Saturday, September 5, 2015

Project 365: Movies 173 - 178

173 / 365: The Wolfpack (2015)
© Magnolia Pictures

A high pitched score rings out, eerie over home video footage. This documentary takes an intimate, unbelievable look inside the Lower East Side, Manhattan apartment of the Angulo family, where the seven Angulo children have been locked away from society for the majority of their lives. Director Crystal Moselle is there to chronicle their world, witnessing the six sons venturing out into New York City for the very first time. The boys share their intense anger towards their father, who deemed the city a dangerous and unsuitable place for his children. Locking them away resulted in a desperate desire to understand the outside world, all while contributing to an ever-present fear of that outside.

While the dark and isolated world of the sons' childhood is the documentary's hook, it's their love of films—and how movies educated them about society outside their apartment walls—that drives the film. The six boys do frightening and meticulous re-creations of movies, notably of the more verbal and violent kind (the boys are clear Tarantino fans). There's also no pretense here—they don't even know the concept of putting on airs. They are quite literally in their own world. Maybe that's what makes each of them such inherently good actors.

Each of the sons gets their moment, even if it's only through still, quiet shots. Every cut, every bit of dialogue or moment of silence, is so telling. The most unnerving images come from the interviews with the boys' mother, who comes across as the true prisoner of the home. She's in a mental prison as well, and the most frightening part is when we discover she entered into it willingly. If anything, this film is a psychological mystery, and we as the audience are desperate for more information. We've certainly got Moselle to thank for that.

That being said, the documentary has a distinct lack of resolution; not to say there isn't a feeling of closure, but it certainly doesn't feel like the end for this family. I'm left hoping that a follow-up is in their future, because seeing how the brothers change after only a few more years will be fascinating.

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

© Paramount Pictures

So... this movie was really good. I mean like really good. For any fifth in a franchise feature, the expectation going in is going to be low, no matter how die hard a fan you are. By that point, the formula is tired, and the actors look a bit more wrinkled and worn, and more often than not, everything is predictable. Color me surprised when I got dragged to M:I:5 (I skipped #4 entirely), and within 15 minutes, I was completely absorbed.

Agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is at it again, tracking down international terrorists with his team at the IMF. When a rogue organization called The Syndicate targets Ethan directly, old suspicions surrounding the Syndicate's existence resurface, and disobeying direct orders from the CIA, Ethan himself must go rogue to stop them. Of course, he couldn't do it without the help of his team, so he enlists tech master/wannabe field agent, Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), to join in on the search.

The qualities that make this movie so successful are its cast and its simplicity. The cast is taut, no filler people or over-stuffed team here, and everyone serves a purpose. Pegg is particularly engaging, and his enthusiasm (and nervousness) for the mission make it the whole feel shiny and new again. Hunt, of course, is rarely scared, but its nice to see him worry about Benji. Rebecca Ferguson makes her first M:I appearance as rogue MI6 agent, Ilsa Faust, and she's the best female counterpart that Cruise as ever had in this franchise. She's strong, naturally beautiful, and can act the hell out of these scenes.

Then comes the simplicity. There's nothing stylized about Rogue Nation. It's straight-forward and still interesting, because there are aspects you won't see coming. The formula is still there, but this time around, it's an asset. We get to enjoy the fun of it all, the infiltration scenes that made the original film so memorable, and that the sequels that followed tended to forget about (or rather, downplay). But here, an absolutely impossible to penetrate, water encased, metal-less vault underneath the Moroccan desert?? Hell yeah, that sounds amazing! Director Christopher McQuarrie does the series justice and then some, and I'm reminded why Cruise is still an unparalleled action star.

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

175 / 365: Taxi Driver (1976)
© Columbia Pictures

This movie was the #52 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

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

176 / 365: Serenity (2005)
© Universal Pictures

The first time I watched Serenity, it was at 10 am after a 13-hour, all-night marathon of the cult (and cancelled too soon) TV show, Joss Whedon's "Firefly." Surrounded by a dozen friends, by the time 9 am rolled around, I was the only one left standing. Or rather, awake. No way was I standing, that's crazy talk. Bleary-eyed and delirious, I finished the movie with no concept of what I'd just seen. Since that time 10+ years ago, I've watched it a handful of times, but never was I really paying attention. Too much chatter among the lot of us who adored the show and can't get over its cancellation. The movie always paled in comparison to the show, so my interest in it waned with each viewing.

That is until I went to see it in a real theater, with real, appreciative fans, something I'd never done before. Let me tell you, it made all the difference. This movie isn't just a filler send-off for a series that was cut down well before its time. Sure, Whedon had plenty of loose-ends that needing tying up, but the best thing about Serenity is that he doesn't try to cover it all. That would be impossible. Instead, he focuses his attention on the central conundrum that is telepathic teen River Tam (Summer Glau), and why she holds such importance.

Flashing back to River's time in captivity, before being rescued by her brother Simon (Sean Maher) and hitching a ride on the spaceship Serenity, we're also treated to a continuation of the events that ended the show. Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his crew still take on odd jobs around the galaxy, keeping off the government's radar as best they can. That is until a relentless assassin (Chiwetel Ejiofor) goes in search of the 'fugitive' River Tam, Mal begins to weigh his options between protecting the Tams... or protecting his crew.

Everyone that you love is back for this one, and Whedon even incorporates an incredible tracking shot to re-introduce you to the entire crew. The camera sweeps through the ship to give us telling glimpses of Wash (Alan Tudyck), Zoë (Gina Torres), Jayne (Adam Baldwin), and Kaylee (Jewel Staite), and it is the happiest, most effective tracking shot ever. Not a moment in this movie is wasted, and there's good reason for that. This is our last chance with these characters, and they had to make it count. The story lives up to the show, as well. The budget got a bump, so everything's a bit glossier and sharper, but still full of substance. While I'll always wonder what ever came of the "Hands of Blue" guys, making the true villains in Serenity the Reevers was absolutely the right choice.

This movie deserves to be seen in theaters. There are so many subtle, quiet moments; dialogue that is easily missed and details often overlooked, it shouldn't be watched half-heartedly. Oh, and it should go without saying, but watch the TV show first, okay? Do yourself that favor, because while the movie can stand alone (surprisingly), the show offers a lot more insight into all of the character dynamics. I hope you enjoy both as much as I do.

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

177 / 365: Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
© USA Films

I tend to reject absurdity in movies. Silliness doesn't hold a lot of appeal, so why I obsessively adore this movie is really a mystery to me. It's ridiculous and dumb and totally brilliant. Oh, and it's up there with Clueless and Mean Girls as one of the most quotable movies ever. A film I think needs to be viewed while wearing sweat shorts, it tells the immortal story of the final day at a fictional Jewish summer camp in 1981. It also stars every person you've ever heard of, and some particularly wonderful ones that you haven't, playing 16-year-old camp counselors even though they're well into their thirties. The comedy here is rich with irony.

If Wet Hot American Summer has a central character, it's arguably Coop (played by co-writer Michael Showalter), an awkward, virginal camp counselor who has a desperate crush on Katie (Marguerite Moreau). Katie, naturally, is getting down and dirty with idiot asshole counselor Andy (Paul Rudd), who's stealing time with his nasty meat-eater side piece, Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks). It all cycles around pretty endlessly and includes Janeane Garofalo as Beth, the camp director, Christopher Meloni as Gene, the Vietnam vet turned cook, and Molly Shannon as distraught divorcee and arts'n'crafts counselor, Gail. And that's just the tip of the iceberg (I could seriously go on and on about Michael Ian Black and Bradley Cooper, but I'll refrain for time).

The plot itself is crazy and almost useless to recount. The only constant to be found is in the clock ticking down towards the end of the day, flashing up to remind you that yes, this actually is a linear story that fits implausibly into a 24-hour period. That, of course, is what makes it so blindly hysterical. It watches like a series of vignettes, some only the length of one joke or bit, but it's enough to flesh out a memorable cult comedy that is funny every time. The recent Netflix series, bringing back every one of the film's stars, is a true testament to how much these guys loved working on this movie, and it shows.

There is the occasional scene, or joke, that tries a bit too hard to be funny (i.e. Garofalo freaking out with Joe Lo Truglio as they search for Ken Marino), but in true vignette/short-form style, it's over and on to the next joke before you know it. It's also not not funny; just... not as funny. Whatever, rationalizing a movie like Wet Hot American Summer is like trying to psychoanalyze Andy Kaufman. Just go with the flow, it's a whole helluva a lot more fun if you don't overthink it.

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

178 / 365: Heathers (1988)
© New World Pictures

It may have been 5+ years since I watched this movie, but I still knew every damn line, and they land as solidly as ever. Gone are the days when "teen comedies" might result in a movie about teen suicides and school shootings, Heathers is a time-capsule of fearless writing that would never—could never—be released today. A twisted dark comedy that's more than a little sharp around the edges.

Brilliant Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) is adrift in a sea of Heathers. The Queen Bee, Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), is the most popular and vicious girl at school, and her lackeys are cheerleader Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) and desperate wannabe Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty). While Veronica tries to maintain some semblance of a soul surrounded by the Heathers, she starts to look for a way out of the clique when she meets the new kid in school, rebellious bad boy, J.D. (Christian Slater). He, of course, is more than happy to get rid of the Heathers for Veronica... preferably for good.

Classic death scenes, morbid humor, and plenty of teen angst, Heathers probably isn't a movie for everyone, but everyone should probably give it a chance. Ryder as Veronica is the perfect, tormented intelligence for the Gen-X era, and her lambasting narration about the girls that are ruining her life—and the culture of popularity that is ruining the world—is completely epic. The movie is also surprisingly cinematic in its production design. There are at least a dozen Halloween costume ideas in this movie that could impress at your next costume party (I went as end-of-the-movie Veronica on Halloween 2009—spoilers if you click the link). The clothes, the music, the dialogue, it's unique to Heathers and Heathers alone.

A must-see cult classic that's about as un-P.C. as you can get. Exactly how I like 'em.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Outdoor Screening
Seen Before: Yes

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