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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