Monday, July 13, 2015

Project 365: Movies 142 - 146

142 / 365: Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014)
© DreamWorks Animation

Is it nit-picky to describe a cartoon as... too cartoony? I was always a fan of the Peabody & Sherman shorts during "Rocky & Bullwinkle" as a kid, though it never felt like there was a whole lot more I was missing outside of the five minutes I was watching. As it were, this most recent animated incarnation takes the simple concept of a "dog and his boy," fluffs it up, puffs it out, and turns it into something of a 3D-behemoth that is touching, but messy.

In the film, Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell) is the trusty and inexplicably accomplished hound who adopts Sherman (Max Charles), a young orphan who reminds him very much of himself as a pup. Sherman is your typical kid trying to make his father proud, but certainly, Mr. Peabody is not your typical father. Most fathers aren't internationally renowned geniuses who have in their possession a time travel machine. Peabody calls his "The Way Back," and while he and Sherman enjoy jaunts into the past, when the two throw a dinner party for Sherman's elementary school nemesis, Penny (Ariel Winter), everything gets a bit out of control.

The voice talents are what impressed most, and the animation feels like its struggling to live up to it by being more than a little over the top. Both Peabody and Sherman are incredibly sympathetic characters, with Sherman being overly buck-toothed and Peabody being... well, a dog. The side story of Mr. Peabody potentially being deemed an unfit father, with Sherman being taken away from him, plays tug of war with the frivolous, significantly more fun plot: the time travel. All of the time jumps offer fun little historical jokes that would certainly go over any middle school kid or younger's head, but there's enough physical jokes to keep everyone relatively entertained. But I wish there had been more of a balance in the story, and that the animation style itself didn't chew the scenery so much.

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

143 / 365: The Gold Rush (1925)
© United Artists

This movie was the #58 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

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

144 / 365: Dior & I (2015)
© The Orchard

It's strange to watch a documentary about fashion and find yourself thinking... "This is just like a sports movie." Structurally, this film that follows the new Creative Director of the infamous Christian Dior fashion house in Paris during the creation of his first 'haute couture' collection, plays exactly like a team preparing for the big game. Raf Simons is the creative mind behind the creations, and he's got a lot to prove in the eight short weeks before premiering his first collection, especially to the seasoned workers of the ateliers who will bring his visions to life. Having never worked in the notoriously intricate and complicated tradition of haute couture (Simons came from men's 'ready to wear'), he must rely on the expertise of his team to inform his decisions.

Documentarian Frédéric Tcheng splits his time between Simons' stresses and struggles, from the language barrier to the pressure of living up to a legend, and providing the viewer with backstory on Christian Dior himself. Tcheng even reads excerpts from Dior's autobiography, Dior by Dior, that attempted to separate the man from the legend—and what it was like to be revered in your own time. This "Ghost of Dior" narrates Simons' journey, and it is eerily beautiful how they mirror one another.

The documentary is worth watching for multiple reasons. At its core, it is a fascinating deep dive into an often misunderstood industry—and some would argue, culture. It is an education in high fashion as much as it is a tension-filled journey to the finish line. And that final runway show is worth every second leading up to it, watching Simons handle the anxiety in the most human of ways. In a sense, it's all predictable—that element of the 'sports movie' sort of sets you up for the Dior fashion house and Simons' success—but it doesn't take anything away from the thrill of watching it all play out.

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

145 / 365: House of Flying Daggers (2004)
© Sony Pictures Classics

When I was in college, I went through a near-obsessive Zhang Yimou phase, gobbling up any and all of his films that I could get my hands on. Thank god for Netflix, right? House of Flying Daggers came out a few years after the equally stunning Hero (in the US, though, only a few months separated their releases), and sent me on my Cinema of China journey (not to mention my continued love for Zhang Ziyi).

Stylistically, this film mirrors that of Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in its cinematography, vibrant artistic design, and fantastical martial arts choreography. When womanizing soldier, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) meets the beautiful Xiao Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a blind member of outlaws the House of Flying Daggers, he frees her from prison with the hopes of gaining her trust, so she might lead he—and the army (including leader Andy Lau)—to the House's front steps. What follows is a visually stunning film with more twists, action sequences, and romantic entanglements than you can keep track of. Sometimes, this can be a bit laborious, but Zhang Yimou creates a movie that's too sumptuous to make it much of a bother. Ziyi has equally delicious chemistry with Lau and Kaneshiro, but it's Mei's scenes with Jin that are something special. When I saw this movie as a college freshman romantic, they were all I remembered or cared about.

Now, though, I see it as the perfect continuation of the soaring martial arts "action/romances" of the early 2000s—and it might be the best in this style for the simple reason that the acting, story, and visuals are so memorable. And despite all the twists and double-crossings, the plot is really as simple as it gets. Highly recommended for anyone interested in modern Chinese cinema; it's a wonderful place to whet your palette.

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

146 / 365: Love & Mercy (2015)
© Roadside Attractions

The opening credits of this movie are a 90-second version of That Thing You Do!, which covers the early years of The Beach Boys, the stardom and the rise to fame. This is not a movie about the Beach Boys. It is a movie about co-founder of the band and prolific songwriter, Brian Wilson.

Our time is split between two very different films. The first focuses on Wilson (played by Paul Dano) during the 1960's, when he takes a break from touring with the band in order to write the ground-breaking album Pet Sounds and begins to experiment with hallucinogens  The second film introduces us to the Wilson of the 1980's (played by John Cusack), where the songwriter is now a shell of his former self, heavily drugged and under the guardianship of a psychotic psychiatrist, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), effectively a prisoner inside his own life. Giamatti as Landy might be cinema's most terrifying example of real-life villainy, and he's so starkly realized because it's shocking to think that this person actually existed.

From start to finish, we vacillate between these stories, experiencing Wilson's crippling gift right alongside him, and witnessing the tragic circumstances in which he finds himself later in life. The movie would feel very distant if we didn't have a counterpart in there somewhere to relate to, which thankfully we have during the 80's timeline in Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). Wilson is just too difficult to relate to, his genius represented by long sequences of aural hallucinations with sound montages over stagnant visuals. The incorporation of Ledbetter, the actual protagonist of the latter story, gives the film a ring of sanity—someone who voices what we're thinking when Landy smacks a hamburger out of a clearly over-medicated Wilson's hand. It is shocking, and Giamatti's scenes with Banks are absolutely frightening. Watching her come to the realization that this talented, sweet man is being held hostage with no way out is enough to make your breath catch in your throat.

The script is flawed at times, with purposefully vague exchanges that are mysterious for no reason, but those moments are few and far between. We're treated to the music behind the lyrics, an experiment in sound, showing how the voices, sounds and music in Wilson's head manifested, and its the undercurrent of the entire film. Despite the seriousness of both stories, the joy of The Beach Boys' sound persists... maybe even adding in a touch of the bittersweet. And while I preferred the suspense of Future Brian's story to the LSD trip of Past Brian's journey, both hold equal weight. An impressive and unique approach to the musical biopic, one that might just knock you over in disbelief.

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

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