Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Project 365: Movies 195 - 202

195 / 365: Gaslight (1940)
© British National Films

You've heard of the term "gaslighting," right? It's a term used in clinical psychology to describe the emotional and mental abuse of a person by causing them to doubt their own memories, feelings, and instincts. It is a sadistic tactic to drive an otherwise sane person mad, and the verb "to gaslight" was inspired by this film. Or rather, the play on which this film was based. More famously adapted with Ingrid Bergman four years later, this film version is the original made for a British audience.

When an elderly woman is murdered in her townhouse inside a wealthy London neighborhood, the police suspect it must have been a robbery gone wrong when they find that rare rubies belonging to the woman are missing. Twenty years later, the home finally has new inhabitants when Paul Mallen (Anton Walbrook) moves in with his delicate wife, Bella (Diana Wynyard). Almost immediately, Bella begins to notice strange and unnerving things in the house, noises coming from the boarded up 4th floor. When she goes to her husband, he dismisses her, shaming her behavior and blaming her unhinged mind for the tricks it plays on her. Little does she know that it is her husband who is up to no good, and a local detective (Robert Newton) will need Bella's help to figure out what.

The terror of this movie is how the abuse of Bella's mind unfolds. So simple at first ("Did you hear that? she asks Paul. "Hear what? There was no sound," he responds), creating the foundation of perpetual doubt, building to fully formed manipulations that cause her to question her own internal truths. Convincing her that objects have moved, that she's misplaced her things or taken his, shaming her in front of the servants, even in public. As her protests fall on deaf ears, Bella begins to truly think she's crazy, and it becomes traumatic to watch. The surface plot, the search for the rubies, is a total MacGuffin. All of the drama and suspense comes from Bella's struggle as you clasp your hands over your face and cry out to her that someone believes her, you believe her!

A wonderful film that takes its time and manages to affect you in unexpected ways. Less seen--and a bit less dark—than the American version, it's still necessary classic cinema viewing. Especially if you're a fan of thrillers.

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

© Triangle Film Corporation

This movie was the #49 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

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

197 / 365: Mr. Holmes (2015)
© Roadside Attractions

A now elderly Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen), 35 years retired from his work as a detective, is living in Dover with only his apiary and housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), for company. Also running around causing mischief is Munro's young son, Roger (utterly brilliant newcomer Milo Parker), a big fan of Mr. Holmes and his mysteries, especially the final one: Holmes' first-hand account of his final case. The problem is, he can't remember the details, just the face of a beautiful woman. The film follows an ever more senile Holmes in search of answers as to why his last case pushed him into seclusion, flashing back to two different periods during his later years, and all the while, he battles his memory loss and the inevitability of his final days.

The mysteries themselves—there are three, one in each section of the story—aren't particularly mysterious. They're questions with an obvious answer that happens to be untrue. As a result, our interest is piqued by the questions, but the resolutions are underwhelming. With a "Well yeah" and a knowing nod, we can only sit back and watch our Sherlock be much more impressed with the discovery than we are. The most "Sherlock-y" moments come from when he "does that thing" he does and tells people where they've been simply by looking at them. It's a small aspect of his classic character, but it never gets old, even when it gets old for him.

A beautifully filmed movie from director Bill Condon (reuniting with McKellen after 1998's Gods and Monsters), it doesn't lose its spark by not having the shocking reveals we're used to in Holmes adaptations. But it should set your expectations in another direction. Linney's character is solid, but unremarkable, and she isn't given a lot to work with, save one final moment with McKellen at the end of the movie. The real wonder here comes from the relationship between Holmes and Roger, who become unlikely cohorts. See the film to experience McKellen's incredible transformation into a 92-year-old and the effortless performance by Parker.

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

198 / 365: March of the Penguins (2005)
© Warner Independent Pictures

Narrated now infamously by the world's greatest voice, Morgan Freeman, this incredible documentary follows the year-long journey of the Emperor Penguins as they walk 70 miles from the sea inland to mate, care for their eggs, and raise their newborns, all in the harshest place on Earth: Antarctica.

To say that I'm captivated by these penguins is an understatement. I mean, weren't we all in the summer of 2005? Penguins were everywhere, all thanks to this little, French-funded documentary. What the filmmakers did so well here is providing an expansive range of emotions, and most effectively, attributing human-like emotions to their non-human subjects. Sadness, fear, loneliness, desperation, all of it bubbles up at one time or another as the penguins fight for no other reason than to keep their young alive.

Of course, despite this being rated-G and certainly accessible for children, there is no shortage of tragedy. Once warm and protected eggs lost to the cold, baby penguins separated from their parent and frozen in minutes... it is extraordinarily painful to watch. An obvious struggle for a nature and wildlife filmmaker, to not intrude or interfere with the natural order of things. The connection to the penguins and fear for their safety that every one of us feels when we watch this movie is a testament to its success.

Rightly so, it won the Oscar for Best Documentary that year, and it set a precedent for all wildlife documentaries since. The Planet Earth docu-series came out the following year, but it was March of the Penguins that introduced all of us to the calm and patient cinematic experience of witnessing the beauty of animal life.

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

199 / 365: Hot Rod (2007)
© Paramount Pictures

Watching this Adam Samberg movie (you know, the one he left SNL to star in) is a far better experience nearly 10 years later that I think it might have been when it first came out. He's become an established and mature comedic performer, most notably in FOX's "Brooklyn Nine Nine," and that affects how I see this ridiculous comedy.

Rod Kimble (Samberg) is the world's greatest stuntman--he says. Petering around on a motorized bicycle, he and his 'crew', Dave (Bil Hader), Rico (Danny McBride), and Kevin (Jorma Taccone) construct elaborate stunts in their hometown, advertising Rod's epic skills to anyone who'll come to see him despite his having no skills at all. When his disapproving step-father (Ian McShane) is diagnosed with cancer, Rod promises to do the biggest stunt ever—jumping fifteen buses—to raise money and finally win his dad's respect.

The movie hits most of the right notes with the physical comedy, establishing right away that this is a sort of fantasy world where people can endure cartoon-like amounts of bodily harm and still survive. Samberg's face-pulling and bright-eyed childishness is an appropriate character quality for Rod, who is stuck in perpetual adolescence. I got a lot of chuckles out of watching his tantrums, usually directed at his step-dad.

There are certainly many jokes that fall flat, usually the ones that are repeated ad nausem. The side characters are all one-note, but they they work as support for Samberg. Mid-movie, the love story is incorporated by introducing Denise (Isla Fisher), who joins the crew. Rod's crush on her is sweet, but she's basically kind of useless as a character. If anything she adds a bit of maturity to the group and levels Rob out, but sadly, she doesn't make a lot of sense, especially the forced relationship she's in with Will Arnet's douchebag character, Jonathan. Not to mention, Isla's accent was trying real-real hard, but it was floundering on a consistent basis.

A great cast of comedians round out a kinda dumb movie, that's more Talladega Nights than Step Brothers, but has enough laughs to keep you entertained.

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

200 / 365: The End of the Tour (2015)
© A24 Films

Based on a recounting of the events in author and journalist David Lipsky's Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, The End of the Tour is a meandering and deep conversation between Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), at the time contributing to Rolling Stone, and author David Foster Wallace (Jason Siegel) during the final days of his book tour for Infinite Jest (considered one of the greatest American novels ever written). Like a significantly more mobile My Dinner with Andre, with a similar devolution of adoration into realization, Lipsky's awe of Wallace is tested when the veil of his life is lifted.

The film begins with the revelation of Wallace's suicide in 2008; even if you already knew that's how his story ended, it gives important weight to the plot. A story about a man who has and does suffer from debilitating depression... and what that looks like, without judgment. As Lipsky reacts to the news of the author's death, he pulls out his old cassette tape recordings of their interview. Flashing back to 1996, Lipsky's own work of literature, The Art Fair, hasn't fared too well on the bestseller list, and when he hears about a new book titled Infinite Jest, he reads it hoping it's nowhere near as good as everyone says. It is, he thinks, even more so. Begging his editor at Rolling Stone to let him do a featured interview with Wallace, he travels to Minnesota to Wallace's home town to get to know the man behind the myth.

The plot avoids getting too heavy by focusing the casual interview on mundane, human interests, like junk food and movie guilty pleasures, topics that put Wallace at ease and allow him to let his guard down. There are moments when Eisenberg conveys Lipsky's excitement without it ever being visible to Wallace, who might turn off if he realized he'd spoken so freely. Eisenberg is the perfect interviewer, devoid of empathy. Not cold or cruel, but the emotions of others braise the surface only. What about the drug use? is a difficult question to ask, and if you feel too heavily, it might never get asked. Eisenberg's demeanor and acting style is right in line with what Lipsky's role needed, who had to ask questions Wallace wouldn't want to answer, all without coming off like a complete asshole. Over the course of the film, it's Wallace who breaks him of that hardness and challenges his feelings of creative inadequacy.

This movie belongs to Siegel, though. His uncomfortable smile and awkward chuckle, loving and hating every moment of his time with Lipsky simultaneously. He speaks as Wallace as organically as anyone could, embodying the author and his most famous lines with natural ease. That's no easy task when you're talking about someone as iconic, beloved, and studied as Wallace. An impressive dramatic departure from Siegel's normal roles, and I hope a indicator of what's to come for him.

I enjoyed this more than Set Fire to the Stars, a very similarly-plotted true story. End of the Tour's emotional resonance is what hits hardest. Siegel's Wallace is likable despite how tormented he is, or how abrasive his ego can be. And Eisenberg is far more relaxed than he usually is, which makes him relatable maybe for the first time ever. A down-to-earth, but poetic, movie that discusses literature with gusto and depression with honesty.

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

201 / 365: Meru (2015)
© Music Box Films

When it comes to a good sports movie or documentary, I'm a pretty big sucker. We all know the formula, it's pretty cut and dry at this point. We know the rises and the falls and the successes and the triumphs—but it grabs us, hook, line, and sinker every time. Meru is no different in this regard—but it's in this regard where the similarities end. While films of fiction or historical accounts rely on carefully crafted scripts, the swell of the music and soaring cinematography—and documentaries about the same rely heavily on pooled footage, second-hand accounts, or even news reels... Meru sets itself apart. No actors. No film crew. No special effects. Just three men, a camera, and the obsessive need to succeed where there has only ever been failure.

The story of Meru is as follows. Beginning in 2008, three elite climbers led by Conrad Anker prepared for their next big climb. This time, they would attempt to scale Meru Peak and its Shark fin route deep in the Himalayas that has never successfully been climbed. Sheer-faced granite sides 21,000 ft high, it is considered the most difficult big rock climb in the world. Conrad and his small team, including pro-climber and photographer, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk, the new member in the group and least experienced, must traverse the entire thing alone, lugging hundreds of pounds of gear by themselves. Tireless preparation couldn't prepare them for the harsh elements and impossible conditions of the climb, and through Chin's stunning photography and the team's insightful interviews (including intense and poetic recounts from climber and author Jon Krakauer), a portrait of obsession, danger, and persistent passion is painted like never before.

This film is monumentally good. I didn't breathe for the first third of the movie, but once I started, that's when the tears came. Simply exhilarating, it is expertly crafted. Never have more risks been taken in capturing events on film. Chin had the foresight to record their entire journey from start to finish; the fears, the dangers, and—with great confidence—the process. Climbing movies, real or fictional, focus most of their energy on the drive to the summit or personal dramas, skipping right over how climbing actually works, the culture, and the mindsets of those who do it. Meru isn't just about the summit. It is about these men, the lives they live, and the risks they take (the most shocking sequence in the film doesn't even take place on Meru).

I'm still thinking about this film. I can't shake it. It is quite literally the best documentary I've ever seen, even surpassing the perfectly constructed Searching for Sugar Man. Meru has the thrills, the heart, and of course, a cathartic, emotional climax that could inspire us all to do better and aim for greatness. In my top two movies of the year, this is a flick that is an absolute must for everyone. I can't imagine a single person walking away from this documentary unaffected. Spectacular, see this movie immediately.

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

202 / 365: Stardust (2007)
© Paramount Pictures

I wanted to think this movie was stupid. The trailer looks like a bad episode of Once Upon a Time (a TV show that my boyfriend enjoys, so it wasn't a surprise that he insisted we watch this love fantasy together. I'm such a lucky girl.) Anyways, as I was saying, I wanted to be proven right, that this silly-looking film was indeed utter garbage... but it wasn't. In fact, it was deliciously sweet. Still silly, but it got me right here *points to heart*, and anyone who grew up on the likes of Hook or A Neverending Story is likely to feel the same.

In the British countryside sits a small hamlet by the name of Wall, so named because along its edge runs a stone wall, guarded 'round the clock, that separates our world from a world of Magic. Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox) has been struck dumb by love, a love not reciprocated by his beloved, Victoria (Sienna Miller). When he and Victoria witness a bright star fall deep into the woods behind the wall, Tristan promises her he'll journey to find the star, bring it to her, and win her love. Little does he know that the star is in fact a magical woman, Yvaine (Claire Danes), and a battle is raging between would-be rulers of a recently vacated throne—and a group of witches led by Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) in search of the star's power to possess everlasting life and beauty.

A busy movie with a lot of moving parts, there are plenty of characters to meet and keep track of. Not to mention a wonderful supporting cast (Robert De Niro as a closeted cross-dressing pirate Captain makes up some of the film's best sequences.) At the same time, the story is still predictable in the way that love stories usually are. Add in the fantasy aspect, and you see most of the plot twists and turns coming. But there are delightful little surprises in there to make it feel fresh.

Clare Danes is wonderful in this, so sweet and lovely, and her usually glassy-eyed expression is an ideal fit for a woman who is in fact a glowing, magical star. Cox' Tristan is delightful to a point, but a bit infuriating in his obtuseness. Can't he see Victoria isn't right for him, and that Yvaine is?!? Ugh, men. But hey! If it were that obvious, we wouldn't get all of the magical comedy that comes up with the dueling princes and Lamia's desperate search. It all adds up to an easy-going, sparkling movie-viewing experience, and it's worth a watch with a couple of girlfriends or a romantically-inclined significant other.

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

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