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

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