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

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