Friday, June 26, 2015

Mojave Daze

It's been a slow week here on the blog, and the weekend, I'm hoping, will be even slower. Taking a much needed break to visit the heat of the desert, and I'm reminded of the strange, eerie beauty of the Mojave as we pass by the towering yucca trees and heat-laden shrubs on our way to the outskirts of Las Vegas.

The weather is already unforgiving, but it feels refreshing and revitalizing, nonetheless. Enjoy this weekend, everyone—oh, and in case you hadn't heard the news...


(photo via Andriana Baker)

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Movie Review: "Dope" (2015)

© Open Road Films

Have you ever watched a movie and wished it had less plot? Most of the time, a lack of plot is a major detriment—characters interacting aimlessly while nothing of note ever happens. One exception to this rule, off the top of my head, is Clueless, which successfully forges through an entire story in which meeting and watching the characters is enough to keep us coming back for more. A plot is secondary at best, and distracting at worst.

What I mean to say here is that I wish Dope, in theaters now, was more "Clueless in the 'hood" than "Mad cap drug caper." Overladen with various plots of vacillating importance, the most interesting aspect of Dope's delightful cinematic approach is its characters, not its conflicts. These characters, highlighted colorfully in the film's trailer, suggested a film full of fish-out-of-water fun about a group of high school friends living in the Inglewood neighborhood, the Bottoms. Self-proclaimed "geeks" obsessed with 90's hip-hop culture, they navigate their crime-ridden neighborhood with seasoned humor, rocking old school fashions, listening to vintage vinyl, playing in a punk/hip-hop band, and getting good grades.

The mere idea of following these three kids around for two hours of personality revealing hijinks was enough to get us all into the theater. It surprised me to learn that this uncomplicated but unique concept was then shoehorned into a rag-tag plot about innovative drug trafficking and bitcoins. The expectations set up in the first 20 minutes were immediately sidestepped as our hero, Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his two delightful friends, Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori), find themselves in possession of three bags of the street drug "Molly", getting in over their heads right quick. As a result, the characterizations—so carefully constructed and masterfully portrayed (I especially fell in love with Diggy's androgyny)—were tossed aside while Malcolm figured out just what he was gonna do with all this dope. Oh, and still ensure he gets into Harvard.

That's not to say I didn't enjoy it. I did; a lot, in fact. Mainly because the dialogue between this group of friends and the people they meet is whip-smart. A$ap Rocky's appearance as an unlucky drug dealer was wonderful, but it was right after his introduction and immediate departure that the movie takes a left turn, never getting back on track. It gets distracted trying to do too much, too fast. Story lines branch off from each other willy-nilly, never to intersect again. Zoë Kravitz makes her way into Malcolm's life as his long-time crush and A$ap Rocky's girl, but with the plot taking Malcolm into completely new directions all the time, trying to keep her engaged with him comes off forced and awkward. It also takes Moore away from the winning dynamic established with Clemons and Revolori, despite their encouraging him to get alone time with her when he can. Giving Malcolm a love interest doesn't make his story more interesting, and it certainly doesn't help the film.

There are these special moments where you think "Maybe we're getting back to the fun stuff...", like when the group starts jamming with a wealthy wannabe producer (maybe they're about to find quirky music fame?), or when they brainstorm computer hacking with Blake Anderson, but all of these moments and plot off-shoots are short-lived, never explored. Why even tease us like that if it doesn't matter in the long run? The main plot's random segways take away from what is most enjoyable about the film.

Dope won't be taken down by its flaws, though, and it will enjoy a lot of love from audiences for bringing a fresh perspective to an otherwise cliche story. And even with its wholly satisfying ending, I just can't shake that it's too bad they went with that story at all.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars

Monday, June 22, 2015

Music Mondays: Rachel Platten "Fight Song"

Who are we kidding? I would be lying if I admitted to listening to even a single other song in the past week! On heavy rotation, as I file through an endless stream of movie reviews, emails, and work (so much work!), the adorable Rachel Platten's debut single, "Fight Song", has been ringing fiercely in my ears. And there is no end in sight, because it is pure, pop gold.

I'm sure you've heard it on the radio, though I don't think it's gotten the play that it soon will. Prepare yourself, you'll be sick of this song in a month, but until then, enjoy it! It's a Kelly Clarkson-esque power anthem. The very best kind.


Artist: Rachel Platten
Song: "Fight Song" | download
Album: Fight Song EP | stream

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Movie Review: "Set Fire to the Stars" (US, 2015)

© Strand Releasing

Like a jazz concert that begins with an impromptu jam session, playful and improvised, right before the rhythm sets in, this account of renowned Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas', first US tour is as lyrical and curious as the man himself. What it lacks, however, is the dynamo energy that the rambunctious Thomas was known for, hitting the wrong notes in a failed attempt to limit the focus. Portrayed beautifully by the script's co-writer, Celyn Jones, Dylan is injected with copious amounts of mystery and fascination, draining the film and other characters of any at all.

Set in 1950 at the tale end of Thomas' life, John Brinnan (Elijah Wood), invites the infamous poet to the States for a series of readings, ignoring the warnings that Thomas might be too much trouble for bow-tied, buttoned-up poetry professor to handle. Determined to deliver this boozy and aggressive legend to the sold-out speaking engagements as promised, John scoops Thomas out of Manhattan and into a backwoods Connecticut cabin in hopes of sobering him up—and, perhaps, get to know the man behind the words.

The humor and playfulness of the beginning was like a real-life Get Him to the Greek, but it quickly changed course, veering into Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? territory—without far less quirky charm. On more than one occasion, the script edges on hokey, with John asking Dylan desperate things like "From what spring does it pour?" in response to Thomas' poetic musings. It just wasn't relatable, and that's a problem when it comes to who John was meant to be in the story: all of us. Despite Celyn Jones' embodiment of this character, he doesn't have an equal partner in Woods. The character of John Brinnan is a conundrum, as he struggles to balance his fandom with the frustration of this absolute stranger ruining his life.

That in and of itself should have been enough to relate us to him, but in actuality, Brinnan is written as a mysterious character you never feel compelled to know. When he's not being a doormat, he's being a bully, highlighted in his odd insistence that Thomas open a letter received from his wife. All combined, it is enough to derail the momentum of the story. It doesn't help that the upfront promise of the film revolved around the importance of the speaking tour, which was dismissed pretty readily when the events actually occur.

There is one exception, though, a balance to the madness Jones brings to his role. Andy Goddard directs a visually stunning film, shot in Ingmar Bergman-like black and white. He and Jones co-wrote the film together, and it's clear that their vision served to compliment one another's roles. There is also a memorable house party sequence (again, reminiscent of Virginia Woolf), featuring Shirley Henderson with an American accent telling a ghost story bathed in lantern light. A standout, to say the least, but it still contributes to the lack of consistency in the film as a whole. Dylan Thomas is too interesting a figure to be limited by this restrictive movie.

Rating: ★★ / 5 stars

Friday, June 19, 2015

Movie Review: "Inside Out" (2015)

© Disney Pixar

WARNING: Come prepared with tissues a-plenty. Just don't use them all during the 8-minute short, Lava, that precedes the movie in theaters. Both bring the feels, mostly in the form of gushing tears.

Disney Pixar's newest venture is another foray into an imaginary world where abstract concepts are anthropomorphized. Inside each and every one of us lives a series of emotions. These emotions define who we are, affecting our memories and actions. Essentially, they are the drivers behind the wheel of a person-mobile. This film focuses on Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), an 11-year-old girl who picks up and moves from Minnesota to San Francisco with her adoring parents. She, like the rest of the world, is inhabited by five distinct emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). Luckily for Miss Riley, Joy has been at the driver's seat for much of their lives, defining Riley's happy childhood. That is until the big move, when Sadness accidentally touches Riley's core memories. In an attempt to make the now sad memories happy again, Joy and Sadness inadvertently get expelled from Headquarters, and must venture through the endless corridors of Riley's mind before everything that made Riley "Riley" disappears forever.

The world created is magnificently realized, creative in a way that we have now come to expect from Pixar. It was clever, though it doesn't deliver the surprised delight it may once have. We're spoiled now, I guess. Regardless, it has a depth that at first feels profound, but begins to edge on devastating; almost traumatic. It shouldn't surprise anyone that a movie about emotions—and how they develop, reorganize, change, and sometimes cripple—would be so damn emotional. But the comedic personalities granted these characters isn't quite enough to soften the sting of ebbing pain and depression. Inside Out constructs it all so beautifully, but is it maybe too much to expect children, or even some adults, to handle? I'm not sure. I love a good cry, so it was right up my alley.

The concept more or less instigates further thought and analysis, but it doesn't quite welcome it. And you'll do it whether you want to or not. You can't help but imagine what the inside of everyone else's minds look like. When you do see that, it's comedic and lighthearted, meant to prompt a good laugh, but it wouldn't always be that way. I found myself thinking a lot about that, distracted at the notion that there are kids out there with far less joy than Riley, and how dismal that story would have looked. I know, I know, it's not this story, so it shouldn't matter. But I couldn't help it—the idea leaked in and wouldn't wash away, even now.

**POSSIBLE SPOILERS** For the story that we were watching, though, it was frustrating to endure a character like Joy, so blind to the importance of other emotions. You see how it's supposed to be, through the other minds, the emotions sharing equal space at the table. Along with the emotional imbalance (which granted, is the definition of teenage-hood), the plot lends itself to that slogging feeling. Like a video game level where you grind and grind, for what feels like days, never getting anywhere... that is the journey of Joy and Sadness. Battling to get back to Headquarters—which is seriously right there!—but failing miserably to make progress in getting there. Admittedly, while this is a tedious aspect of the film, it's also the key component in delivering on the cathartic finale.

In the end, the movie was really stolen by Phyllis Smith as Sadness. She is, far and away, the most interesting and tragic character in the film. Her story takes a slightly predictable but no less spectacular turn, and I felt myself drawn to her plight as the seemingly unwanted part of Riley's mind. Inside Out has "Pixar Classic" written all over it, but it may fall into the "watch once" column for me, just like Up did. It's hard to feel this gut-punch-pain willingly, no matter how beautiful the film.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars

Thursday, June 18, 2015

AFI Top 100: #58 "The Gold Rush"

Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush (1925)

Nearing the halfway point of our AFI Top 100 journey, we've reached the second of three classic films starring Charlie Chaplin featured on the list. Coming in at #58, The Gold Rush is unique in Chaplin's filmography in that it was the first film the writer/actor/producer/director extraordinaire made that had a completed script before filming even began. Known for his improvisations on set, the scope of this massive project forced him to plan out everything in great detaileven though his aspirations to shoot on site in the frozen Alaskan wilderness were never [for the most part] realized.

Chaplin once again embodies his iconic "Little Tramp" character, this time portraying a Lone Prospector who travels to the Alaskan Klondike during the mad gold rush at the turn of the 20th century, hoping to strike it rich. Wholly unequipped to brave the dangerous winter, our patch-suit dressed tramp stumbles upon a couple of burly, brazen men with similar goals, both of whom have a better handle on navigating this harsh landscape. Well, sort of. Comically leeching onto their less-than-enthusiastic help, the men attempt to survive the elements, the wildlife, and the cold. Throughout his journey and after experiencing more than enough failure for a lifetime, the Prospector falls in love with vibrant chorus girl, Georgia (Georgia Hale), and attempts to woo her in his naive, but hopefully determined way.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Project 365: Movies 135 - 141

135 / 365: Jurassic World (2015)
© Universal Pictures

There are 20 minutes total of this epic fourth-quel that truly warrants a response of childlike glee and wonder. First, the moment young Gray (Ty Simpkins) pushes through the crowd excitedly as he and his bummer older brother, Zach (Nick Robinson) enter Jurassic World for the first time, Gray's face beaming, ignoring the littered product placement and only noticing the grand scope of inconceivable beauty. Their hotel balcony doors sweep open to reveal the crackling energy of honest-to-golly dinosaurs, and the people who love them below—all of this through the eyes of a genuinely gobsmacked child. Second, the spectacularly intense, CGI-glittered climax—a clusterf*ck of gargantuan, Dinosaur battling proportions that made even the most critical, finger-wagging among us pee a little in our seats from awe.

The stark difference between these moments and the intense, gripping memory of the original film is this: Jurassic World is a movie where the optimism of childhood is validated; Jurassic Park is a movie where the skepticism of adulthood is obliterated. While the former is satisfying, there is nothing more cathartic than experiencing the latter. It is why Jurassic Park, all the way back in 1993, will remain one of the greatest films of all time. It is pure magic. Replicating it on any scale will only come off as fruitlessly desperate, regardless of how close the movie comes.

Sadly, aside from the aforementioned 20 minutes, Jurassic World doesn't even come close. In this story that takes place 20 years after the events of Park, the theme park has opened and new exhibits need to be opened every few years to keep people interested. A confounding notion, but whatever. The lab geeks pool together some spliced genes, and viola! New dinosaur of mysterious makeup, the Indominus Rex, comes into being. With 21K+ people visiting the island, it's only a matter of time before this creature breaks free and starts gobbling people up. World recycles tropes from the first three films, but not the ones that it should. Lost children that need to be rescued, Dino vs. Vehicle battles, snarky control room technicians (Jake Johnson almost stole the movie from the Raptors), all of these are melded into the film to remind us that we're in the right place, but it was all for naught. Because of how the film's most important characters are written, this movie becomes an embarrassing, sci-fi version of Romancing the Stone, but with slightly more reptiles.

Bryce Dallas Howard plays Claire, a stereotype of the modern woman, written with such heavy-handed sexism that her workaholic, heartless demeanor is quite literally berated and ridiculed by every other character in the film. Only women who hate children, animals, men, and fun could ever rise to such a prominent position like Operations Manager of a Dinosaur theme park, right? But don't worry, all she needs is the love of a good, down-to-earth man (this is where ex-Navy Seal/raptor trainer Owen, played by Chris Pratt, comes in) and a reminder that children are our future, and that cold heart will melt into a puddle of motherly warmth, promising career be damned. Add in Claire's sister (Judy Greer) calling to give her the "When you have children" vs "If you have children" lecture, and it's just the icing on the sexist cake. The biggest issue here isn't even that they wrote a character like Claire—it's that they didn't realize they didn't even need to. The story doesn't need it at all. She could have been Laura Dern-level capable, overseen all of Jurassic World, and still given her little munchkin nephew a hug without grimacing. No one would have questioned her authority. But instead, she was a soulless hag devoid of passion or curiosity, until Pratt loosens her up, of course. Offensive and distracting, it can't be ignored.

It's unfortunate, too, because there was so much fun to be had here. And I enjoyed a lot of it, despite the issues. Chris Pratt was delightful, as usual, and watching the Raptor sequences were mini-highlights. There were human and dinosaur villains alike, which is a necessary part of this franchise, and it all played out pretty on point, even when I longed for more puppetry, less VFX. The music theme sting popped in at just the right moments, and when we stumbled upon the sky-high, ivy-laden doors of the old deserted park site, I felt a tear momentarily well up. Too bad that high didn't last.

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

136 / 365: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
© Warner Bros.

I've gotten into more than enough fights with people, coming to this film's defense as a "feel good" movie. Sure, an young orphan gets his eyes burned out of his head, but only one. That's not a bad ratio, considering how many kids are in this. In all seriousness though, there is magic in this movie. Danny Boyle is up there in my top five directors ever, and it's because all of his movies possess this quality, no matter the grittiness or gravitas. He creates stories about unspectacular people experiencing spectacular things.

This story follows the unbelievable life of Jamal, who finds himself competing on the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?," making it further than anyone has made it before. The film unfolds as Jamal (Dev Patel), thought to be a cheater, is intercepted mid-show and interrogated by the Police Inspector (Irrfan Khan). How he knew the answers creates the road map to his life's defining events, which he recounts in detail, from his childhood in the slums of Bombay with his older brother, Salim, to his eventual search for the love of his life in modern Mumbai.

A major complaint I've heard from people about this movie is just how convenient it all seems. How convenient it is that Jamal's asked the questions he's asked, and they just happen to be in chronological order, illustrating the most defining moments of his past. And all I can say in response to that is: Yeah. That's sort of the point of the movie, isn't it? The idea that his future is written, his fate is sealed, and everything that has ever happened to him has led up to this. one. moment. Isn't that a beautifully thing, a film without any irony? It is touching and it is spectacular, and Danny Boyle constructs a story rich with music, danger, laughter, joy, and sadness. Tragic and hopeful, exactly what it aimed to be. The three actors who play Jamal are honest, as are the young talents who play tortured Salim and the pessimistic Latika. They do justice to the material.

The construction of each piece is flawless. The editing is sharp and creative, highlighting the fantasy of the film but never forgetting the importance of the story. It doesn't shy away from the difficult things. The cinematography, the writing, the music, every component is near perfect. It also ends with my favorite closing credits sequence, one that I've watched more times than the actual movie. Slumdog won the Best Picture Oscar in 2008, sure, but it's the music and the signature song, "Jai Ho" that sticks with me each and every time I see it. This Bollywood dance sequence is a representation of how the entire movie makes me feel: Pure happiness.

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

137 / 365: Sharknado (2013, TV Movie)
© Syfy

Likely the most inconceivably bad movie that stars more than one person you've actually heard of. A hurricane off the coast of Los Angeles pushes all of the sharks in the Pacific Ocean inland, and as the waters rise in the streets, the sharks take to the streets and attack! Oh, and as the winds pick the water up in a flurry, they take a bunch of sharks with them, dropping them like hungry daggers from the sky. Bar owner and all around good-guy, Fin Shepard (Ian Ziering), senses the dangers as a giant storm approaches, and with this group of bar friends/co-workers, who witness the first wave of shark attacks, sets out towards Beverly Hills, then the Valley, to rescue his family without getting EATEN BY SHARKS!

Okay, so this might be the greatest intro summary I've ever written for a movie. It may even be the best idea for a flick, period, even beating out my own B-movie idea, Zombie Shark (you guys! it's a shark that gets bitten by a zombie—like in Zombie—but then it turns into a zombie. ZOMBIE SHARK.) Anyway, while this concept is in and of itself a golden ticket to Brilliant Town, it could not be more of a crappy execution than if I'd shot it myself in my own backyard. It is unspeakably terrible. Sure, the effects are stupid and look laughably fake, but that's all part of the fun. No, the bad part is that it's edited so badly, so blindly, that there are long moments of awkward silence that are never cut away from. There are back-to-back shots where it is pouring (digital) rain, and then 2 seconds later, it is clear skies, no clouds, all sunshine, but oh yeah, there is still a tornado of sharks raining down. From what cloud? Oh no, there isn't one.

I found myself asking How? and Why? over and over again. That was my rookie mistake. Because when you're watching a movie that is this caliber of bad, asking any question at all is stupid. It's a waste of breath, because there are no answers to your questions. Why are the sharks raining down from a clear sky? Because the script says so, that's why. Don't be dumb.

Ian Ziering wielding a chainsaw, slicing flying sharks up in mid-flight should have been more Ash from Army of Darkness than Schwarzenegger in Hercules in New York, but it wasn't. That being said, it was clearly enough to remind all of us how amazing Ziering was in the first place, and garner two sequels. So really, what the hell do I know?

Rating: no-stars / 5 stars
Watched: Netflix
Seen Before: No
Bad Movie Rating: ★★★★

138 / 365: San Andreas (2015)
© Warner Bros.

San Andreas is an unexpected public service announcement. While you might anticipate spending the entire movie thinking "Oh it wouldn't happen like that", what you really end up thinking is "If it did happen, what would I do?" Well, I'd be a frickin' earthquake survivalist rock star, is what I'd do! Watching people scramble around during a mega-disaster only Hollywood could conjure up teaches us all more lessons than any book ever could. Step One: Watch out for falling rocks. Step Two: Always go to higher ground. And Step Three: Have a Fire & Rescue mountain of a man for a father. Luckily, the heroes of San Andreas knew exactly what to do, and it made this movie delightful to watch.

Ray (The Rock) is an ex-military, chopper pilot now flying and running missions for LA Fire & Rescue. When a massive earthquake takes place at the Hoover Dam, he gets called away, much to the dismay of his daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario) who is heading up to San Francisco to start college. Instead, she gets a lift from her mother, Emma's (Carla Gugino) wealthy new boyfriend (Ioan Gruffudd). That's when all hell breaks loose. The earthquake at the Dam, predicted by Cal Tech geologist Lawrence (Paul Giamatti), is just the beginning. The entire San Andreas fault is about to go off, the epicenter of which will devastate the city of San Francisco. Which is, of course, exactly where Blake finds herself, and it's up to Ray and Emma to put aside their differences and go to her rescue.

One of my biggest pet peeves in movies is a female character who is wholly capable, smart, and resilient... because she learned it from her father (or brother, or boyfriend, or any man.) Can't she just be all those things on her own? Not in Hollywood, apparently. Regardless, Daddario is spectacular in this. She's never annoying, she's never trite, but she's still vulnerable, scared, and realistically navigating a crappy situation. Despite all that, she perseveres. I loved her portion of the story. Considering all of the action was taking place within the SF city limits, there was a lot for her (and her unlikely traveling companions) to overcome. Ray and Emma, on the other hand, ran into a lot of conveniences. I didn't have a hard time looking past all of those things, since the primary goal was to get them to San Francisco, but it got a little too hard to believe at times—and this coming from someone who fully accepted the 9.6 earthquake rolling through the state! But stumbling upon an unused rescue boat with the keys under the metaphorical mat just in time to careen over a rising tsunami? Riiiiiight.

We don't get a lot of honest-to-god disaster movies anymore, the kind that were so prevalent in the late 90's, and this was a throwback to that. It was the right amount of smart paired with the right amount of stupid. If every summer blockbuster could deliver on that balanced formula, I'd never have a bad time at the movies. It was everything I expected, and even delivered on a little more, especially related to Daddario. She's the rock star. Even Paul Giamatti pulled out some epic, 'Mr. Andrews from Titanic'-esque lines that gave me goosebumps. Everyone else was just earthquake fodder, as far as I was concerned.

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

139 / 365: The Goonies (1985)
© Warner Bros.

When I was in college, I worked for seven months as an intern in Richard Donner's office. During my first few weeks, I learned that when I left, I could ask Mr. Donner to sign whatever I wanted, on whatever I wanted. Without hesitation, I picked this Goonies poster, and he jokingly scrawled on it, "Thanks for helping my career. Maybe next time we'll pay you - HA!" It is one of my prized possessions.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the now classic, childhood favorite. The Goonies may well be the quintessential action/adventure movie of all time, one that elicits the exact joy, fear, and excitement of being a kid. With their homes on the brink of foreclosure, a ramshackle group of friends discover an old treasure map in one of their attics. Hoping to come upon enough money to save their families, they venture off to find the secret of One-Eyed Willy's lost pirate treasure. Brothers Mikey (Sean Astin) and Brand (Josh Brolin) head up the group, and what starts out as a fun adventure becomes a matter of life and death when they run into the Fratellis, a family of dangerous, greedy criminals (Robert Davi, Joe Pantoliano, and Anne Ramsey). Now they must find a way to escape by following the map through boobie-trap infested caves, whether they want to or not.

The combination of this group of misfit kids and their villainous foes is what makes this movie so memorable. It doesn't even matter that the effects still hold up after three decades, the working traps and moving sets igniting awe in kid and adult alike—though that doesn't hurt. The wide-eyed hopefulness of the kids, who are provided a wonderful script by Chris Columbus (director of Home Alone, don't forget! He's a kid movie wizard!) show how talented these little actors are. The tension of their scenes are only intensified by the adults, especially the nightmare-inducing Anne Ramsey as the Fratelli matriarch. I remember experiencing this journey right alongside these guys, just as terrified as them, but determined to make it to the end. Because it would all be worth it. There really is nothing like seeing that pirate ship for the first time. If you're lucky enough to watch this movie with the full cast commentary (released 14 years ago!), they even talk about this moment. What it was like to turn around and—*gasp*.... a real life pirate ship. Yup. It felt like that for all of us.

One of the best movies to come out of the 80's, and a defining moment of my childhood movie-watching experience.

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

140 / 365: Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
© Warner Bros.

I'm going to quote every critic ever, because there isn't another way to say it: this is as close to a live-action "Looney Tunes" cartoon as cinema may ever get. Which I guess is good, since it was exactly what director Joe Dante hoped to do. But it is banana-grams, you guys, and if you're like me and realize 5 minutes in that you've never actually seen it, you're in for an unbelievable and possibly too-weird ride.

Gremlins 2, I've come to realize from the company of friends I keep, is in many ways the pinnacle of nostalgia. For those in my age group, the summer of 1990 was the first summer most of us actively remember. We remember the things we loved, the movies we saw, and the places we went. Maybe even the people we were with. For those people—young, impressionable, and excited about everything new—a movie about sociopathic, monstrous devil-rats wrecking cartoon havoc in an 80's era mall/office building might very well be the best movies have ever or will ever get. But I didn't see this movie when I was five; I saw it when I was twenty-nine, and I shook my head in dismay just as many times as I laughed. Even my laughter edged on complacent ridicule.

I admit the brilliance of Gremlins 2 is that it is far more self-aware than the original. The original, in my opinion, is painful to endure. Innocent people facing damaging foes, not scary enough to be horror, not funny enough to be comedy... but most of the people in the sequel? They're not so innocent. In fact, they may well deserve everything they have coming to them. And that is where the comedy can break through. The incorporation of the genetic experimentation lab, run by Christopher Lee, is what sets this film apart. Devious Gremlins are spliced with other genomes, creating Brainiac Gremlin, Sexy Gremlin, and oh my god, Spider Gremlin and Bat Gremlin and Electric Gremlin! Joe Dante knew exactly what he was doing, and instead of telling a story where his protagonists had to defeat the terrors that shouldn't eat after midnight, he made his Gremlins the stars. They were unique, with their own personalities, and even though we were forced to watch our beloved Gizmo get tortured for two hours, he was no longer the only creature we'd grown to know.

Having said that, the fact that this is a comedy didn't make me love it. I enjoyed myself, as I watched it with a group of friends much more familiar with it than I, but the nostalgia of it was lost on me. I can acknowledge how that would affect my opinion. It doesn't bring me the joy it brings my friends, but then I remember that one person's nostalgia can't be transferred to anyone else. It's special and unique, and should be treasured. Just like I wouldn't expect everyone to feel about Shirley Temple the way that I do. But hey, it shows you where my priorities were in the late 80's... and they weren't with the Gremlins.

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

141 / 365: Spy (2015)
© 20th Century Fox

Spy isn't the female Mr. Bean the ridiculous trailer more or less suggested. She's not inept. She's not bumbling. She's a damn good spy. OK, she might be a bit of those things, but she's mostly the latter. Empowering without preaching, allowing star Melissa McCarthy to be the butt of the right kind of jokes. The kind of jokes that are superficial about women, about fat people, about foreigners, etc., but she embraces them, remolds them, and skewers everyone else with smarter, more caustic barbs of her own.

McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a CIA analyst top of her class at the Academy, but now the invisible smarts behind one of the agency's top performing agents, devilishly handsome Bradley Fine (Jude Law). When all the identities of the active agents are exposed during the search for a portable nuclear bomb, Cooper volunteers her services to find the whereabouts of arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) and the bomb in question. An unlikely spy, she's bound to get by unnoticed, unless of course rogue agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham) gets in her way.

Many of the early jokes rely heavily on McCarthy's appearance and the assumption that she's a lonely, uneducated cat lady of sorts. They feel overplayed when they're true, but the golden moments come when they're not. Everyone is blind to Susan's true capabilities, even Susan herself. The level of comedy increased ten-fold when Susan stopped being a doormat and started being, essentially, a combination of both female leads from The Heat. This happens about halfway through the movie, and listening to Melissa McCarthy rip Rose Byrne a new asshole gave me some of the best laughs I've had all year. Maybe I can only attribute that to the fact it was unexpected, but whatever it may be, give me these jokes over any of the ones from Pitch Perfect 2, all day every day.

The film gets admittedly loopy towards the end, when McCarthy is forced to compete with admittedly sub-par characters for screen time and laughs. Leveraging Nancy (Miranda Hart), Susan's CIA basement friend, for comedy purposes was a clearly unfunny, misguided choice. Statham, though delightful in this role, struggles a bit with his tired jokes during the film's climax, jokes told just one too many times to land the dismount properly. Despite the comedy casualties lying around her, McCarthy comes out unscathed. She carries this movie on her own. She has Sandra Bullock-level star power, and it's wonderful seeing her in the spotlight for once.

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

Monday, June 15, 2015

Music Mondays: "Hannibal" TV Soundtrack Vinyl Unwrap!

My favorite show on television right now is far and away the horror fantasy thriller, "Hannibal" on NBC. It's developed a small and dedicated (perhaps growing?) cult following, and before its Season 3 premiere two weeks ago, renowned pop art emporium, Mondo, announced the release of their exclusive, limited edition soundtrack for the show, on colored vinyl, with only 1,000 copies being pressed.

I, naturally, couldn't resist the call, so I waited and waited, and jumped at the chance the moment the sale was announced. Thankfully, I snagged one right before they sold out! The show premiered with what I would describe as the most original, ground-breaking hour of television, and a few days ago, I was greeted with the arrival of Mondo's exclusive release.

The packaging features Mondo's dripping blood logo, appropriate I thought for "Hannibal"'s themes. Inside, the blood dripping theme continued, the cover of the vinyl featuring the shadowed face of the titular character, portrayed by actor Mads Mikkelsen. If you've ever seen the show, you know the representation of Dr. Hannibal Lector's grip over our protagonist Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), is often portrayed through the visuals of a stag (whether it be feathered, metal, bloody, or furred). A gorgeous cover to the album, and once unwrapped, completely without words.

Inside the bi-fold flap, our hero, Will Graham, is on display, again fully spattered in blood.

Now comes the beauty of the discs themselves. When announced, the people at Mondo described the coloring as "Steak Tartare colored vinyl"—another homage to Hannibal's love of the culinary arts; and of course, cannibalism.

My favorite part of the soundtrack was the organization of the music itself. Rather than playing in order of air date, this 2-LP set is organized instead by course. Meal course, as it were. Beginning with L'Apéritif, continuing with L'entrée... onto the second disc with Le plat principal, and finally, finishing it all off with Le dessert.

Composer Brian Reitzell creates an unnerving musical compilation, that starts out very slow. It builds and crescendos, and gives me a bit of the willies. It takes the best of the first two seasons of "Hannibal" and lays it all out perfectly. Here's a wonderful article about how he created his sound.

Take a moment to check out the video below of "Hannibal" Disc 1, Side 1 L'Apéritif: "Feeding the Dogs / Family Dinner" from Episode 104 "Ouef". A small, 1-minute snippet that shows you the vinyl in action and gives you just enough to tease your palette.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Project 365: Movies 130 - 134

130 / 365: Tomorrowland (2015)
© Disney

Brad Bird knows how to tell children's stories that, in actuality, are for adults. He did it with The Iron Giant, he did it with The Incredibles, and now, in glossy live action, he does it with a chunk of the Disneyland theme park (complete with a portal through "It's a Small World"). The stakes are juicier, the emotions are more complex, and the themes are high concept, but kids will never notice those things. They'll just gape and ooo and ahhh at stacked floating pools and jet packs while you tear up when you realize you haven't squandered your potential—there's still time for you to change the world.

The Earth's brightest minds for over a century have come together to share ideas for bettering it. Those ideas led to the creation (or discovery?) of Tomorrowland, an other-worldly place of peace, invention, and creativity. Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson), a child scientist and inventor, finds his way to this place, led there during the 1964 World's Fair by a young girl, Athena (Raffey Cassidy), before being expelled years later for one of his final inventions. Decades pass, until an equally determined and curious mind, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) stumbles across an old pin that, when touched, transports her to a world of endless possibilities. When she can't find a way to stay there, she tracks down a now much older Frank (George Clooney) to take her back.

Clooney finally gets to play the crotchety old man from the movie Up, which is all well and good, but it's the young ladies of the film that steal the show. Robertson is becoming the female Zac Efron, specifically when it comes to acting style. That may sound like a nebulous, maybe insulting comparison, but it's not. Despite his youthful glow, Efron is an expert at conveying pain and heartbreak with just his eyes, Robertson is equally adept at conveying curiosity and wonder with hers. She slips into this role effortlessly. Raffey Cassidy has played a young Eva Green and young Kristen Stewart, but this time, she gets to be her own character with Athena. A timeless, ageless, scene-stealing one, in fact. She also has the best line at the end of the movie, which made me laugh then immediately cry. Touché, Brad Bird. Nice to see you haven't lost your form.

While I couldn't ignore the idealized and futuristic world looking like the 1950's vision of that same ideal future, the nostalgia and optimism of that time is off the charts. It's why the movie works, pushing you to feel the same hopeful resolution that Casey does in the all-too-brief moment she teleports through the pin. I might have preferred the alternate universe itself be called something other than "Tomorrowland"... which is more of an idea than an actual location, but don't forget who produced this thing. At times, the scope gets a little too big, too impersonal, with some critical finger-wagging at the human race, but Bird reels it back enough by keeping his characters at the forefront. In the end, this movie made me feel productive and amazing with a life full of promise and possibilities, like an injection of positivity. I went home and did eight loads of laundry in record speed, just riding that high.

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

131 / 365: Dirty Girl (2010)
© The Weinstein Company

The year is 1987, and high schooler Danielle (Juno Temple) has earned the reputation as a 'dirty girl.' She "discriminates, designates, dumps" her conquests, unapologetically doing what she wants, mirroring the behavior of her once promiscuous/now wannabe Mormon mother, Sue-Ann (Milla Jovovich). When the principal puts Dani in Special Ed, she finds an unlikely friend in Clarke (Jeremy Dozier), a closet-case forced into therapy by his homophobic father. Paired together for a school project (taking care of a "baby" i.e. a sack of flower they name Joan), Dani discovers the identity of the father she never knew. With Joan in hand, Clarke and Danni go on an epic road trip, fleeing the harsh realities of their lives to find her Dad, and in the process they learn to embrace who they really are.

On the surface, this movie is an occasionally offensive, frequently homophobic representation of the time, incorporating these elements to gain a laugh here or there and creating obstacles for our heroes to overcome. It's crude and a bit fantastical (notice Joan's Sharpie drawn-on face changing from shot to shot), but at its core, it is an emotional journey about acceptance, love, and forgiveness. Temple and Dozier are magnetic together, their friendship built on necessity and circumstance, but it develops into a strong and healing bond. For the first time in their lives, they're faced with honesty from a positive, supportive source. Despite all of the touchy-feely messages, it's also riotously fun! A road trip movie full of memorable music, quotes, and good vibes. Trust me, you'll be just as surprised by it as I was. I pop this movie in whenever I'm feeling down, and it always lifts me right back up.

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

132 / 365: Nashville (1975)
© Paramount Pictures

This movie was the #59 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

Rating: ★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Blu Ray
Seen Before: No

133 / 365: Good Kill (2015)
© IFC Films

I thought about doing a standard introduction for this movie, but there's a more pressing thought that couldn't be ignored: January Jones is, without a doubt, the worst actress working professionally today, and here, as the unsatisfied wife of non-flying, remote drone pilot Ethan Hawke, she struggles desperately to impersonate a living breathing human being. To paraphrase David Schmader's Showgirls commentary, Jones is like a robot programmed with only crude execution protocols... Comfort Husband. *pat-his-back* Look Worried. *stare-out-window* Be Annoyed. *pour-glass-of-wine* How she continues to get work is beyond me. She is an unnecessary distraction in an otherwise taut, appropriately focused film. Moving on.

Hawke brings his edge-of-tears lip curl, half smirk / half grimace out in full force as Major Thomas Egan, an Air Force pilot who completed three tours in Afghanistan before being stationed near his home in Las Vegas. Rather than taking to the air, he spends 12 hours a day in a windowless shipping container, plugging in and taking virtual flight via drone, blasting away terrorists from a world away. Joined by a rotating team, including Airman Vera Suarez (Zoë Kravitz), they must follow orders, however unlawful or cowardly they appear to be.

Egan and Suarez share the best scenes, as she looks to his expertise to gauge how to navigate this political gray area. The film, however, has quite a bit to say about the "unmaned aerial" activity—not just regarding the missions, but what it can do to the mind of a career pilot. At the end, you see a lot less gray, and more black & white. But Hawke delivers a wonderfully understated and tortured performance, while Kravitz is the perfect catalyst for his defeated demeanor. There are times when the characters' boredom spreads out to those of us watching, which is a testament to director Andrew Niccol's story-telling ability, but we're still left feeling exactly that: bored. Some emotional punches hit hard, though, and the end scenes are wildly cathartic. A brave political movie worth a watch, but don't expect a lot of the bells & whistles of cinematic war.

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

134 / 365: Walkabout (1971)
© Criterion Collection

Two children, a teenage girl (Jenny Agutter) and her younger brother (Luc Roeg), are abandoned in the Outback by their father after he takes them out for a supposed picnic. After attempting to shoot his children without warning, he sets the car ablaze and turns the gun on himself. It's not known why, though it's suggested that they were annoying him while he attempted to read the paper, so he couldn't go on living anymore and wanted to make sure his kids were stranded as a result. Regardless, now on their own, they're forced to make do on the rugged terrain--an impossible task, until they meet a young Aborigine on a walkabout, a right of passage about survival for of-age boys.

At the start of the film, a didgeridoo rings out over the banal activities of urban life before juxtaposing it with the harshness of the Outback. Director Nicolas Roeg incorporates plenty of double-exposure shots, reminiscent of Picnic at Hanging Rock and other Australian films from that decade. The heat of the on-location shoot is visible, rippling around the screen like water. There is a noticeable lack of sentimentality and this is most evident in the splendid macro photography shots of the wildlife, alive and dead, frightening and beautiful. Roeg is masterful in his consistency, and he creates contrasts that are at once fascinating and upsetting. Emotions might be human nature, but they won't keep you alive.

As our trio traverse the varied landscape, communication, or the lack thereof, becomes the central theme. The Girl maintains her city demeanor, a bit banal and superior, despite her clear reliance on the boys. Rarely does she drop that rigid persona, even when the Aborigine tries to share his own customs. It is all in vein. He is a means to an end for her, and she doesn't even realize it. The tragedy is that even if she did, she wouldn't care. Beneath it all, each of these characters are who they are. The realities of desertion by a loved one, even the possibility of death, may not have the life-changing effect you'd think it would. While Walkabout is jarring both in story and execution, it's an undeniably profound and unique experience.

Final thought: was it just me, or did anyone else notice the first five notes of "Take My Breath Away" featured prominently in the score? I think Berlin owes Walkabout's composer, J. J. Barry, a cut of that Oscar gold.

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

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

AFI Top 100: #59 "Nashville"

Ronee Blakley as Barbara Jean in Nashville (1975)

It's almost impossible to explain why this movie was so confounding and frustrating to watch. It's not bad. It's simply too strange to be classified. Even the trailer defines it as "the damnedest thing you ever saw"... depending on you and you alone, that is either a good thing, or a bad thing. Me? I disliked nearly every second of AFI's #59 movie, Nashville. Director Robert Altman's critical satire about fame, Americana, politics, and the people that embody it, all focused within the city limits of the country music mecca.

There are, at least, twenty different characters gifted near-equal screen time in this film. They range from established Nashville country stars (Ronee Blakley as the fragile Barbara Jean; Karen Black as the giant-haired Connie White; and Henry Gibson as the cruel Haven Hamilton) and country music wannabes (Gwen Welles as the talentless and delusional Sueleen Gay, or Barbara Harris as flighty Albuquerque) to artists, politicos, and reporters on the periphery (Keith Carradine, Lily TomlinBarbara Baxley, Ned Beatty, Geraldine Chaplin as the most annoying person on the planet, and Shelley Duvall, just to name a few!) This melting pot of ego, jealousy, determination, loneliness, and patriotism is dumped into the street, and you're forced to wade through it in the pursuit of meaning, validation, and closure. Oh, and Jeff Goldblum shows up constantly too, riding a motortrike and being all Goldblum-y.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Project 365: Movies 123 - 129

123 / 365: Her (2013)
© Warner Bros.

I must have a budding interest in artificial intelligence movies, since it seems I've been drawn to watching them recently. More likely, though, is that Hollywood is simply drawn to making them. I missed this Oscar-nominated film during its theatrical release, and despite my fascination with the concept, I certainly wasn't scrambling to see it.  Spike Jonze's film is as much about loneliness as it is about love, and it rides a very fine, tragic line. Theo (Joaquin Phoenix) is a letter writer in a not-so-distant future where handwritten letters hold a romantic nostalgia, though no one has the skill to actually write any themselves. The overly empathetic and increasingly lonely Theo, however, is the Michelangelo of word-smithing. His divorce papers from wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) are burning a hole in his pocket, but he can't bring himself to sign them.

That is, until he downloads a new operating system called the OS1... the world's first artificially intelligent, conscious OS. In the blink of an eye, tailored to Theo's preferences, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) bursts into existence. Theo's reliance on her as an OS, at first, mirrors what we'd all expect, but as she begins to plow through the wealth of knowledge the internet holds, Samantha grows considerably more complex. As a result, Theo's feelings of attachment grow as well, and love inevitably blossoms.

The role of Theo is a tough one to navigate, but Phoenix does it with just the right amount of pathetic sniveling. That sounds like an insult, but it's not. The transition towards Theo dating Samantha—and the discovery that they're not the only human/OS couples out there—is aided by Phoenix's ability to make us believe he needs someone, anyone, in his life. Johansson does a spectacular job endearing to all of us, her best moments (or maybe the script's?) come from the tragic conversations where she says nothing at all. There is so much revealed in her silence, and likewise, her wonder. The film stalls out about halfway through, the energy getting a bit sluggish as it tries to hint at more of the outside world. A world Samantha is discovering and one Theo is happy to leave alone.

Jonze's touching first-person perspective shots—memories and flashes that are full of emotion—stand out to me. These are not part of the movie; they're reactions to the movie by the characters themselves. This was my favorite detail. It felt private and personal, separate from the immediate story line, but hugely informative. Theo's existing longing for Catherine, Catherine's affection mixed with disappointment for Theo... I wanted more of that, because it gave the film life, light, and energy, something that it sorely lacked overall, despite the plethora of emotions.

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

124 / 365: Duck Soup (1933)
© Paramount Pictures

This movie was the #60 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

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

125 / 365: The Crow (1994)
© Miramax

The Crow's mythology may outweigh its cinematic value, but regardless, behind-the-scenes tales of death and tragedy would follow any film like a dark shadow, whether you want it to or not. The truth behind star Brandon Lee's untimely death during the film's final weeks of shooting mirrors the stuff of legends, so my expectations for the film were as follows: The Crow reached cult levels of adoration for that very reason—and that reason only.

But I was wrong. The film's Gothic artistic direction and decaying urban setting might be heavy-handed, but it's gorgeously realized and shot. The fact that it's less glossy and "matte painted" makes it more authentic and gritty then similarly styled movies. Based on the comic series by James O'Barr, the film's plot reads like Ghost had a baby with Pet Sematary, and we all get to enjoy a revenge film disguised as a dark fantasy. Eric Draven (Lee) is brutally murdered when he tries to stop home invaders from attacking his girlfriend. Both of them now dead, the power of a magical crow (it's suggested) rises Draven from the grave for one reason only: to avenge his death by bringing down the crime syndicate responsible.

It's human, it's over-the-top, and there are a bevy of side characters that flesh the movie out when it needs a bit more heart amidst all that falling rain. Nothing beats watching a Gothic avenger take out the bad guys one by one, though, and nobody makes a better villain target than Michael Wincott. I wish the martial arts component was a bit more pronounced, but at the same time, it's not a martial arts flick. It's a 90's classic for obvious reasons, I certainly think this is a must-see, even just to say you have. Who knows? You might get pulled into the film's mythical following, as well.

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

126 / 365: Ex Machina (2015)
© A24

BEWARE SEXY ROBOTS!, the film's advertisements warn. Many might be surprised to learn that one of the year's most compelling dramas is in fact a science fiction thriller about said "sexy robots," but nevertheless, here it is. While it is certainly not flawless, Ex Machina lets its ideas about humanity and intelligence take precedence over flashy visual effects that would otherwise be meant to distract us from the fact that movies in a similar vein rarely present new or interesting ideas at all. Unlike Her, reviewed earlier in this post, writer/director Alex Garland takes the sexualized artificial intelligence and gives it a physical form. What could be so dangerous about that?

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a lowly engineer at a technology mega-corp, is selected in an Island-esque lottery to spend a week at the secluded home of the company's genius CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Immediately, it becomes clear that Caleb is there for more than just fun and games. Nathan has been developing a new project, in secret, and needs an intelligent but impartial participant to determine whether he and his new discovery are on the right track. That discovery? A dynamic, artificial intelligence named Ava (played in delicate fashion by Alicia Vikander). Caleb, naturally, is curious—and more than a bit reckless in exploring it—and his naivete is on full display as Nathan explains his only role is to engage with Ava, the human component of a Turing Test. Can Ava pass for human, even if the questioner already knows that she's not? Wouldn't that, in and of itself, be the most uncompromising evidence of true A.I? As it turns out, of course, everything is not as it appears between Nathan and Ava, and Caleb must decide whether he will remain an impartial observer, or intervene on Ava's behalf.

Garland makes his directorial debut here, and while his writing style remains remarkably consistent, he doesn't make any major waves on the direction front. This style is unassuming and calm, with presentation and aesthetics at the forefront, but overall allowing it to take a backseat to his own script. That script, like many of Garland's before it (his debut 28 Days Later... and one of my all time favorites, Sunshine, come to mind), excels at building intrigue and suspense, but falters a bit in the delivery of a well executed and cathartic climax. Everything may come together seamlessly, but it never peaks beyond its second act reveals. It is midway through the movie that everything feels the most taut, the most compelling... and regardless of what some may consider a shocking ending, it just doesn't hold enough gravitas for me considering the build-up.

Gleeson splits his screen time between Isaac and Vikander, the latter two rarely sharing a scene. Calab as a character is sympathetic and self-righteous, a dangerous combination that may or may not have been the reason for his invitation to Nathan's secret lair. Despite the energy plateaus, it's hard not to enjoy the theoretical and scientific conversations between the three characters, hefty though they might be. Garland doesn't appear to be in a rush to reveal anything to the audience, just as Caleb doesn't lament his slow and methodical Q&A with Ava—rather, everyone seems to enjoy shooting the shit, debating ideas, and engaging in some obviously risky snooping. The ideas are just thought-provoking enough to make up for Garland's need to wrap the movie up in a nice, little bow. He is a science fiction visionary for that very reason.

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

127 / 365: First Position (2012)
© Sundance Selects

This film has many similarities to the like-minded documentary Spellbound from 2009 about a group of young kids preparing for an equally stressful and life-consuming competition (in Spellbound's case, the National Spelling Bee). This time around, we follow six young ballet dancers training for the Youth Ballet Competition--an international gathering of the best dancers battling for scholarships, awards, and recognition from the world's most reputable Dance Academies.

There's 12-year-old Aran Bell and his sweet little counterpart, Israeli dancer, Gaya Bommer Yemini. Pristine ballerina, Rebecca Houseknecht. Determined acrobat and bendable Gumbi doll, Miko Fogarty, and her less than enthusiastic brother, Jules. Add in the unconventionally stunning, Michaela Deprince, and international hopeful, Joan Sebastian Zamora, and you've got yourself a competition! The individuals rarely cross paths, if at all, unless they're introduced together, so it becomes increasingly clear how isolated these dancers are. The competition really separates them from each other, and it adds a suffocating intensity.

The most interesting approach the documentary takes, between training sequences, travel, preparation... it breaks from that main story line to talk about the sacrificial cost, both financially and physically. I could watch these dancers pushing their bodies to the limit all day every day, cringing the entire time. Utterly fascinating. It's astounding how much it costs to pursue the dream of being a ballet dancer, so pairing that with the absolute destruction of the body and strain on the mind, it is nothing short of a labor of love. A simple documentary, ambitious in scope, but in true "sports movie" fashion, it really delivers on that final game promise.

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

128 / 365: The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
© Universal Pictures

Watching things out of order a bit, I'm realizing. Is it strange that I don't have a strong opinion of this film, one way or another? Jurassic Park (which I'll be reviewing next month) is a masterpiece of cinema, and the camp of the 3rd film has more than enough moments to deride and delight in. But The Lost World... I find I land right in the middle. It's not bad. But it's not good. And more often than not, it's kind of boring. All the pieces are there to give it that breathe of life--unrestrained dinosaurs, poachers, science, and of course, The Goldblum—but those pieces never fall into place. They're all just mixed up and shaken out, dropped randomly through the story with the hopes that it'll entice the audience into gasps of fear and delight.

This time around, we find ourselves on a very different prehistoric-infested island. Jurassic Park's research facility, located on what is called "Site B", was left in shambles after the disastrous events of the original film. The dinosaurs bred for research on the island were released and allowed to overrun the island, under the stipulation that no human ever set foot on it. That is until someone does. Park mastermind and kooky old man, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) enlists Jeff Goldblum Dr. Ian Malcolm to head a research team to meet up with Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore), an biologist studying how the dinosaurs adapted to being unattended, who also happens to be Malcolm's girlfriend. It doesn't take long, of course, for peace and tranquility to be disrupted when a group of poachers descends on the island to collect specimens for a new attraction on the mainland.

What happens next is a cross between King Kong and Six Days, Seven Nights, and it all becomes a bit tedious. The action sequences are impressive until you realize you've seen them all before. Trapped in a car surrounded by T-Rex? Check. Mad rush to turn on the power at a location infested with Raptors? You guessed it. The only sequence that feels fresh and new in the Jurassic Park canon is the T-Rex rampaging through downtown San Diego... but even that is recycled goods in the grand scheme of cinema. That being said, we do get to enjoy Vince Vaughn and a baby T-Rex, so it's not all for nothing. I'm looking forward to Jurassic World having the awe-factor of the first film and the camp of the third... leaving the middle-of-the-road features of this one alone.

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

© London Film Productions

Another Best Picture Oscar nominee, one of the earliest biopics to be up for the Academy's top honor. The film begins on the day of Anne Boleyn's execution. A very unsentimental, almost lighthearted recount of this tragic moment. The women and servants at the castle hustling and bustling about, gossiping about King Henry VIII's affairs and Anne's fate. There's a fittingly ironic moment of a maid commenting about Anne's unfortunate beheading, when the King (Charles Laughton) approaches and asks her name. "Catherine Howard," she replies. Devilishly pointed, indeed.

The title tells you everything you need to know about this movie: it is about Henry VIII's private life, and nothing else. It never delves into the politics, the tumultuous religious fervor at the time, nor does it even hint at the future of his equally famous children. What makes it unique—it is, I think, that only film I've seen to do this—is that it skips over his most famous marriage to Anne Boleyn entirely, focusing instead on his 3rd-6th marriages, which I knew significantly less about. It also doesn't waste any time jumping from wife to wife, which actually makes the film more enjoyable. It never drags, and it tries desperately to find the humor in it all. Thankfully, it succeeds.

I couldn't help but cringe though, as the film ends on a punchline, spoken by Henry: "Six wives... and the best one's the worst," referring to Catherine Parr, his final wife. Hardy-har-har. An all-too-modern, anti-feminist view that uglier, bossy, meaner women make the best wives, since they act more like mothers. Ugh, movie, why? I was really with it up until that moment. But I can forgive it, because it was 1933 and Charles Laughton is such an undeniably entertaining talent. A fun, albeit shallow, royal romp.

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