Monday, August 31, 2015

Music Monday: Alex Hepburn "Pain Is"

Is it Fall yet? Listening to Alex Hepburn sing "Pain Is" sure makes me think so. After this LA heat wave, I'm longing for boots and sweaters...

Happy Monday, everyone. Let's chill together with this song. xx

Artist: Alex Hepburn
Song: "Pain is" | download
Album: Together Alone | stream

Friday, August 28, 2015

AFI Top 100: #51 "West Side Story"

Richard Beymer & Natalie Wood in West Side Story (1961)

Every musical we approach on this AFI Top 100 list makes me happy, simply because there aren't that many. The 1960's were a popular time for musical films (during the decade four of them won the Oscar for Best Picture), the first of which was our #51 film, West Side Story in 1961. Adapted from the stage musical that took Broadway by storm four years earlier, it puts a modern twist on Shakespeare's tragic tale, Romeo & Juliet. Directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, this film's popularity can't be overstated, as it combines epic choreography with addictive songs, all against the backdrop of urban social unrest.

It's the story of dueling street gangs battling for turf in their New York City neighborhood. The Jets, led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), are a white gang being pushed out by the Sharks, a newly immigrated group of Puerto Ricans, banned together in the face of rising anti-Latin sentiments. The leader of the Sharks, Bernardo (George Chakiris), and Riff hope to ignite a gang war, but when Bernardo's young sister, Maria (Natalie Wood) meets and falls in love with former Jet, Tony (Richard Beymer), the question of loyalty threatens to tear both gangs apart. Despite the warnings from Riff, Bernardo, and Maria's best friend, Anita (Rita Moreno), their love will not be swayed, even by death.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Wares & Things: Diana Fayt Ceramics

It has been a long, long time since I've posted about gorgeous Wares & Things, and I thought it was about time we took a morning break from all that movie talk and talk stoneware. Handmade with love, of course, because that's what makes a ware so special! Recently, I stumbled across the Instagram of clayer Diana Fayt, and I immediately became obsessed with her designs. Each piece is one-of-a-kind, the designs etched in the clay to tell a visual story rooted in the beauty of nature.

My love of geometry is ignited looking at these creations. Diana even teaches her techniques at workshops all over the world, which is amazing, because her process is insanely intricate! Her little cups are adorable, I'm a bit desperate to have a collection of them. Oh, and did I mention? Recently, she's started to design pieces for Anthropologie.

Check out her shop, and definitely scour her Instagram to see all the things someone else is probably enjoying at this very moment. Lucky ducks.

(all images via Diana Fayt)

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Movie Review: "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." (2015)

© Warner Bros.

If Ocean's Eleven were a spy movie, it would be The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Guy Ritchie's newest mod-tastic action comedy is a bit lighter on the thuggish violence than it is dripping in style and charm. The talented cast make this more or less silly film incredibly fun. Not to mention, beautiful to look at.

Based on the US television show of the same name that aired all the way back in 1964 (for four seasons), Cold War tensions collide when a suave and womanizing CIA agent, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), is forced to team up with Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), an intense Soviet spy. They are, of course, mortal enemies who must work together to uncover the whereabouts of a nuclear bomb being developed by private arms dealers. They enlist the help of German auto mechanic, Gaby (Alicia Vikander), whose familial ties to the scientist building the bomb make for an obvious infiltration.

Cavill and Hammer are too handsome for their own good, which makes them perfect counterparts. Their rivalry is well-established—visible through a myriad of stink-faces they give each other—and the novelty of an American having to get along with a Russian isn't lost on us (though admittedly, the concept is beginning to feel dated). Vikander should be everyone's new girl crush, not just because she's beautiful but because she possesses subtly of character, something entirely unnecessary in a story this overt. Her performance in Ex Machina was evidence of her skills, and the best part is that she doesn't play the same character here. She holds court with the suave agents, and elicits an equal amount of charm. Granted, her accent vacillates between German, British, and her natural Swedish, but it all adds to the air of espionage. At least that's how I'm going to argue it.

Acting and fashion aside, the action is the first thing you'll notice is pretty light. Explosions are few and far between, unlike what we're used to in the Bond oeuvre, but there was something inherently right about it all. These are spies, we're talking about, and there's a concerted effort to not get caught or be seen. What a concept, huh? It makes for less death-defying stunts, but it also leaves some breathing room for shenanigans and fun banter.

Guy Ritchie's usual violent style isn't completely absent, but it's so understated, most viewers might miss it completely. None of the heroes or the villains are thugs, they're diplomats and agents, and they move, act, and speak as such. But there's still some mild torture and frightening inferences to keep the imagination going and the tension high. And hey, this is based on an overly playful television series from the 1960s, the fact that it's not full of cheese and dad jokes should be considered a blessing.

What I enjoyed most about UNCLE is that is has something for everyone. It's clever and exciting at times, and there's plenty of "pretty" to look at. At the end of a summer season full of movies trying so damn hard, this was pretty effortless. It doesn't soar to great heights as a result, but then again, it doesn't need to. Looking at the tailored suits and 60's mod dresses was as enjoyable as experiencing the featherweight action, and I got to look at Henry Cavill almost the entire time. Asking for more would just be selfish.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Project 365: Movies 167 - 172

167 / 365: Tig (2015)
© Netflix

I remember my friend telling me about Tig Notaro and her stand-up performance in LA a few years back. He'd lamented missing something so incredible, and I sat back without a clue as to what he was talking about. This new documentary is based around these events and the life of comedian Tig Notaro before and after the announcement of her cancer diagnosis live on stage at LA's club Largo in 2012.

We follow Tig after she is hit with a series of trials that, on their own, would have been crippling to even the most resilient among us. Loss and death, and then the kicker, a diagnosis of breast cancer in quick succession, led Tig to spill into one stand-up routine—a performance that will go down in history as maybe one of the best ever—her pain and fear through a veil a humor. Never have I seen a movie more about one's need to laugh in the face of tragic uncertainly. The documentary itself is devastatingly funny, all framed through the pain of Tig's own life and her determination to find happiness through love and family.

The film is patient—no one is in a hurry, especially Tig. That's her comedy style, really. She's a comic's comic, it becomes quite clear, and even her peers describe her this way. She possesses an unwavering confidence that is present not only in her material but within her daily life, which is so rare in most comedians. Following the audio recording of her show's viral spread (you can purchase it here), she and her diagnosis were thrust into the spotlight, and she was offered the rare opportunity to share her story on her own terms.

Finding laughter in the midst of discomfort is Tig's specialty, and she's made me appreciate the importance of that. A beautiful little movie about a delightful person. I knew very little about Notaro before watching this, having heard of her only by name, and I've become an immediate and forever fan.

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

168 / 365: MASH (1970)
© 20th Century Fox

This movie was the #54 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

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

169 / 365: Trainwreck (2015)
© Universal Pictures

New movie release, reviewed previously on Through the Reels. Read the full review here.

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

170 / 365: Ant-Man (2015)
© Marvel Studios

New movie release, reviewed previously on Through the Reels. Read the full review here.

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

171 / 365: Tangerine (2015)
© Magnolia Pictures

New movie release, reviewed previously on Through the Reels. Read the full review here.

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

172 / 365: The Deer Hunter (1978)
© Universal Pictures

This movie was the #53 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

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

Movie Review: "Tangerine" (2015)

© Magnolia Pictures

The most surprising movie of the year, this film festival darling became the talk of Sundance because it was filmed entirely on an iPhone 5—with the help of some pretty cool attachments—making it as close to urban, guerrilla filmmaking as you can get. Especially as it relates to a fictional dramedy like Tangerine, filmed in the heart of Tinseltown where there's quite a bit more hustle than tinsel. But it isn't the way it was filmed that makes it such a resounding success. The most original story about the city of Hollywood to come out, probably ever, is like a verbal assault grounded in gritty, sun-kissed visuals.

We're introduced to two transgender prostitutes working the Santa Monica / Highland block of Hollywood, Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez). Over the course of one exhausting day—more specifically, Christmas Eve—the just-released-from-prison Sin-Dee goes in search of her boyfriend/pimp, Chester (James Ransone), after Alexandra reveals he's been cheating on her during her time in jail. To make things worse, the new girl is a "fish" (aka cisgender female). And then SHIT. GETS. REAL.

Writer/Director Sean Baker couldn't have known at the time how prevalent the conversation surrounding trans and minority issues would be at this exact moment, but that's what you call kismet. Tangerine has come at exactly the right time, a reverse perspective to the glamour of Caitlyn Jenner that highlights the dark side of the urban trans community with a spark of ingenious humor. The fact that he pitched the story knowing only one thing to start—that the film's climax would take place at Donut Time—bawls me over with glee. The acting, particularly from Rodriguez, is so impressive, it almost isn't acting at all. There are moments you forget you're not watching a sordid documentary, but then again, that's what makes it represent life so effectively.

If like me you know the streets of Hollywood like the back of your hand, but only from behind the wheel of a car, experiencing the city on foot alongside Sin-Dee and Alexandra is oddly familiar and electrifying. The neon-lit Hamburger Mary's where we go to Drag Queen Bingo on Wednesdays... the seedy corner strip mall housing Crown of India where we'd pick up Indian take-out for TV marathon sessions... the corpse of Irv's Burgers' former location, boarded up, dark and abandoned... all of this streams past in the background during the day's shenanigans, adding boundless character to the real city of Los Angeles.

Add on top of that the characters themselves, who embody everyone you'd ever try to avoid on your way to Laurel Hardware on foot because you had to park five blocks away. Avoid eye contact and pretend you can't hear the maniacal laughter and screaming coming from two crazies power-walking their asses down Santa Monica Blvd. Tangerine is in part about those people, shining a light on their lives, their struggles, and most interestingly, their dramas. But it's also about friendship, trying to make it in a world that would rather pretend you're not there. An honest story completely devoid of irony or false hipness, a rarity to say the least.

The cherry on top of this perfect cake is the music, orchestral on a grand scale until it devolves into something out of dub-step, and we're taken on a uniquely wild ride. It's clear Baker understood how important the music would be in the editing of the movie, and nothing about its construction is lazy. We're presented a gorgeous, brilliant movie, made for less than $100,000, that has more personality, entertainment, and heart than any $100+ million flicks released this year. Up there with Mad Max: Fury Road as my favorite of 2015 (so far).

Rating: ★★★★★ / 5 stars

[I can't recommend watching the trailer enough. Go! Do it!]

Monday, August 24, 2015

Music Mondays: Florence + the Machine "Drumming Song"

Every song that Florence + the Machine releases is worthy of being applauded (or cycled on exhaustive rotation on my iPod, which happens frequently), but no matter how many new songs or albums she releases, I always go back to her first major hit, "Drumming Song." I heard this song back in 2009 when it was shared on a music blog, and we were entreated to listen to it immediately. I was never the same, because this song has essentially defined my musical tastes over the last 5+ years.

So even though her newest album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is indeed amazing, Lungs will always be my first love. Have a listen! xx

Artist: Florence + the Machine
Song: "Drumming Song" | download
Album: Lungs

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Project 365: Movies 158 - 166

158 / 365: A Little Chaos (2015, US)
© Focus Features

I'll go see anything that Alan Rickman is in. It's how I found myself enduring the almost unendurable Bottle Shock. Not only was he starring in this one, though, he also directed it. Sold. The moment you walk in, there's an upfront acknowledgement that the film is a fantasy. "There is a ballroom in the garden of Versailles... this much is true." Immediately, our expectations are set to not take the whole thing too seriously, that the story is a romantic idea, not fact.

Sabine (Kate Winslet) is a landscape architect working in Paris during the early 1700s.  King Louis XIV (Alan Rickman) has demanded his new palace at Versailles contain the most grand, most elaborate gardens ever built, so he enlists master landscaper, Andre (Mathias Schoenaerts), to assemble a team to design it. When Sabine's chaotic design submission challenges Andre's call for order and symmetry, she wins a coveted position previously only held by men. As she makes her way to Versailles, she becomes embroiled in the politics of the court, especially when a friendship develops with Andre.

All of the actors are British, despite this being a French story—frankly, that's pretty par for the course. Schoenaerts is dashing, and has more luscious locks than Winslet, who is wearing probably the world's worst wig. Andre says sexy, flighty things, like "Like a good plant, I submit" which leads to us witnessing his submission to his philandering and insufferable wife.

The dynamics of the court are the most intriguing part of the movie, and I wish there'd been more of it. Like a Parisian Mean Girls, Versailles is not unlike a high school cafeteria. The best scene consists of a community of women who must find time in secret to be their honest selves in a world that does not encourage them to do so. Stanley Tucci shows up, as well, and everything is immediately more fun—he delivers the only comedy of the film. And of course, Rickman possesses an unparalleled romanticism in all that he does and says.

Unfortunately, the movie is overloaded with an unnecessary attempt to give Sabine substance, awkwardly incorporating memories and hallucinations of a deceased daughter. There might be more gravity to it if it had anything to do with the movie, but if anything, it's a manipulative plot point meant to add complications to a potential romance with Schoenaerts. It distracts from the fun of the court, and the beauty of the gardens of Versailles. See this if you're a fan of Rickman, or only care about Mathias Schoenaerts' piercing stare... otherwise, there's not much else to enjoy.

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

159 / 365: Terminator Genisys (2015)
© Paramount Pictures

New movie release, reviewed previously on Through the Reels. Read the full review here.

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

160 / 365: Magic Mike XXL (2015)
© Warner Bros.

New movie release, reviewed previously on Through the Reels. Read the full review here.

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

161 / 365: Independence Day (1996)
© 20th Century Fox

No matter how drained you are, or how full of beer and hot dogs you are, it is your patriotic duty to watch Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith fight the alien invasion every Fourth of July. Independence Day is the It's a Wonderful Life of "United States of F*ckin' America" movies. The script, the visual effects, the acting—it all holds up. It also has the greatest inspirational battle speech delivered by anyone in the history of movies, and I don't even like Bill Pullman. But man, did that guy kill that Presidential pep-talk.

What else is there to say? It might be worth noting that this star-studded cast will be back (and I mean everyone) for the long-awaited sequel, coming out next summer, exactly 20 years after the original. It's about time.

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

162 / 365: The Tribe (2015)
© Drafthouse Films

New movie release, reviewed previously on Through the Reels. Read the full review here.

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

163 / 365: North By Northwest (1955)

This movie was the #55 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

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

164 / 365: National Treasure (2004)
© Walt Disney Studios

Two words: Scavenger. Hunt. One of the best filmed scavenger hunts ever, it's also about my other favorite subject. History. If Nicolas Cage could make a National Treasure movie every couple of years, he'd be my favorite person. The high-stakes silliness of these movies suit him perfectly, and it doesn't hurt that the surrounding cast is so memorable.

Cage plays Benjamin Gates, whose family has been searching for a hidden treasure since the American Revolution. Ben, naturally, is the closest anyone has ever been to discovering the initial clues that have stumped the Gates' for centuries, despite his father (Jon Voight) professing it's all made up. Round out the team of history nerds and tech dorks (including Diane Kruger and Justin Bartha)—plus the villains (Sean Bean, duh)—and you've got a rag-tag team of treasure hunters!

This first National Treasure is a surprise to anyone who sees it, because it's pretty darn great. The reveals are interesting and most of the clues aren't obvious. We aren't being fed a bunch of exposition just so the clues will make sense. The script actually has faith in the audience to follow along with having their hands held (unlike some movies *cough*Da Vinci Code*cough*). Dan Brown wishes his story had been this fun.

I'm a sucker for people figuring out clues and doing all the hard work so that I can sit back and enjoy the treasure finding. And the end is just as cathartic as you hope it will be.

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

165 / 365: Can't Buy Me Love (1986)
© Buena Vista Pictures

When I heard about the passing of Amanda Peterson, I was shocked. She hadn't done much since her foray into teen romantic comedies as the most popular girl in school alongside Patrick Dempsey in Can't Buy Me Love. But I was struck with sadness, and couldn't help honoring her by watching the adorable fun that is her biggest hit—not to mention the movie that introduced the world to how dorkably-cute Patrick Dempsey is.

Reluctant nerd, Ronald Miller (Dempsey), dreams of spending his senior year in the company of the school's popular group, particularly his long-time crush, head cheerleader, Cindy Mancini (Peterson). When Cindy runs into some money troubles trying to keep up appearances among her critical friends, Ronald comes to her rescue with money from his summer job. The catch? She has to pretend to be his girlfriend for an entire month, something that's guaranteed to propel him to the height of popularity. Popularity, though, might not be all he'd anticipated.

Nothing about Can't Buy Me Love is unique. It's pretty by the book, but Dempsey makes it special. He's cartoonish, sometimes to an extreme, but it all compliments his delusions and transformation. Peterson gives Cindy a maturity that the other characters lack, which helps her stand out as someone that would absolutely be the most popular girl in school. It's never more annoying than a character being beloved by everyone for no other reason than because the script says so. That is not the case with Cindy. She's well-developed and actually a nice person with plenty of truths to share with Ronald, who isn't quite ready to listen.

As far as teen comedies go, this one is delightful. The side characters are just as memorable, despite being totally one-sided, and there are plenty of fun and games to enjoy. Amanda Peterson may not have done a lot in her career, but she gave a wonderful performance here, well beyond what was likely required for the role. Worth watching at least once, but I think you'll find that once just isn't enough.

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

166 / 365: Amy (2015)
© A24

New movie release, reviewed previously on Through the Reels. Read the full review here.

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

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

AFI Top 100: #52 "Taxi Driver"

Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976)

It might have come out two years before, but it feels appropriate that #52 on the AFI Top 100 list is Taxi Driver, following The Deer Hunter... to me, this is its unofficial sequel. Once again, Robert De Niro stars as a veteran of the Vietnam War, but his mental state is now teetering on the edge. Filmed before De Niro himself became a household name, he was granted the opportunity to delve into this role by moonlighting as a taxi driver and hanging out with pimps in New York City. His decent into the seedy world created by director Martin Scorsese is a slow build to insanity, gripping and disturbing.

Heavy with narration, like the recitation of a deranged journal, the film introduces Travis Bickle (De Niro) through his own eyes. He's an isolated veteran, committed to his work as a late night taxi driver. His vantage point of the world from behind the wheel is dark and forbidding, and it disgusts him. New York City in the 1970s, filled with murderers and pimps and drugs, Travis makes every attempt to live as normal a life as he knows how. Attempts to woo Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a beautiful political campaign manager, highlight his anti-social tendencies, and as his anxieties build, the urge to act out with violence at the world around him becomes overwhelming. It's when he meets a 12-year-old prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster), that Travis is driven to take action to save herand everyonefrom the scum of the city.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Movie Review: "Fantastic Four" (2015)

© 20th Century Fox

No one thought this was going to be good. Maybe there were hopes of a surprise, the delivery of unexpected gems with our heroes or the villain; or in the world Fox was attempting to re-imagine. Oh boy, what a series of missed opportunities. Nearing the 10-year anniversary of Fox's 2005 Fantastic Four critical failure, the newest venture is released, shiny and new, with an otherwise well thought-out story neutered by its own dialogue. Oh, and it's not fun. Not even a little bit.

Kid-turned-teen genius Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is drafted Sky High-style into a special school for innovative kids after a teleportation device he invented catches the eye of Dr. Storm (Reg E. Cathey). Storm tells him that his device has the potential to transport men to another dimension, rich with resources. He leaves his best friend and school-yard protection, Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), to recreate his invention bigger and better, working alongside Storm's daughter, Sue (Kate Mara). The final piece to the Fantastic Four quadrangle is Sue's brother, Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), who takes a break from drag racing and causing mischief to build stuff in the lab. Oh, and of course, we can't forget the brilliant Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), whose previous work on the project meant he couldn't miss out. And since Reed is so awkwardly obtuse, someone had to be around to be jealous and make googly-eyes at Sue.

Let's skip through the hour of science and laboratory montages and cut right to the chase. Determined to be the first to the other side, the team buckles in (Grimm included, because Reed can't do anything without his bestie) and makes the jump. Of course, things go horribly wrong, and the during their attempted return, their biological makeup is changed forever. These are not powers, but curses. That is, for everyone other than Johnny "Human Torch" Storm, who has the best power ever. Desperate to find a cure, Reed abandons them all to avoid being a tool for the government.

It's all a mess, sadly, but there were glimmers here and there. Where you see the movie's potential most is in its intimacy. There aren't that many characters running around, and they take time—inarguably, too much time—to develop those relationships. The friendship between Reed and Ben is hands-down the highlight. It's the only dynamic that had any true emotional resonance, and Jamie Bell is an absolute talent, despite the limitations he was handed. Strange how the other characters could never find that same resonance. Even Dr. Storm had difficulty connecting with Sue and Johnny, his own kids, despite the script's unsubtle efforts to force them into feelings.

The worst offense of the movie is that it is severely anti-climactic. You can almost see the feet of film reel lying on the cutting room floor, torn from the final battle with Doom. And what a travesty, considering the potential introduced for one of Marvel's most powerful—and frankly, unstoppable—villains. It took half of the movie for these characters to even gain their powers, and then once they do, all we get is a lot of whining about it from behind cinder-block walls. Even the fun stuff they sampled in the movie's trailer (i.e. Thing jumping from a plane while some playful banter is being spewed by Johnny Storm) is completely absent from the final product. If anyone did anything fun or exciting, we never see it. Glimpses of barely visible footage does not a delightful superhero action pic make.

The director, Josh Trank, distancing himself from the final product might have been the nail in the coffin for his Hollywood career, but he wasn't wrong admitting the wreck the studio forced on him. Any oomph the story might have once had was stripped away from what you'll see in the theater. There are hints of it in the background, in the casting choices and the lack of fan pandering. Alright, so there was some pandering (this is a superhero movie, after all), but it could have been so much worse. The script, though, is hollow, and the action is nearly non-existent.

Sadly, while this time around is a vast improvement over the 2005 version (style-wise, not in the 'fun' department), it's still as disjointed as ever. Not to mention its continued irrelevance in the epic Marvel Cinematic Universe. Leave it to 20th Century Fox to hold its intellectual property hostage. X-Men I understand, but Fantastic Four? Maybe it's time to give it up already and hand these character over to the folks who'll do something semi-worthwhile with them. Four left me wanting more--a good thing, usually, except I have every doubt that 'want' will probably never be sated.

Rating: ★★ / 5 stars

AFI Top 100: #53 "The Deer Hunter"

Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter (1978)

Kicking off a one-two punch of De Niro/post-Vietnam psychosis, we've come to #53 on our AFI Top 100 countdown, The Deer Hunter, in all of its unsettling glory. The Best Picture Oscar winner of 1978 features one of the decade's most star-studded casts, including a breakout role for young Meryl Streep, earning her her first Oscar nomination. It's infamous sequences and multiple story lines make this The Best Years of Our Lives for the disheartened, resentful Vietnam-era.

A group of friends working in a small Pennsylvania town steel-mill celebrate the marriage of one of their own the weekend before three of them deploy to the war in Vietnam. Michael (Robert De Niro), Steven (John Savage), and Nick (Christopher Walken) endure the heinous acts committed on the battlefield while life at home continues without them. It's during a shoot-out in a small village that the three friends are apprehended by rogue Viet Cong militia, held captive in the jungle and forced to play Russian Roulette to the death. Time's running out for them to escape, and they may not leave with their sanity in tact.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Music Mondays: Poliça "Chain My Name"

When you get to work on a Monday morning and there isn't enough coffee in the world, the cure for any energy deficit is music. Usually, that's when I pull out the synthpop or dance music, and the first track that popped into my head on this Music Monday is "Chain My Name" by Poliça. I love these guys, and their songs are lofty and bouncy and fun. Lead singer Channy Leaneagh's voice makes me a happy, happy girl.

I first came across their album Shulamith at the start of last year, their second studio album. It's a total masterwork, and it's what I'll be listening to on repeat to get my brain back in gear for the work week.

What are you listening to?

Artist: Poliça
Song: "Chain My Name" | download
Album: Shulamith

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Project 365: Movies 153 - 157

153 / 365: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)
© Fox Searchlight Pictures

I'd looked forward to this movie for months, and that coming from someone who didn't even read the book. The trailer was charming and quirky in that hipster-y way, about teens on the periphery who enjoy grown-up things like old, weird movies and funky food—and then one of them gets cancer. Our sickly girl is Rachel, played by Olivia Cooke, who you might remember as the sickly girl on "Bates Motel." The big, doll-like eyes help, I suppose. But this isn't really her story. Told through the eyes of popular loner, Greg (Thomas Mann), he's strong-armed by his hippie parents into spending time with Rachel. Turns out, he enjoys spending time with her, so to avoid dealing with the potential of losing his new friend, he enlists fellow movie-maker Earl (RJ Cyler) to help him make a movie about her.

This story had so much damn potential, but moments of forced nonchalance overshadow much of the depth. Greg is actually a complicated character, but since he's narrating—and an unreliable narrator, at that—every effort is made to gloss over that. A plot choice that, unfortunately, doesn't pay off. Blatantly lying to the audience, over and over again, doesn't throw us off the scent of plot twists to come. If anything, it highlights that we're being conned, and as a result, we dislike Greg immensely. The hardest part was realizing that I know at least two guys exactly like him.

This leads to the aspect of the movie I actually adored. As a movie-lover, the film parodies that Greg creates with Earl—by altering the names of classic movies and basing their stories on that—are amazing. A Sockwork Orange... Pooping Tom... I seriously couldn't get enough. We're constantly told that all of their movies are garbage, but of course, the clips we're shown suggest anything but. Rachel is the only character in the movie who speaks truths, maybe because she has the freedom to do so since sickness removes all filters, but she's portrayed as more powerless than she needed to be. Greg's self-centered, asshole demeanor, while entirely believable for a teenage boy unwilling to feel real feelings, take away from the film's heart. Naturally, he makes everything about him, and you can't help being frustrated by the limits this puts on the script.

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

154 / 365: Jaws (1975)
© Universal Pictures

This movie was the #56 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

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

155 / 365: Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (2013)

A slice of modern Russian history, telling the story of a group of artists and feminist performers known as Pussy Riot, this documentary follows three of the group's key members as they stand trial in 2011 for a political, heavy metal performance on the sacred group of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Nadezhda TolokonnikovaMariya Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich fight for their freedom while touting their anti-Putin message, even from behind bars. A frightening look at the Russia of today that aims to weed out the outspoken youth, anti-religious propaganda, and homosexuality—all under the guise of an internationally covered show-trial.

A documentary about a case like this, and the tension surrounding it, is inherently flawed in the sense that it has a shelf-life. If you watch the movie within a year of its release, it will all be wonderfully topical. While the message surrounding the movie could not be more relevant, particularly as it relates to the social climate in Russia today, the activity of the case, the verdicts, and the weight of the accusations aren't as much. I was left hoping for an update, forced to scour Wikipedia for more information—and as it turns out, there is quite a bit more information now about Pussy Riot and its famous members, particularly those still imprisoned at the end of the film.

Our focus shifts from the message and history of the group, its formation, and its mission, to a history of the girls on trial, especially Nadezhda, likely the activist most associated with Pussy Riot. The film is balanced, yet it can't help but feel unfinished. It even loses some of its tension with the climactic final trial verdicts, especially if you're watching it with knowledge the filmmakers themselves didn't even have at the time. The story is ever-evolving, which makes A Punk Prayer worth the watch, but know that you're never going to feel the catharsis of closure. Watch the news coming out of Russia and keep up with the movement direct from the source. It's being covered right now, as I type. This I can promise.

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

156 / 365: Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)
© Universal Pictures

Having watched Steel Magnolias probably a dozen times as a kid, it surprises me to think that Fried Green Tomatoes—a film cut from the very same Southern, emotional cloth—never made an appearance. "It's too sad, I didn't feel like crying," my mom told me when I asked her why she never played it for us. Ironic, I thought, considering the tear-jerker and pearl clutching factors in Steel Magnolias were way more off the charts. Nevertheless, there's a bit more to this one than how many tissues you can tear through. Complex and touching, Fried Green Tomatoes ties murder and love to the tragedy of the passage of time.

Meek and unsatisfied housewife, Evelyn (Kathy Bates), reluctantly interacts with an old, talkative women at a nursing home when she's there visiting her husband's family. The elderly woman, Ninny Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy) begins to tell Evelyn stories of her life and the people she knew growing up in Georgia, all centered around a now-shuddered local place called the Whistle Stop Cafe. Jumping back in time, Ninny recounts tales of the inspiring but tragic life of Cafe owner Idgie Threadgoode (Mary Stuart Masterson) and her unwavering friendship with Ruth Jamison (Mary-Louise Parker). As Evelyn becomes ever-more enthralled with Ninny's description of Idgie's strength, she begins to find her own strength to find happiness in her own life.

This lovely film falls victim to a reliance on the narration during the flashback portion of the movie. It makes the transition to the present day awkward and hallow at times, despite the touching characterizations. Jessica Tandy's incredible voice over during the flashbacks doesn't cross over into the present, and the script (not to mention Kathy Bates' acting) suffers for the lack of narration as a result. There are even moments where Evelyn talks loudly to herself, an obvious coping mechanism on the part of the writers who didn't quite know how to tell the story without an omniscient narrator.

It doesn't take away from the emotional impact, though. Idgie and Ruth's relationship is the heart of the story, even though the clear homosexual undertones are just that: undertones. Nothing is said overtly, but it's not difficult to infer the romantic affection Idgie has for Ruth from the beginning. Masterson edges on caricature a few times with the boyish persona, but as the film progresses, it becomes less forced and more natural. Parker is perfect as Ruth. She is vulnerable without being weak, and Idgie's instinct to protect her adds layers to the relationship. In the end, though, the movie is about so much more than them. The nostalgia is gripping, and physically represented through Bates' Evelyn as she listens desperately to Ninny's story. And it's a wonderful story, at that.

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

157 / 365: Beyond the Lights (2014)
© Relativity Media

This begins as Titanic does, with rising star and suicidal darling, Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) dangling from a precipice, saved only by the efforts of a caring, selfless man. In this case, it's naive police officer, Kaz (Nate Parker), the first man to ever claim to "see her," becoming the only respite she finds in the insane, money-grubbing music industry she's been thrust into. Kaz's papa wants him to set his focus on a political path to the presidency, and "First Lady material [Noni] isn't." They're both prisoners to their parents' dreams for them. Noni's talents are commandeered by mom-ager from hell, Macy Jean (Minnie Driver), who's delighted about her little girl stripping down in front of the camera, while Kaz is dismayed at the sight of it all.

So much about this movie is painfully cliche, from the interactions between hip-hop artists and the treatment of women as sexual objects, to Noni's stripped down transformation as she finds freedom from her weave. All problems disappear once the weave comes out, I've heard that's how it works. Where the movie shines, though, is in Gugu's performance. Maybe it comes from her being an unknown, but she is beyond refreshing. By not casting Rihanna or Ciara to play, well... a Rihanna or Ciara-like character, and instead, cast an actual actress with levels and emotions? That saved the movie from the cheesy forgetfulness I'd expected.

Gugu has a Kerry Washington vibe about her, classy and powerful, and Noni's story mimics Nicki Minaj's before Pink Friday dropped. She's famous already, without a full album to her name, but her future is at risk. The film spends a lot of time trying to establish the kind of person Noni is, while Kaz's lack of depth and complexity sets him up pretty darn quickly. In that way, they don't connect realistically until well into the last half of the story. But when they do connect, you feel it. I just wish it hadn't taken so long to get there.

But then Birdy's cover of "Shelter" rings out for all to hear, and everything is okay again.

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

Monday, August 10, 2015

Music Mondays: Aurora "Running With the Wolves"

Sometimes I need beautiful music playing, with no other criteria. It's an added bonus when beautiful music is also really well written! I'm a sucker for Scandinavian singer/songwriters, so when I heard Norwegian singer Aurora last week, I fell into a momentary obsession pit. The 19-year-old appears mature beyond her years, and her new hit song "Running With the Wolves" is going to be everywhere soon. Her EP is out, and I can't wait for a full album.

Take a listen, and check out her gorgeous, funky music video above! Happy Monday, all. xx

Artist: Aurora
Song: "Running With the Wolves" | download
Album: Running With the Wolves EP

Saturday, August 8, 2015

AFI Top 100: #54 "MASH"

Elliott Gould, Sally Henderson, & Donald Sutherland in MASH (1970)

Don't be confused, the American Film Institute did not put one of the most beloved shows ever to air on television among its Best of Cinema... Nope, coming in at #54 is the film on which that show was based: MASH, directed by Nashville culprit, Robert Altman. While my distaste for that country music satire is palpable, I'm less sure about Altman's Korean War comedy. For the first time in this series, I'm letting my frienda frequent movie night attendeedescribe how we all felt about it. In the words of Mr. Matt R-K...

"Watch the zany antics of four army doctors in the Korean war! Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) and Tapper (Elliott Gould) make fun of the ridiculous Japanese 'Ranguage,' giggle uncontrollably when their friend comes out of the closet and wants to attempt suicide, and finally, assault, humiliate, and sexually blackmail... well, everyone. 

It's been 45 years since this film was released and it has Not. Aged. Well. The point of the film was to show how hippie counterculture overcomes the rigid and callous militarythe "establishment," if you will. However, watching this movie in 2015, I can't help but feel that the white, male doctors aren't the lovable underdogs, and are instead Blackwater-esque, sexual predators.

Final Verdict: A great film about horrible people." I couldn't have said it better myself.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Music Mondays: Amanda Ghost "Filthy Mind"

There is no album that played through my car stereo during high school than Ghost Stories by Amanda Ghost. While the London singer/songwriter may have only had a single hit on US radio (do you remember "Silver Lining"?), it's her track "Filthy Mind" that first caught my attention when it was featured in an early episode of the TV show "Queer as Folk." I was obsessed with that show, and as a result, this song. I played it constantly, tracking down her full CD at our local music store and playing it until it skipped horribly. Even with the scratches, I still have that busted-up old record.

I'm wasn't sure what Amanda Ghost had been up to in the 15 years since this album came out, so I looked her up. Turns out, she was head of Epic Records for a year before jumping back into music! Pretty bad-ass! I played through my fan-made QAF soundtrack mix the other day and couldn't help but share this with you all. It's like song-crack. Enjoy!

Artist: Amanda Ghost
Song: "Filthy Mind" | download
Album: Ghost Stories 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

AFI Top 100: #55 "North By Northwest"

Cary Grant in North By Northwest (1959)

I'm tempted to cite surprise that it took us so long to get to an Alfred Hitchcock film on this list, but then I remember that Hitchcock is likely the greatest, most influential director of all time, and having any of his movies above #50 is practically sacrilegious. Four of his most beloved pictures grace the AFI Top 100, and it's never a boring debate when you get into it with people whether those on there should be replaced by different ones. Coming in at #55 is Hitch's thrillingly fun tale of mistaken identity, North By Northwest.

We're introduced to Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), a 'mama's boy' Manhattan advertising executive who quite literally raises his hand at the wrong time. In a restaurant while flagging down a waiter, he's overseen and mistaken as George Kaplan, a CIA operative being pursued by foreign spies. He's kidnapped despite declaring fervently there's been a mistake and taken to the home of Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), where he's interrogated and thoroughly confused. Confused turns to frightened when they try to murder him by propelling him over a cliff. Narrowly escaping with his life, Thornhill embarks on a mad search across the country for the real Kaplan just as a manhunt begins to find him.

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