Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), demands the government appoint Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) the new dictator-like President in exchange for a large portion of her wealth. Firefly is an inexperienced fool, and the neighboring country of Sylvania enlists private investigators, Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx), to discover Firefly's plans with the hope of avoiding war. Firefly, against the wishes of his personal assistant, Bob Roland (straight-man Zeppo Marx), declares war anyways to defend what he thinks is Mrs. Teasdale's honor, and naturally, insane hilarity ensues for a surprisingly succinct 68 minutes of run time.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Project 365: Movies 118 - 122

118 / 365: Searching for Sugar Man (2012)
© Sony Pictures Classics

This might be the shortest review I have ever or will ever write. Some movies are close to perfect, and Searching for Sugar Man is as close as maybe any documentary has ever come. Accuse me of hyperbole all you want, this expertly crafted film about a group of hopeful South African's searching for information on a long-forgotten (or rather, never-known) US folk singer is fascinating, inspiring, and full of wonder.

Trust me when I tell you: don't read anything about it, and you'll see what a filmmaker can accomplish with a little music and a little mystery—and of course, a brilliant editor. It won every documentary award in 2012 for a reason. I'm doing you a favor by remaining as vague as humanly possible.

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

119 / 365: Sullivan's Travels (1941)
© Paramount Pictures

This movie was the #61 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

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

120 / 365: Life Partners (2014)
© Magnolia Pictures

"I just want to meet a guy that I like as much as you," one of our lead heroines asks her best friend. "Is that too much to ask?" This was the motto of my early twenties, in a nutshell. I know I don't stand alone in that regard, and would likely be hard-pressed to recall another movie more poignantly humorous and befitting as Life Partners to interpret such an experience. On the surface, it's about two friends coping with how their relationship changes when a [serious] romantic interest enters the mix. But underneath, it explores the impossible task of supporting a friend while resenting, or not trusting, their happiness—and ultimately, running the risk of losing them because of it.

Sasha (Leighton Meester) and Paige (Gillian Jacobs) have been inseparable besties since their college days. Now, single and mingling and approaching 30, their co-dependent friendship appears unshakable. That is until Paige's online date set-up with Tim (Adam Brody) goes better than expected, and Sasha must come to terms with hating the changes she sees in her love-struck friend, while fighting with the realization there are truths she might need to accept about herself. As Sasha responds to Paige's apparent "adulting" by pretending to take a series of frivolous hook-ups seriously, Paige in turn becomes critical of Sasha's inability to grow up. And here lies the crux of friendships: Can it survive when two people are growing at different speeds? Does growing up inherently mean growing apart?

There is a scene where Paige brings her new boyfriend to Girl's Night to watch "America's Next Top Model" with Sasha. When Tim begins to ask stupid questions, Sasha exasperatedly pauses the episode every time he opens his mouth, trying so hard to be patient and supportive while simultaneously wanting to murder them both... In that moment, the sky opened up, the light shone down, and the movie gods pointed right at me as if to say: This one's for you. We've all been there, and it sucks. It sucks to be selfish and want to keep your friends all to yourself, but it happens to the best of us.

Life Partners contains more moments that caused me self-reflection than can even be listed in one review. Sure, the acting can leave something to be desired at times, and characters on the periphery never gain more than a single dimension of depth... but the movie's also not about that. It successfully explores the Generation Y struggles of dating, careers, money, independence, sex, friendship, selfishness, and that crippling shortsightedness in all aspects of life, all in a succinct, never over-loaded 90 minutes. And don't get me started on the fact that Paige mentions Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken. I'm pretty sure she's my best friend. Or me. Or both.

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

121 / 365: Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)
© Universal Pictures

*stares blankly* They were kidding with this movie, right? After delivering cult success with the sleeper musical hit Pitch Perfect, this garbage is what they hand over to us veiled as a legitimate sequel? A film so devoid of personality, wit, or any semblance of intelligence, it can only regurgitate and dumb-down old jokes that were only marginally funny in the first place? I'm sorry, but no. Just no.

Three years have passed since the aca-awesome collegiate acapella group The Barden Bellas first took home the National gold, thanks to mash-up mixing freshman Beca (Anna Kendrick). Now a senior—and for some inexplicable reason, the group is still only seniors, including 3-times-over Super Senior Chloe (Brittany Snow)—Becca and the team disgrace themselves at the start of the year, thanks to Fat Amy vagina-flashing President Obama. Cue laughter. Banned from competing nationally or even holding auditions for new recruits (which... again, it doesn't look like they did in recent years anyways, since it's just the same poeple but whatever), their only chance to perform and reclaim their reputation is to enter and win the World Acapella Competition. An unlikely feat since "the world hates us." Cue laughter?

Naturally though, the movie needed an excuse to inject a little new blood into the mix, so in walks Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), a glassy-eyed, enthusiastic freshman eager to follow in her mother's footsteps and become a legacy Bella. She auditions with the worst song of all-time which naturally she wrote herself, called "Flashlight," and we all roll our eyes in unison when we realize we're gonna to have to endure this dumb song over and over again, even during the final performance, whether we want to or not. Steinfeld, normally a beacon of adorable young talent, it wholly awful and obnoxious here. I can't even blame her, she was handed a character impossible to endure.

That brings us to the two things (things that would excuse any other faults) that should be amazing but weren't: the jokes and the music. I'll address the jokes first. The script is 100% about gimmicks. Not even new gimmicks, just the tired ones from the first movie. Sexist announcer and bitchy announcer? Double-check, x100. Quietly weird Chinese chick? Checkity-check, and then they add in a one-note illegal immigrant to spew equally racist and unfunny one-liners for good measure. And of course, Fat Amy (the usually unbeatable Rebel Wilson), who is given the same jokes to read, having not changed in the slightest. Perhaps that's what the producers instructed writer of both films, Kay Cannon, to do? Not to dare change or develop anyone, because American audiences hate change, dammit, so give them less of everything that was good (the music, romance—Skylar Astin gets the shaft big time—and character development) and only the things that got old the first time around (the stuff I just mentioned).

Now the music. At the very best, it should give you chills and leave you in a state of euphoria; at the very least, it should be toe-tappingly catchy. The first movie achieved both of these things. The sequel doesn't even come close. Instead, the songs are boring, repetitive, and occasionally terrible. In fact, I liked some characters less for even attempting to perform them. The movie itself makes jokes about the songs the Bellas are performing, too, more times than even makes sense. I was actually noticeably embarrassed during certain scenes, sitting in the theater covering the side of my face as if to hide from someone near me who might have thought this movie was my fault. My love for Anna Kendrick and Keenan-Michael Key's chuckle-worthy "Sriracha hipster" line aside, this is arguably a worse movie than Jupiter Ascending. Yeah. I said it.

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

122 / 365: Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)
© Fox Searchlight Pictures

A few weeks ago, I reviewed the popular but flawed 1967 adaptation of the same novel by Thomas Hardy in preparation for this version's release. My expectations had grown considerably higher when the Julie Christie film didn't speak to my tastes, in large part because this one just had to be better. What came as a surprise was how, almost beat for beat, sometimes shot for shot, Thomas Vinterberg's film mirrors its predecessor. The differences are notably with the acting talent, primarily Carey Mulligan as the headstrong heroine Bathsheba Everdene, completely embodying the character's stubbornness with touching self-awareness.

Ms. Everdene (her name and, in part, her personality, it should be noted, was the inspiration for Hunger Games' own Katniss Everdeen) becomes a rare breed in Victorian England when her uncle passes away, instating her the new mistress of an expansive farm and inheritor of uncommon wealth—for an independent woman, that is. Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), an unlucky shepherd who loses his own farm following a rebuked proposal from a then equally poor Bathsheba, now finds himself in her employ. While his feelings for her have not changed, he commits to looking after her from afar as she attracts attention from other suitors, one bewitched by her strength and beauty—a wealthy, older bachelor from a neighboring farm, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen); one cocky and self-serving—the dashing, jaded soldier, Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge).

Vinterberg never allows Mulligan to convey indifference to any of the men. The reality of the hearts Bathsheba holds in her grasp is never lost on her, much as Everdene would like to ignore her dependency on Oak, her guilt about Boldwood, or her infatuation with Troy. It's that brazen lack of awareness from Julie Christie's interpretation that turned me off to begin with; Mulligan, on the other hand, is triumphant. She elicits a different sort of chemistry from each love interest, providing the film with a soaring romanticism and air of tragedy. Emotions can overwhelm the most level-headed of people. It's one thing to talk about, but another thing entirely to experience alongside the characters.

The cinematography is beautiful, but we knew it would be going in. The story is a long one, with no shortage of characters and dramas littered throughout, but writer David Nicholls trims and reshapes it all so nothing stunted or dismissed. The only exception I might cite is the delicate handling of Fanny Robbin (Juno Temple), Sergeant Troy's doomed lover. While her importance is certainly conveyed, she doesn't quite get the screen time that she deserves. All the while, though, the focus doesn't drift too far from what we all care about most: the unrequited but ultimately destined love story between Gabriel and Bathsheba. Oak never reaches Mr. Darcy-level broodiness, but he comes pretty darn close. Close enough to make me count him and this film as an extension of any Austen lover's fantasy.

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

Monday, May 25, 2015

Music Mondays: Cyndi Lauper, She's So Unusual

Oops, was today Monday? I hadn't realized! I guess that's what national holidays do to your memory and awareness! On this tail end of the long weekend, I wanted to share a bit of the vinyl love I feeling this weekend. From 1983, She's So Unusual was the first studio album to be released by Cyndi Lauper, and believe me, it features all of your favorites: "Time After Time," "All Through the Night"... and of course, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun"!

I've honestly been listening to this fantastic album—the original vinyl purchased for a steal at $5 at the Rock'n'Roll Flea Market here in LA—non-stop this past weekend, between celebratory glasses of Sauvignon Blanc, visiting friends, or loads of necessary laundry. You name it! There's something so delightfully "dance unabashedly around the house"-ish about it, no matter your situation. So before this day is over, I just had to share some album love with you on this happy Monday. Enjoy my favorite track from the album, "All Through the Night," below!

Friday, May 22, 2015

A Tattoo Bouquet for Summer

After two weeks of posting nothing but movie reviews, it seemed time on this pre-holiday Friday to post a little something personal. I like to pretend that I have a good deal of self-restraint, but sometimes it comes down to the fact that, when you're itching for something new, you have to go for it. My self-imposed "hiatus from tattoos" at the end of last year lasted for approximately 5 months, and a few weeks back, I found myself exactly where I told you I would be. Back in my hometown, at an incredible, budding shop called Fura Body Works, I enlisted the brilliant Lawrence Edwards to design for me a bundle of the prettiest flowers I ever did see. Remember, I mentioned him in my 15 Tattoo Artists to Follow list?

I don't even know where to begin, this guy is so talented, and he gets better with every tattoo he does. I feel honored to have a custom piece on my body forever.

Not much more to say than that. A stunning tattoo just in time for summer that I could not be more excited about—the way it wraps, the whip shading... the perfect start to an (eventual) half sleeve. A floral bouquet of peonies, bull thistles, and pussy willows. Here are some pictures from the 4½-hour session, courtesy of my very patient sister. Final two pictures courtesy Lawrence Edwards.

Conception Drawing

Final Version

Thursday, May 21, 2015

AFI Top 100: #61 "Sullivan's Travels"

Veronica Lake & Joel McCrea in Sullivan's Travels (1941)

When I told my Dad that our #61 film on the AFI Top 100 list was Sullivan's Travels, his immediate reaction was one of emotional satisfaction. "When you get to the scene in the gospel church... message me." Apparently, my Methodist minister father had done a sermon about this scene oh-so-many years ago, even pulling down the projection screen and showing the sequence to the congregation in its entirety. I didn't know about this, of course, but was curious how any part of a Preston Sturges film could contribute any level of gravitas in a sermon designed to end with a message or moral. This is not to say that Sturges couldn't spike an emotion or two, but I was skeptical, to say the least. I gave him my word that I would take special care to take note.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Project 365: Movies 113 - 117

113 / 365: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
© Warner Bros.

Max Rockatansky, and his inability to keep his nose out of trouble—or resist helping those in need—returns in glorious fashion in this reboot of George Miller's Mad Max franchise, helmed by the mastermind himself. Miller never rests on his ability to recycle the past. It's his own vision, beginning with his 1979 film, and he easily could have just remade Road Warrior, with a boosted up budget and non-stop, high-octane fun—but he doesn't. Well... he does, but he doesn't just do that. In addition to what's on the surface, he re-invents, re-imagines, and regenerates the concept of the desert wasteland, and infuses it with a rich, delicious mythology. Every character, every group, every vehicle, every fetish—all of them have a story, and none of them are without purpose. What happens before the start of this two-hour ride is just as important, maybe even more so, as what happens during.

At the film's start, Max (Tom Hardy) is captured in the same post-apocalyptic wasteland of the other films, this time by a group dubbed the War Boys, a sickly "half-life" cult who paint themselves white, scar their bodies, worship chrome, and blindly follow the masked Warlord, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe has created a world of dependency, where women are slaves (either milkers, breeders, or mixed in with the peasants scrambling for just a drop of the water that Joe hoards in his giant fortress, the Citadel) and his gang of War Boys, whose only goal in life is to live long enough to "go chrome" and sacrifice their lives in battle to ascend to Valhalla. When Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a slave turned part-bionic leader, mutinies by hijacking Joe's gigantic War Rig with his prized breeders (aka Brides) on board, Joe and his War Boys race through the desert on their Franken-vehicles to get them back.

Max finds himself embroiled in Furiosa's desperate rescue mission when he, serving as a "blood bag" for a War Boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult)—literally, he's attached as a direct-line, blood IV to the kid, strapped to the front of his ride—tries to escape with her War Rig. In true Max fashion, though, he can't sit idly by and watch these women get snatched back up by the insanity they've just escaped, so he reluctantly promises to help them cross the wasteland. What has been described as a 2-hour chase scene (effectively it is, but don't let that fool you into thinking it's a one-trick pony) becomes a thrilling, high-stakes extravaganza that never ceases to amaze. From the colorful photography of the desert (the blue-green hue of the Crow-people marshland comes to mind) to the dizzying cinematography, editing, and human/vehicular choreography, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more jaw-dropping spectacle.

As important as Max is, his role is largely understated, as is Hardy's performance. He's strong and stoic, but righteous, and Hardy's softy eyes serve Max's nomadic, indecisive existence well. The film, however, belongs to Theron's Furiosa. She is the true heroine to Max's anti-hero, and her unflinching decisiveness gives the film not only its focus and strength, but its powerful feminist message. Miller's vision of the future is bleak but not without hope, and he produces a film that is as intelligent as it is beautiful. The CGI is, believe it or not, used sparingly; every vehicle painstakingly constructed, driven, and eventually destroyed, while the stench of gasoline, the suffocating air of dust and sweat seep from every shot. It is a barrage of stimuli, and easily one of the best movies of the year. Fury Road deserves to be seen, as many times as you can manage, because it's more than summer blockbuster fodder—it's an refreshing revelation.

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

114 / 365: American Graffiti (1973)
© Universal Pictures

This movie was the #62 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

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

115 / 365: Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)
© HBO Films

If ever a documentary could be described as an "autobiography," this one would be it. In a commendable attempt to pull back the curtain on the myth, the legend, that is Kurt Cobain, writer/director Brett Morgen was granted unparalleled access to the artist's writings, drawings, and audio recordings, which are used to tell Cobain's story—just as Kurt would have told it. From his troubled youth growing up in Aberdeen, WA and his continued struggle with depression through his discovery of art to express his pain and the formation of legendary grunge band, Nirvana... all the way through his romance with like-minded addict/rock star, Courtney Love, and his eventual suicide in 1992, Montage of Heck is not a love letter. It's a scathing

Very slowly, as you watch various talking heads fill in the gaps between the compelling private footage and scrawled lyrics, you realize something becoming quite clear: Kurt Cobain wasn't a god. In fact, he could barely be described as likable. When you hear reports that Cobain's daughter, and Producer of the film, Francis Bean, demanded that Morgen do away with all the trappings, all the glossy recounts of a brilliant grunge martyr to portray her father as an honest-to-god person with troubling flaws... it's not hard to see their success. Cobain rides the line between scared little boy and brilliant egomaniac like no one I've ever seen; and it's not through interviews with the people who claim to know him that reveals this--it's his own words that do the trick.

The beauty of the film comes from not only the exclusive footage pooled together by Morgen, but the way that he visually describes Kurt's world. Incorporated are fully animated sequences, turning Kurt's childhood art into sometimes disturbing, always fascinating featurettes. They serve as reenactments, overlaid with recorded audio of Kurt writing songs, recounting his frustrations, and struggling to make something that mattered all in the years leading up to the kick-off of Nirvana's signature sound. Later, footage of home videos showing a pregnant Courtney Love and sickly, drugged-up Kurt offer the sobering realization that these very talented people were disastrous messes, and Cobain's ups and downs were largely self-fulfilling prophecies.

Coming from someone who would never have called herself a "Cobain fanatic," this movie didn't lift the veil in any astounding way for me. I never felt disillusioned, or that I was believing a version of Cobain's story that was so far removed from reality. But I know many people who were, or who did, and this film might just be a rude, but very welcome awakening. The truest definition of tragedy, if I've ever seen one, is the life of Kurt Cobain.

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

116 / 365: Godzilla (1998)
© TriStar Pictures

I had avoided this movie for so long until I had that little feeling in the back of my mind that said "Maybe you should watch this—it's probably really fun!" I wish I'd ignored those intrusive thoughts, because they could not have been more misguided. It's easy to, at a passing glance, color this lobotomized reboot of the popular Godzilla franchise as a "Bad Movie Not to Be Missed." But you'd be wrong, and I'm going to try to explain why.

In no way am I a Godzilla expert. I don't care much about the mythos or the variations thereof, but I do care about plot. And writing. And acting. And this movie, while attempting to do something different with the King of Monsters story, threw all of that out the window. At the start of the film, we meet Dr. Niko Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick), whose most memorable feature is the fact that no one in the movie can pronounce his name. In fact, it's the script's longest running gag and trails behind him like a rain cloud for the rest of the film. Tatopoulos is a biologist specializing in worms, and he's brought in to investigate the recent appearance of a giant monster in Panama. For... some reason having to do with radiation. When this creature that left a giant footprint makes his way to the eastern seaboard, we know immediately that its destination is Manhattan, because of the forced title card under a shot of the city that says "The City That Never Sleeps" in lieu of New York City. I hated the movie instantly.

It isn't long before an apish Godzilla is plowing through the streets, justifiably stepping on people and cars and knocking his big tail into buildings. The government, of course, decides to try to shoot the guy down by blowing up every building it's standing near. The destruction caused by human stupidity (and inability to aim, apparently) isn't even laughable. It's painful to watch. Throw into this mess the supposed main plot of Tatopoulos coming to Manhattan to investigate, only to run into his former girlfriend, Audrey Timmonds (Maria Pitillo), a soulless, wannabe reporter desperate to make this massacre her big break. It doesn't help that Pitillo might be the worst actress in the world, and that her character is a sniveling, bitchy brat. Her saving grace might be that she's friends with Hank Azaria (who plays cameraman Animal), but even he couldn't rise above the crap lines he's given.

Considering the chaos happening on screen, and the ignorant decisions constantly being made, you'd think any of these characters would seem worried, or distressed... or concerned about their own safety. But no. It's like they read the script beforehand and, knowing they survive, do all the dumb stuff no sane person would ever consider doing. I wanted so badly to laugh and enjoy the badness of it all, but it only made me feel dumber and sadder. The overt attempt to make poor Godzilla's desolation of New York City seem like a mysterious, subversive act was insulting.

It shocks me that the filmmakers couldn't find 20+ minutes to shave off this train-wreck to bring it to a respectable run time, between the perpetual jokes about the Mayor's hankering for sweets or uber-French Jean Reno's disdain for American breakfast goods. Nope, those were simply precious gems that couldn't be sacrificed to the cutting room floor. I've never seen so many unnecessary shots, people, or dialogue jammed into one movie in my entire life. Garbage; irredeemable, useless garbage.

Rating: ½-star / 5 stars
Watched: Netflix
Seen Before: No

117 / 365: Girls Just Want to Have Fun (1985)
© New World Pictures

This movie ranks right up there with Can't Buy Me Love as maybe the most "80s" movies ever made, from the music to the fashion to the lingo... and of course, the portrayal of everyday high school life.

Janey (Sarah Jessica Parker) is the shy new kid at a Catholic private high school in Chicago who's never been able to hold down a good gal-pal after an endless cycle of moves, thanks to her father's military service. That is until she meets Lynne (Helen Hunt), a budding fashionista who shares Janey's love of dance. For Janey, though, it isn't just her hobby—dancing is her dream, specifically dancing on Chicago's hit afternoon dance program, "Dance TV." When they hear that the show is casting for a new pair of dancers, Janey makes it her mission to win the competition and become the star she knows she's destined to be. Of course, she must overcome being paired with a bad-boy dance partner, Jeff (Lee Montgomery), and survive the wrath of her biggest competition, spoiled rich girl, Rikki (Kristi Somers).

This is SJP's first starring film role after her hit TV show, "Square Pegs," went off the air in 1993, and it's no surprise she was cast as Janey. She has a tough sweetness that serves the character well, since she has to ride the line between lovable dance dork and ruthless competitor. Some of the best moments happen between she and Jeff, as his critical view of her begins to shift when he sees just how focused, dedicated, and fun she can really be. While the movie focuses on Janey's struggle between balancing her strict family and school with the lie she's weaving to compete on this program, it's Helen Hunt as Lynne who really stands out. This might actually be Hunt's best role. She's the kind of best friend any shy girl would dream of having—confidant, brave, and decisive, she gives Janey courage that she never would have had otherwise.

The film suffers from common problems, like weak villains and cheesy dialogue, but it's all coated in a lot of harmless fun. Shannon Doherty makes a cute appearance as Jeff's 12-year-old sister, and there are plenty of colorful side characters to keep things moving along nicely. It doesn't hit the emotional high that other 80's favorites might (the aforementioned Can't Buy Me Love comes to mind), but for any young girl growing up in that bedazzled decade, Girls Just Want to Have Fun is a surefire nostalgia trip that makes you want to get up and dance. 

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

Monday, May 18, 2015

Music Mondays: The Veronicas "Cruel"

For the first time in seven years, one of my favorite bands from my college days, The Veronicas, have released a full new album, and are coming on tour in the US—final stop, Los Angeles, and I didn't hesitate to grab tickets. I've always loved their bouncy, dance beats, and it doesn't hurt that I find kinship in their twindom. Plus! They got their name from one of my favorite movies! The band consists of Lisa and Jessica Origliasso, and while they may look like delicate little birds (seriously, I shook Lisa's hand once, and I thought I might crush it), don't let that fool you. They write a mean revenge tune, and are tough to boot.

Their new album, released last year, is self-titled and a total blast! So happy they're back, and can't wait to see them live. Check out their video for "Cruel," which I swear will get stuck in your head all day. You've been warned!

Happy Monday!

Artist: The Veronicas
Song: "Cruel" | download | stream
Album: Veronicas

Thursday, May 14, 2015

AFI Top 100: #62 "American Graffiti"

The classic cars of American Graffiti (1973)

Sometimes there are movies that I must admit have value, but that I could care less about watching. This week's film, the supposedly quintessential "teen" movie of the 1970'sabout the early 1960'scomes in on the AFI Top 100 list at #62 and falls directly into that category. Directed by a little-known guy named George Lucas, American Graffiti is the story that, on the surface, reads a bit like a "Seinfeld" episode in its apparent lack of plot or focus. But like many people discover, there's a lot going on under the surface as it explores how teenagers from the same place can do and experience the same things, but be driven by different dreams. For me, however, I've always had a difficult time connecting with the film, its tone, and more than anything, its characters.

Taking place on a single night in the summer of 1962, a group of high school friends and recent graduates come together to cruise around their small Southern California town one last time before two of them head off to college. Curt (Richard Dreyfus) and Steve (Ron Howard) are the lucky ones about to escape their small town, while the rest of their friends, consisting of greaser and drag racer, John (Paul Le Mat), dopey wannabe Terry (Charles Martin Smith), and Steven's unsatisfied girlfriend, Laurie (Cindy Williams), are all still too busy looking in the rear-view mirror to have any idea what's ahead. On this final night of joyriding, the friends find themselves sliding in and out of each others' experiences, discovering a little bit about themselves along the way.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Project 365: Movies 109 - 112

109 / 365: Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
© Disney Animation Studios

In Disney's most creative, intelligent, and non-pandering work in over a decade, we're granted the opportunity to see witness animation do what it does best: re-invent a familiar world by giving life to the lifeless. Taking a page from Pixar's tried-and-true playbook (think Toy Story on crack), Wreck-It Ralph grows us up a bit from playing with toys to playing games, of the 'video' variety. Set in the electrical workings of a modern video game arcade, when the lights turn off at the end of the night, the games come to life, jumping from their games and making their way to Game Central Station--in other words, the giant surge protector they're all linked to. They socialize, share stories, and gossip, but one thing never changes: Heroes are the heroes, and villains are the villains.

That's when we meet Ralph (John C. Reilly). Spending 30 years as the "wrecking man" villain of the popular 80's game, "Fix-It Felix," Ralph is fend up with being the outcast in not only his game, but in the rest of the game community, so he sets his heart on winning a medal and becoming the hero he's always dreamed of being. When he abandons his game in search of a medal, his journey takes him from a first-person shooter, "Hero's Duty," all the way to a racing game called "Sugar Rush," where he meets another outcast, Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a glitch in the game whose always dreamed of being a star racer. They agree to help each other, but little do they know that trouble has followed Ralph to "Sugar Rush," and changing the path written in their code may not be as easy as it seems.

Everything about this movie hits all the right notes. It's remarkably creative, mixed enough nostalgia and Easter eggs to satisfy even the most critical 30-something gamer/pop culture nut. More than that, though, it is rife with the right amount of comedy and the right amount of tears. Silverman's Vanellope is delightful and innocent, the perfect catalyst to Reilly's rough-and-destructive Ralph. And, in true Disney fashion, the side characters have enough guff and personality to head up their own movies. Jack McBrayer as Felix, the hero to Ralph's villain, Jane Lynch as the leader of the FPS brigade of "Hero's Duty," Calhoun--and of course, every single voice that pops up in "Sugar Rush," like my personal favorite, Alan Tudyk, breathing life into the slobbering, deceitful King Candy.

Constructed to perfection, Wreck-It Ralph rivals any animated feature put up against it, and is a real triumph for Disney. Any movie that can touch me like this one does deserves to be watched again and again. Just thinking about the Bad Guy affirmation brings tears to my eyes.

I'm bad, and that's good. I will never be good, and that's not bad. There's no one I'd rather be than me.
*sniff* *cry* omg.

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

110 / 365: Far from the Madding Crowd (1967)

In anticipation of the most recent, beautiful-looking adaptation of Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy's book, Far from the Madding Crowd, which I have plans to see later this week, I suddenly realized I had never seen a single version of this story on stage or screen. As it stood before today, the most popular re-telling belongs to this 1967 classic, starring Julie Christie as Hardy's independent and stubbornly love-torn heroine, Bathsheba Everdene. Cursed with a distracting beauty but blessed with gracious intelligence, Bathsheba struggles to balance a slew of romantic suitors when she inherits a farm from her deceased uncle.

Now, wealthy independent of a man, she turns down a proposal from Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates), a poor farmer-turned-shepherd, because she doesn't love him—despite his always looking out for her and running to her aide when she's in a bind. Likewise, her much older neighbor, William Boldwood (Peter Finch), is a wealthy farmer and the most eligible bachelor in the area, who becomes infatuated with Bathsheba as he has no other woman before. Stuck on the notion that her financial freedom should mean marrying with her heart, not her head, she delays giving Boldwood an answer to his proposal, playing with his practical but tender heart in the process. That is until she meets a dashing, womanizing soldier named Sgt. Francis "Frank" Troy (Terrence Stamp). All the feels come rushing to Bathsheba when she watches him whip his sword around (literally), and she falls for his smirk and handsome looks, hook line and sinker. As she navigates these relationships with the men in her life, she must come to terms with what it really means to fall in love—and be the decision-maker in a world that doesn't look kindly on women in control.

Director John Schlesinger directs a truly stunning film, beginning on the rural cliffs of England, all the way through the British countryside. The screen glows with beauty, each shot carefully constructed and purposefully edited. However, there something missing underneath it all. This adaptation lacks in sensuality; it is very clinical in moments that are meant to be passionate, especially from our heroine who is supposedly ripe with passion and strength. The story is pieced together very cleanly, which matches the novel even down to some of the finer points, but it doesn't always translate to a visual medium. Rather, it contributes to the film's choppy pacing, as time passes awkwardly, scenes jolt from one to another and emotions shift on a whim. In print, this can work well, as a fleshed out narration can contribute insight that visuals alone often can't.

The cast looks and sounds perfect on the surface, but there's a fire missing that couldn't hold my attention. The original narrative doesn't require such a rigorous reconstruction to tell Bathsheba's story fully, and Christie's portrayal comes off as cold and unfeeling when we should be just as swept away as she is by the madness of it all. Take it or leave it, I'd rather leave it. What this film did do, however, is make me ever-more anxious to see what Thomas Vinterberg's version has in store for Ms. Everdene.

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

© Zeitgeist Films

This twisted tale of jealousy and deceit that has grown to legendary status is the subject of a documentary that—at least to me—was a story completely unknown outside of the small islands littered off the coast of Ecuador known as the Galápagos Archipelago. Beginning as a bit of a head-scratcher, hints are made to the "unbelievable" story to follow, but not without the requisite back story to get us all on the same page.

Through compelling narrations reciting old letters and journals, we're introduced to a German doctor emboldened by Nietzsche, Friedrich Ritter (voiced by Thomas Kretschmann), and his doting paramour, Dore Strauch (voiced by Cate Blanchett), who escaped Europe to find peace, tranquility, and solitude on an uninhabited island in the Galápagos called Floreana. That is until word of their private island spread, and "interlopers" began to descend upon their shores, beginning with a German couple, Heinz (Sebastian Koch) and Margret Wittmer (Diane Kruger), and followed not long after by the eccentric and self-titled, Baroness Von Wagner (Connie Nielsen) and her bevy of lovers. It is at this point, in 1931, when the battle for privacy, possessions, sex, and sanity grip Floreana and its residents, leading to the mysterious disappearances that remain, to this day, unsolved.

The documentary makes an upfront promise of murder, sex, and madness within this untamed paradise of the Galápagos, though the filmmakers take their time in laying out all of the details they feel are necessary in taking you on this journey. Some of it is fascinating, but some of it is achingly dull. We rejoice whenever there is a focus on the main story of intrigue, a steady timeline of photographs and home video footage of the people themselves, glittered with gossipy narrations. A type of re-enactment that never teeters on cheesy or tired, one that fully portrays the mystery and unbalanced energy behind this odd and incompatible group of people. The Baroness, particularly, is an almost inconceivable personality, desperate and delusional in her attempts to become Queen of her own private island.

But then the shift happens, pulling away from the developing mystery to listen to lamenting accounts from other Galápagos ex-pats still inhabiting the larger, nearby islands today, sharing their experiences of lonely island life. An attempt to offer a first-hand perspective of the freedoms and hardships of escaping to "paradise," I suppose, but the constant back and forth just feels like a distraction, causing the story of Floreana to lose some of its momentum. It is during these cutaways from the primary story that the film feels heavy-handed and over-stuffed. The incorporation of the soul-seeing Galápagos tortoise to shove in that bit of mythical strangeness doesn't help matters either. Getting through this B-plot can only be viewed as a small hurdle, though, because in truth, the story of Ritter, Strauch, the Wittmers, and the Baroness makes for a real tabloid expose worth the time it takes to get there.

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

112 / 365: The Age of Adaline (2015)
© Lionsgate

An honest romance is a rare thing to find these days. It's hard to find an audience for something not based on a young adult novel or a story bathed in S&M controversy... but maybe that's why The Age of Adaline was such an intriguing offering. It is unapologetic and refreshing, delicately constructed to tell the story of Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively in a career-defining role), who in 1933, after a series of unexplainable phenomena, freezes her internal clock at the young age of 29. She will never age. For the next 70 years, she must change her identity and avoid any personal relationships for fear of someone discovering her secret. Her only solace is her daughter, Flemming (Ellen Burstyn), now an old woman. When she meets a dashing young philanthropist, Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman), on the eve of her next big identity change, she begins to question her life of solitude and risks everything to see if a future with someone else is even possible.

Accepting the concept of Adaline's fantastical, ever-lasting life doesn't take much on our part. The story weaves together so many details that give Adaline's story and personality the weight of someone who has experienced a lifetime of joy, grief, and sacrifice. In the film's saddest scene, Adaline flips through a book of old photographs, of the generations of dogs that she's had, her only constant companions. It's so touching, it's almost unfair, and my heart burst into a million pieces. The flashbacks to the various decades of her life are expertly placed throughout the story, becoming more and more prevalent when she travels to visit Ellis' parents, only to discover that she has a connection to his father, William (played magnetically by Harrison Ford). His reaction, and inability to make sense of his feelings for her, bring this movie up to a whole new level of romantic.

I do have a quick aside to what I found to be the only irksome thing: the casting of Hugh Ross as the 3rd person-omniscient Narrator. At first, I thought maybe I didn't like the way the narration was written overall. It's very matter-of-fact, full of knowledgeable, scientific tidbits that serve to breath truth into this otherwise unfathomable story—in some ways, completely pointless, since we accept it all easily pretty early on. But it occurred to me my problem didn't lie with the writing; it was with the voice itself. Ross' voice just doesn't fit. The writing asks for a Jim Dale-like presence, à la "Pushing Daisies," and Ross just doesn't have the chops. He didn't match the glamour of Adaline or the romance of the story, and it's a crying shame.

Thankfully, the narration makes up only the beginning and end of the story. In the middle, we're treated to a stunning, gripping, and soaring romance, with a performance by Lively that can only be described as ethereal. No doubt about it, this woman can really act; clothes and hair aside, she carries Adaline's antique style and grace like a confident young woman whose soul was born in another time, but whose feet are firmly planted in the present. I couldn't help but be taken with her, exactly the way that Ellis and William were. Harrison Ford gives his best performance in years, internalizing his love for this woman until it wells up in his eyes and spills out all over the screen. It catches him, and us, by surprise, and we can't help but believe him; not just because we buy in to his performance, but because Lively's Adaline earns such adoration.

To go on and on about the finer points of this movie would be redundant, and would frankly ruin a lot of the gems that it has to offer. As a romance, it is simply lovely; an unexpected film that glitters with a mature, honest spirit. I felt lighter and happier walking out of the theater than I have in a long time, and I have every confidence that you will, too.

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

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Project 365: Movies 105 - 108

105 / 365: Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989)
© Miramax

I've long been a fan of Spanish director, Pedro Almodóvar's work . His signature use of vibrant colors, reds and greens and turquoise dripping from the screen—female-centric, sexually charged stories that turn convention on its head. The Criterion Collection recently re-released this controversial film, and I couldn't resist its call, having never seen it before. Known as the "Stockholm Syndrome" movie, I wanted to see if it really was as sensual and captivating as I'd heard.

Ricky (Antonio Banderas), a charming and passionate playboy—who also happens to be mental patient—is released back into society with the hopes of having a normal life, beginning with a family to call his own. That means first commandeering a wife, so when he spots former porn star, Marina (Victoria Abril), in a film magazine, his pins her to be his bride. Slipping casually onto her film shoot, her watches her work before following her home and nonchalantly taking her hostage. Of course, she's not happy about it. In fact, she's justifiably terrified. He, however, is convinced she will fall in love with him, despite him having to tie her up all day and all night to ensure she doesn't run away. All the while, he tries to play house, taking care of her needs and trying to respect her boundaries—a noble quality perhaps? Or maybe just the continual signs of a delusional person.

From the many advertisements for this film, we know that Marina is bound to fall, in some twisted way or another, for Ricky's unconventional approach to woo her. And so we wait... wait for that moment when the key turns and the romance clicks into place—but it never happens. For Marina, it does, overcoming her so suddenly, it comes as a shock to everyone that he endeared to her at all. While the film tries to set us up for it, the transition from fear to hatred to lust to love is shoddy at best. Ricky is just too cuckoo-bananas and scary to be considered an appropriate lover, no matter how sexy he seems on the surface.

There are lovely moments between the two, like when he tries to score her some black-market medicine, putting himself in danger just to provide her what he thinks she needs. And of course, the loosening of those ankle and wrist restraints is a sure sign of true love. But it's all a big stretch. I consider myself pretty on-board with the Stockholm Syndrome / BDSM trope when the story adds the right amount of "oomph!" and the chemistry between the leads is off the charts... but this one just didn't do it for me. I couldn't get on the Ricky ♥ Marina Forever bandwagon. As beautiful as Almodóvar designs this world, it couldn't breathe life into their romance, and that's really all this movie is about.

Rating: ★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Hulu Plus
Seen Before: No

106 / 365: Cabaret (1972)
© Allied Artists Pictures

This movie was the #63 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

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

107 / 365: The Blob (1957)
© Paramount Pictures

How can you hate a movie that starts with a beach-boogie theme song? Unless you're a scaredy-cat nine-year-old kid (like I was the first time I saw this), you're more than likely going to enjoy the hell out of this inventive and terrifying sci-fi alien-invasion flick. But this time, the alien life-form looks nothing like what you'd expect—in fact, it's nothing more than a pulsing, mass-absorbing BLOB! I'd always thought that if aliens were ever to come to our planet, they'd look more like this creepy-crawly than anything anthropomorphic we'd see in Species or whatever else.

One of Steve McQueen's earliest films (when he was still going by "Steven"), and its set in small town America, at a time when teenagers spent their nights cruising, necking in the woods, and making trouble for local law enforcement. All seems to be going according to plan for Steve Andrews (McQueen) and his pretty girlfriend, Jane Martin (Aneta Corseaut), that is until they spot a streak of light across the sky and something crash into the middle of the woods. When they go in search of it, they come across a woodsman who had the same idea: the man found a rock cracked open with a rubbery, viscous blob inside! When Steve and Jane find him, its latched to the man's arm, growing bigger every minute. In an attempt to help him, the kids bring the man into town, where the Blob begins to grow in size as it consumes not only the man, but any life-form in its path! It's up to Steve and Jane to convince the police—and the entire town—that an alien blob is on the loose before its too late.

While the script and acting feel stunted at times, the concept of this horror tale is perfectly executed. The Blob is terrifying and seemingly unstoppable. The key is its emotionless state. It cannot be reasoned with, or dissuaded, or killed—by depriving it of human qualities, we're left with an instinctive killing machine. The film's special effects are spectacular, especially as the goopy-blob gets larger and larger. The story doesn't get distracted (for too long, anyways) with this "teens versus authority" sub-plot, which gives it that upfront relatability, making us sympathetic to Steve and Jane as they tear through town trying to convince anyone who will listen, but makes a nice shift to everyone working together.

It took me 20 years to re-watch this movie, remembering how traumatic it was for me as a little girl. What's scarier than a creepy blob that can squeeze right under your bedroom door?!? This is quintessential nuclear-area sci-fi gold, with that delicious kind of ominous ending that promises to deliver so much more. A classic tailor-made for giving little kids nightmares.

Rating: ★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Hulu Plus
Seen Before: Yes

108 / 365: White God (2015)
© Magnolia Pictures

After catching the trailer for this Hungarian film, the country's official submission for Foreign Language Oscar consideration last year, before a screening of Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter, I couldn't get the visuals out of my head. Touting the love between a young girl and her dog, and the trauma of separation, I was gripped by emotion and no small amount of trepidation. Films about animals, particularly dogs, tend to bring on the tears in a visceral and unpleasant way—but my curiosity could not be sated. I had to see it.

When 12-year-old Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is sent to live with her stoic father, Dániel (Sándor Zsótér), one summer while her mother goes to a conference in Australia, she brings along her beloved dog, Hagen, much to her father's dismay. Faced with paying a tax on the mixed-breed dog or taking him to a shelter, Dániel ignores Lili's request to keep Hagen safe and drops him off on the street in an abandoned part of town, forcing the pup to fend for himself. At this point the story splits into two parts: Lili's desperate but fruitless attempts to track down her best friend all while rebelling against her uncaring father, and Hagen's exploration of the frightening under-belly of society that rejects or takes advantage of unwanted, "un-pure" dogs. What starts as a fight to survive quickly becomes an uprising of epic, vengeful proportions as Hagen discovers that the only way to get back home is to fight his way there.

This is not your childhood Homeward Bound. Don't be fooled by the promise of a heartfelt reunion, at least not one without a lot of upsetting blood-shed—dog and human—in between. To say this movie riddled me with anxiety would a gross understatement of the facts. The moment Hagen, who is played by twin dogs Body and Luke, is cruelly left on the roadside, I could only watch with bated breath, peeking between my fingers. Despite my fear of what would happen to Hagen, however, the film is transformative in so many unexpected ways. While Lili's story is integral to how the film ends (and a necessity to show that there's still someone out there who gives a crap about what happens to this dog), the film belongs to Hagen. Gentle and affectionate, he is not meant for a life on the street, but to survive, he must adapt. Between escaping from dog-catchers (in a scene reminiscent of Lady and the Tramp, including an adorable sidekick) and enduring the escalated trauma of training to be in the dog fighting ring (a sharp shift in the vein of Amores Perros), Hagen learns the way of the world—and it's a world he doesn't like.

The gift of the film is the transition to the fantastical element, which bookends the story. The opening sequence, a frantic Lili racing on her bike through the abandoned streets of Budapest, with 200 barking dogs, led by Hagen, in hot pursuit, is a glance at the film's climax and sets the stage for the violent escalation of things to come. Laced with a stark political perspective, a clear condemnation of the city—and the world's—treatment of innocent animals, the tables turn when the victims become the victors... and they victimize their captors. From beginning to end, the story of White God is difficult to watch—but it feels like a necessary twist of the knife to endure. As a protagonist, Hagen might be one of the strongest live-action animal characters ever to grace the screen; his story so rich with growth, personality, and trials. I was compelled by him, but also terrified. We're reminded how the brutality inside an animal is learned from humans, the most corrupt animal of all. While I may never be able to watch this film again, it would be a disservice to what it accomplished to not recommend it to everyone I possibly can. See White God, but accept right now that it won't be easy.

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

Monday, May 11, 2015

Music Mondays: "The Blob" Theme Song (1958)

Have any of you ever seen the original sci-fi horror movie The Blob? While my review for that is coming up later today (or tomorrow, who am I to make promises?), I couldn't resist sharing with you all one of the most ridiculous, out-of-place, but still incredible opening credit theme songs in any science fiction movie ever. The Blob Theme Song speaks to me on so many levels, maybe because of the boogie-beach sound, and made the movie that follows that much more delightful. A little tidbit about the track from Turner Classic Movies:

Paramount added a theme song by two unknown songwriters named Burt Bacharach and Mack David. The song was performed by The Five Blobs (which was actually just vocalist Bernie Nee overdubbing himself) and spent three weeks in the Top 40 late in 1958.

Imaging this song playing on Top 40 radio today fills me with pure delight. If you've ever—or never!—seen this movie, I hope that listening to this track will prompt you to make an appointment with your television ASAP. And hey! The movie is available to stream on Hulu Plus. Lucky you!

Artist: The Five Blobs
Song: "The Blob Theme Song"
Album: The Blob Soundtrack

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

AFI Top 100: #63 "Cabaret"

Liza Minnelli in Cabaret (1972)

An epic return to our AFI Top 100 countdown, after several weeks away, brings us director/choreographer Bob Fosse's film adaptation of the stage musical Cabaret, roaring in at #63, the only modern (post-1970s) musical to grace the list. The music by John Kander creates the stage for a truly groundbreaking film, simultaneously subtle and overt, told in Fosse's own dark, twisted style.

The story of lives that intersect at a burlesque cabaret in Germany during the early 1930s, at the time of the Weimar Republic and the dawn of Nazism. Hitler is only years from taking complete power, and the scene is wild with liberal-minded travelers, financial uncertainty, and dangerous free love between the sexes. Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) is the hypnotic American star at our depraved cabaret, the Kit Kat Klub, who meets British professor Brian Roberts (Michael York) when he rents a room in the same apartment as her. While Brian's sexual tastes lean more towards the masculine, the two begin a friendship that blossoms into a sort of sexual and emotional comfort. Their desperate battle to find happiness and security with another soul drives their sequestered and narrow world-view. As Brian navigates Sally's vain neurosis alongside his own insecurities, neither lover notices the political change happening slowly and steadily around them.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Music Mondays: The Struts "Could Have Been Me"

Nothing feels more right than sharing this unapologetic rock anthem on a Monday afternoon... I just heard The Struts (and this song, specifically) on the radio randomly last week, and immediately pulled out Shazam to capture the details. I'd never heard of this UK-based band, and I immediately latched onto lead singer Luke Spiller's voice, which has too many elements of the brilliant Freddie Mercury to ignore. Their 80s rock-glam style is also enough to get me all kinds of excited about these guys. Besides, I can never resist a bit of rock'n'roll androgyny, since I get a Joan Jett vibe from Spiller, too.

Even though this song, "Could Have Been Me," acme out back in 2013 in the UK, it's starting to actually get a bit of play here in the US, and I can't wait to see their star rise on this side of the pond. Check them out, I know you'll be as transfixed by them as I am!

Artist: The Struts
Song: "Could Have Been Me" | download | stream
Album: Everybody Wants [Import]

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Project 365: Movies 99 - 104

© HBO Documentary Films

The film begins with a cacophony of sound, of audio from participants talking about the practices, revealing secrets and passions and horrors committed. Immediately, you're overwhelmed, fascinated, and curious. For those of us in the dark about what we are about to watch, there's a bit of confusion that swells. Expert and frantic editing shows Tom Cruise (in archive footage) giving a very public salute to a painting of L. Ron Hubbard, and then we're off to the races. A history of Scientology, beginning with an examination of the life of Hubbard, and spiraling into an indictment of epic proportions.

Based on the now infamous investigative bestseller by Lawrence Wright, writer/director Alex Gibney reconstructs the revelations of the book in alarmingly intricate detail. The Church of Scientology has been the subject of many a tell-all, and many a joke, over that last 60 years since its official creation in 1952. Creator, L Ron Hubbard (who gives off Kim Jong-Il/"Supreme Leader" creepiness to the nth degree), was a disgraced war veteran, prone to invention and fabrication. A sci-fi pulp writer in the 30s and 40s, his creative mind compelled him to "make money" the only way he knew how: start a religion.

What follows is a jaw-dropping, step-by-step account, through interviews with former high-ranking executives within this cult-like "church," of the money-gauging, insane teachings of a man so delusional and so paranoid, he developed a system of "enlightenment" that can only be described as a dissent into madness. The film is sensational to a degree that would normally highlight the filmmakers' bias, but is so informative, laying out more fact than opinion about what the church itself teaches and promotes, it's quite literally impossible not to be swayed. The reveals are clutch-your-pearls shocking, and the abuses perpetrated by this tax-exempt (granted as of 1993) institution—and their blatant attempts to hide it through intimidation and threats—is enough to incite anger in even the most complacent person.

I commend HBO for airing this documentary, almost as much as I commend Wright for writing the book and Gibney for the film. To get into the weeds and details of what this film reveals would be redundant, and whirlpool recount that could only serve to muddy this review. Going Clear is daring, eye-opening, and in the end, horribly tragic. It must be seen (or if preferred, read) to be believed. To the people entrenched in the world of Scientology, those at the highest level have almost no way out... all the way up to the current head of the church, the terrifying David Miscavige, pity begins to override our hatred. They are all prisoners of the fancies of L. Ron Hubbard. There is hope, however, as the veil gets lifted, people once too brainwashed to leave see the light and escape, the 'church' loses its power. Thought-provoking, revealing, and wholly necessary viewing.

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

100 / 365: Fat Girl (2001)
© Criterion Collection

I've always been intrigued by movies about teenage sisters that don't take a Disney-fied approach to their relationship. These formative years are frustrating and emotional, and Fat Girl brought together these ideas in, what I thought, would be a darker and more refreshing way. Titled À ma sœur! for its original release in France (translated to "For My Sister"), the film introduces us to 12-year old, Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux), an overly plump, insecure girl, and her 15-year-old, flirtatious and stunning sister, Elena (Roxane Mesquida). On holiday in the south of France, Elena spends her days reluctantly and cruelly dragging Anaïs around, to appease their oblivious parents, as she flirts with any man or boy who smiles at her. When she meets Fernando (Libero De Rienzo), an Italian college student on holiday, Elena starts to explore her sexuality with little regard to Anaïs, who is there to witness it all unfold.

Director Catherine Breillat, constructs a troubling, albeit compelling, film about underage sexuality—all told from the perspective of young girls. They are worldly yet naive, which makes them have frank conversations about sex, all while deluding themselves into thinking they know anything about it at all. Breillat also doesn't care that you're uncomfortable when you're watching her movies; in fact, she clearly expects it. I was a huge fan of her movie that preceded this one, Romance, and while it's equally shocking in its pornographic and stark storytelling, it doesn't involve kids... so immediately, I prefer it to Fat Girl.

Not to say that the sisters in this film didn't offer a remarkable dynamic. They vacillate between love and hate for one another, their bond unbreakable, however marred by jealousy, disgust, or disdain. They're too young to recognize the damage either is doing to the other—and while they're hyper-aware of each other, they couldn't be any less aware of themselves. Elena's sexual awakening is also, by proxy, Anaïs'. And one is certainly more ready for it than the other, and it's probably not who you'd guess. This aspect of the film drew me in, even though it didn't come off as particularly original, save a few truly honest interactions between the girls that were quite refreshing. Their late-night chat/snuggle/giggle-fest comes to mind.

But then, something happens to this otherwise simple, boring-but-I'm-totally-still-with-it movie about ten minuets before it ends. After the girls' mother pulls the plug on their vacation, having discovered Elena's indiscretions, we're left to endure this arduous sequence of erratic car driving and lane changes... all leading up to an ending that is, by far, the most inexplicably bizarre, out of nowhere, is this really happening?!?! pile of, well, garbage. I was so ready to begrudgingly tip my hat to Breillet and our young actresses for giving it the ol' college try, but then I can't. I just... can't. If you're curious, look up the ending somewhere. You'll save yourself a lot of head-scratching and gaped mouths.

Rating: ★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Hulu Plus
Seen Before: No

101 / 365: Chronos (1993)
© Criterion Collection

After Fat Girl (reviewed above) left such a bad taste in my mouth, I needed to cleanse my palette with something refreshing—and frankly, actually worth my time. To wash away that 'stank' feeling, famed director Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth) tackles his very first vampire film. A unique and emotional take on the expansive vampire genre, Cronos incorporates del Toro's signature auteur style by combining the biological with the mechanical to create a truly grotesque and beautiful horror story.

The myth of forever life begins with a narrator describing the work of an alchemist in the 17th century. Known to be working on a special device that could regenerate his life, the alchemist is discovered hundreds of years later when a building collapses on top of him, and he no longer looks like a man, but an other-worldly monster. The device itself is never found, that is until an elderly antique dealer, Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi), discovers the metal, bug-like contraption at the base of an old arch angel statue in his shop. When an oafish thug, Angel (Ron Perlman), comes looking for the statue on behalf of his abusive, dying uncle, De la Guardia (Claudio Brook), who is in possession of the alchemists old diary and knows what the statue holds, Jesus hides the chronos device and unknowingly uses it on himself.

As Jesus discovers the secrets of the chronos by latching it directly to his body, he begins to feel the positive and negative affects of injecting himself with everlasting life. Through all of this, De la Guardia instructs Angel to track the Chronos down by any means necessary, and Jesus' young granddaughter, Aurora (Tamara Shanath), voicelessly watches her grandfather's growing addiction and growing thirst for blood.

The beauty of this film is its unconventional protagonist. Jesus' age and lack of interest in living forever makes him unique, as does the loving relationship with his leading lady, the young Aurora. On top of that, nobody knows how to build in religious symbolism like Guillermo del Toro, who has a style all his own, and this is the quintessential example of his brilliant mind. I see so many similarities in his storytelling here to what he did with his most recent venture into vampire lore, FX's "The Strain" (which you should be watching if you're not already). Chronos just does everything right, and the imagery is some that you'll never forget. Jesus licking blood off of a bathroom floor isn't the only visual you won't be able to shake.

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

102 / 365: Saved! (2004)

Sometimes you just want to watch a movie that you've seen a million times. I have a grouping of five or so movies that, when I'm burnt out on art house flicks or can't think of a new title to enjoy, I pop in one of these no-brainers. Saved! is on that list, and has been for over a decade. Cute, clever, and a little bit quaint, you get an easy-going movie experience that serves the heartfelt message up on a platter, as well as some tasty, anti-bully justice.

Mary (Jena Malone) attends a born-again, young-n-hip Christian high school. She's part of the most popular group in school, the Christian Jewels, led by subversively mean but influential Jesus-lover, Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore, in the role that proves how great an actress she really is). All of this changes when Mary's perfect boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust), reveals to her that he's gay, and she has a vision from Jesus that tells her to help Dean in whatever way she can, even if that means sex before marriage. Now, as senior year begins and Dean gets sent away for "therapy," Mary learns that she's pregnant and begins to question everything that her school—and friends—preach to her as the truth.

This is the movie where I learned to appreciate Jena Malone. Mary is a wonderfully sweet character, and her exploration of the relationships in her life grow and shape her into an independent young woman. Moore's Hilary Faye is paramount to that terrifying but all-too-familiar "rich bitch/fake nice girl" that every school has. Her manipulation of every adult and every student dying to be just as popular as her make her a formidable villain. She is the Christian Regina George. On the opposite side of the spectrum are Mary's saving graces: Roland (Macaulay Culkin), Hilary Faye's wheelchair-bound, atheist older brother, and Cassandra (Eva Amurri), the only "Jewish" at the school whose rebellious tendencies fuel Hilary Faye's obsession with getting her "saved." These two steal the whole movie. Their relationship, and their friendship that develops with the ostracized and demoralized Mary, is what gives the movie that little something more.

After 10+ years of watching it, Saved! never gets old, despite how dated all their clothes are looking (in another 10 years, we'll see all those looks come back around again, right?). I still rejoice in watching Hilary Faye get her comeuppance, and chuckle with delight when Roland dresses up like a roller skate for Halloween. And at the base of it all is a story about being true to yourself, and learning to understand what love, compassion, and acceptance really mean.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: DVD
Seen Before: Yes (100 times)

103 / 365: The Avengers (2012)
© Disney Studios

It became imperative about 3 hours before heading to the release of this summer's biggest superhero movie (see review below) that I needed to revisit what brought all our favorite heroes together. The Avengers is dripping with personality, and easily my second favorite Marvel Universe film to date (nothing beats the seamless enjoyability of 2008's Iron Man, Marvel's premiere event). I consider myself, at best, a a comic book novice—and at worst, woefully ignorant of all things Avengers—but even I have to admit that every Marvel release deserves to be touted as a major movie event.

The first film to assemble the unstoppable Avengers, ever-changing in the comic book world, but here and now, includes Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow, Captain America, Thor, and, eventually, Hawkeye. Each individual standalone film, every introductory origin story and fight to save the world, beginning with Iron Man and continuing through Captain America: The First Avenger, all lead up this. A story so action-packed, there just wasn't any time for unnecessary back story—just battle sequences, fun and games, and Joss Whedon's amazing dialogue.

The saga begins when Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the demi-god and Thor's adopted brother from Asgard, transports through a portal created by the powerful Tesseract being held by S.H.I.E.L.D. When Loki steals it to open a larger portal to bring an army of destruction to Earth, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) calls upon his team to bring together the world's greatest superheroes to save the day. Joss Whedon has such high regard for these characters and the stories surrounding them, he creates an intelligent and balanced story that never under-utilizes any character, despite incorporating more than enough star power.

The film's best moments come from the playful banter or petty in-fighting between our heroes. Tony Stark's beef with Steve Rogers (Capt. America), but love for Bruce Banner (Hulk), is hilarious and memorable. A lot of time is spent bringing these characters together, introducing them to each other as they overcome their egos and learn to work together for a common goal. With so many personalities, it's a wonder the plot doesn't get lost behind all the quips and showboating. Credit for that really belongs to Hiddleston's Loki. Loki is the perfect, charismatic villain, like the Hans Gruber of the Marvel world. Scarlet Johansson as Black Widow also provides the much needed break from testosterone as her previously unknown back story (the only exception to the "no need for back story" approach) comes to light.

Gorgeous, focused, and solidly written, The Avengers integrates endless action with memorable gems that add so much to each hero—personality traits they can (and did) take with them into their own franchises. The possibilities for this series are endless, and it's good to see Marvel not cutting any corners where it counts.

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

104 / 365: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
© Disney Studios

Opening this weekend was a little movie you may have heard of, the kick-off to the summer blockbuster season, and writer/director Joss Whedon's second, and final (for now), foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. No time is wasted as we jump right into the action, the team (Black Widow, Iron Man, Thor, Cap, Hawkeye, and the green guy) descends upon the final, secluded HYDRA base to collect Loki's scepter, learn their secrets, and shut the place down. They get out clean, but not before seeing what HYDRA's human experiments, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron-Taylor Johnson), aka the Maximoff twins, have up their sleeves.

Back at home, Tony convinces Bruce Banner to tap into the power of the scepter when he discovers its components resemble a computer program more complex than JARVIS, Stark's own prized creation and artificial intelligence phenom. Is a more advanced AI possible? Could this mean peace for all mankind? Science fiction history would say emphatically "no." Regardless, Tony and Bruce tinker in secret, to no avail, until the harmless AI program finishes writing itself, implanting into the internet and building itself an iron form. This is Ultron (voiced by my favorite, James Spader). He is cold, vengeful, and bent on destruction. Tony's creation has turned against them all, and it's up to the team to discover Ultron's final plans, track him down, and defeat him before it's too late. That is, if they can trust each other.

Ultron is granted some wonderful Whedon-esque lines in the vein of Tony Stark (who of course gets the most), which gives him personality right from the get-go and links him with his creator, much to his chagrin. He's assertive and hasty, calculating so quickly it throws everyone off balance leading Ultron to get the better of them immediately. Suddenly, for the first time, they're out of their league, even when you take into account the formidable but lovable-despite-himself Loki. How do you fight a program?

The Avengers is where our heroes came together, but Age of Ultron is where they learn how to be a team. Trust becomes a major issue—the defining issue, in point of fact—as it is in any relationship worth sustaining. Tony Stark's secrecy to further his own ambitions and feed his hubris, however well-intentioned, leads to troubling consequences for not just the world, but the Avengers personally. The potential disbanding of this unbeatable group puts everyone at risk, and rises above the petty bickering and ego that littered the first film's most memorable moments. That was never something they wouldn't get past, always rallying to come together to defeat [insert evil here]. This time around, though, it edges on insurmountable. Stakes are higher, and there are moments where you really believe they might not be able to work together to do what needs to be done.

Whedon makes sacrifices, probably necessary, in other areas to commit the bare minimum amount of time needed to give everyone the development they may not have gotten in their other films. The prime example being Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who shifts quickly from being that one-dimensional, glassy-eyed, sharp-shooter to an actual person, maybe the only one with a real life outside of this hero business. Whedon went so far as to give him some of the films most inspirational moments, which is something Hawkeye—and Renner—should thank their lucky stars for.

Coming back around to those sacrifices, though, Whedon commits to telling this expansive, global story knowing full well "travel time" wouldn't be a top priority when piecing this thing together. Characters slip in and out of action sequences, hop from South Korea to New York and back over to Eastern Europe in the time it takes to go to the bathroom, and in the process, the movie feels far less grounded (finale battle sequence pun intended). More than once I asked myself, "Wait, how much time has passed?" and that only served to undermine any newly introduced characters. Ultron and the Maximoff twins might be fun and exciting additions to the Universe, but motivations run a bit thin and we're expected to buy into their whims without question. The only time this model works is (SPOILER ALERT!) for the beautifully constructed, well-timed introduction of the Vision (Paul Bettany) right before the movie's climatic final battle. Whedon made some decisions for the action that spoke so much louder than words, it might be his and the film's most successful moment.

Without hesitation, I can say this was a fun and wild ride. The final act really takes the cake here, and while the set up for things to come isn't quite as compelling as it was in the previous film, there's still so much more to look forward to. The Avengers, as a team, won't be confined to just the movies named for them moving forward, and that, in and of itself, is an exciting prospect.

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