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

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