Monday, October 26, 2015

Music Mondays: Adele "Hello"

Because hello!! It's the weekend of Adele, because our girl is back! Her new single, "Hello" is from her forthcoming third studio album, 25, and it's goddamn incredible. I didn't even know how much I missed her until she came back.

My heart feels right again. I know you've already heard this. This one is for me.

Artist: Adele
Song: "Hello" | download
Album: 25
Directed By: Xavier Dolan

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Project 365: Movies 217 - 222

217 / 365: The Dark Crystal (1982)
© Universal Pictures

This Jim Henson, puppetry classic is so good and so dumb in so many wonderful ways. The high fantasy infused into this unique world is brought to life through the incredible creatures created by its visionary director—with the help of like-minded actor and filmmaker, Frank Oz. The Dark Crystal represents the childhood of so many people raised in the eighties, and it's the nostalgia it elicits that gives the movie such staying power.

Another World, Another Time... On a distant planet torn apart by an ancient feud caused by a fracture in the mysterious Dark Crystal a thousand years before, a young orphan Gelfling named Jen is the last of his kind. Raised in isolation by a peaceful, ethereal race called the Mystics, Jen is sent on a quest to find the broken piece of the Dark Crystal, which grants power to the ruling race of Skeksis, ghoulish and cruel lizardlike creatures who will stop at nothing to maintain control of their world. As Jen follows the clues provided by the Mystics, he meets Kira (Kathryn Mullen), the only other Gelfling to survive their race's extinction, and the only one who can help him navigate the dangers that lie ahead.

The issues the movie has are ones that any child would overlook. But as an adult, it's hard not to notice that most of the characters are gratingly obnoxious. Repetitive sound effects come out of these puppets like Turrets ticks—appropriately funny and endearing at first, but after an hour, no one is chuckling lovingly anymore. A script as convoluted as this means little things get lost, while others are brow-beaten into us so that when it all comes together at the end, we're not in the least bit surprised, yet somehow, left wondering what we just saw. Regardless of the flaws, it's the tangible puppetry work that makes this movie memorable and timeless. How can you critique something as weirdly one-of-a-kind as this?

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

218 / 365: The Rescuers (1977)
© Disney Studios

One of a handful of films released during Disney Animation Studios' "quiet years" (that's the nice way of putting it), The Rescuers falls into the category of cartoon family classics about fluffy talking animals to appeal to the kids... that pack an emotional punch for adults. That's kind of the definition of all Disney movies, though, isn't it? But there's something dark and troubling about this one that is impossible to shake. The opening credits set up the film through a series of rough and dark paintings, leading to the introduction of our heroes.

The United Mouse Nation—or the Rescue Aid Society, as the mice call is—convenes in the bowels of the U.N. building, where Bernard (Bob Newhart) is a dutiful janitor and Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor) is the impassioned Hungarian delegate. The Society has discovered a call for help, a message in a bottle from a young orphan named Penny (Michelle Stacy), who says she's in trouble. Bianca volunteers for the mission, and requests that Bernard accompany her. As they begin their search, a mystery about her whereabouts begins to unfold, surrounding a malicious pawn shop owner named Medusa (Geraldine Page), who is in search of the world's largest diamond.

While this is considered one of the lesser... I don't want to say "known," because that's untrue, but I do believe it's lesser viewed... Disney films, the story of The Rescuers has far more similarities to today's Pixar movies than the traditional and classic Disney model. No princesses, no sweeping musical numbers, but plenty of very mature themes—and of course, anthropomorphized animals. Creative features like a leaf boat with a dragonfly for a motor, all of it just screams Pixar with slightly less puns. It even has moments of Toy Story 2-level tear-jerking as Penny dreams of getting adopted while snuggling her beloved Teddy Bear.

The last third of the movie devolves into a bit of a circus, with more than enough ridiculous sound effects that serve to make this overly serious and troubling story of kidnapping and child abuse easier to swallow. It's that latter part that comes off as cruel and difficult to handle. The story is unapologetic in its overtly adult subject matter, which in turn gives it an emotional power that audiences aren't inclined to sit through, at least repeatedly.

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

219 / 365: The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
© Disney Studios

So many troubling kidnappings! It's been... a number of years since brave little mice Bernard (Bob Newhart) and Bianca (Eva Gabor) saved orphan Penny from diamond hunter Medusa in The Rescuers. This time around, they're traveling to the Australian Outback to rescue a little boy named Cody who is kidnapped by McLeach (George C. Scott), a poacher searching for a rare Golden Eagle that only Cody knows where to find. With the help of a handful of Outback critters, including Jake (Tristan Rogers), a suave kangaroo mouse, Bernard and Bianca set off to find Cody before McLeach loses any reason to keep him around.

This sequel is a glossier, grander version of its predecessor that has benefited from the computer age. The landscapes are as carefully constructed and full of life, as much as the characters themselves. The colors are vibrant, and the only thing dark about this film is the subject matter—a stark visual difference from its predecessor.

Joanna the Goanna is a wonderful character, despite the fact that she's one of two animals that don't actually talk in this film (the giant gold eagle being the second). She's funny, entertaining, and full of personality, and her squeaky lizard voice is provided brilliantly by veteran voice actor, Frank Welker. Even John Candy's turn as clumsy albatross, Wilbur, perks up your ears, giving a necessary dose of humor (and terror) at just the right moments. In true Disney fashion, the voice talents never fail to impress, and this cast might be one of the company's best.

It became clear very quickly that the original Rescuers was a movie I'd seen only a time or two. But not Rescuers Down Under. This one I've seen more times than I can count, and watching them side by side, it's obvious why that is. Modern updates aside, it is above all else, a more beautiful film. It is touching without going to a repulsive place, and as a villain, McLeach is both despicable and intriguing—exactly how a good villain should be. I love this movie, and it's just as good now as it was when I was six years old.

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

220 / 365: Grandma (2015)
© Sony Pictures Classics

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

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

221 / 365: It Happened One Night (1934)
© Columbia Pictures

This movie was the #46 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

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

222 / 365: Mission: Impossible (1996)
© Paramount Pictures

This film by Brian De Palma took the original concept of the 1960's television show and modernized it the way that X-Men (2000) modernized the Marvel comic series. Mission: Impossible established itself—and the sequels to follow—early on as exceedingly memorable in their creative action sequences and heists. That is something that the James Bond series never seemed to accomplish for me. Even if the plot of this convoluted first film leaves you scratching your head a bit, there are too many moments and sequences you'll never forget. Iconic to the point of cliche, Tom Cruise dangling from wires in a stark white room is undoubtedly up there with the most famous shots in movie history.

A group of CIA agents led by Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) travel to Prague to intercept the theft of a file with classified information. After the plan goes unexpectedly awry, it becomes clear that the team was betrayed when spy Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is the only member left alive—making him the primary suspect. The only way he can prove him innocence is by going against CIA orders, assembling a rogue team, and following the trail of the classified file before he is caught. But not everything is as it seems (I think that's the unofficial Mission: Impossible motto.)

The only movie of the series where Ethan Hunt is not the man in charge. It's special looking back and seeing him as a member of the team instead of the leader, because from the start, he's at a disadvantage. He doesn't have the reputation or the resources to get out of a jam this big, which is why it's exciting to watch him try. The problem this movie has is that it doesn't get out of its own way. What that means is the plot is over-complicated, beyond what it needs to be to create tension and mystery. It's the reason no one remembers the plot of this movie, and it also loses out on having a charismatic villain from the get-go. Out of five movies so far, this one grabs the bronze medal.

But no one watches this now classic for its plot or predictable twists. Watch for "red light, green light." Watch for sweat dripping off of eyeglass lenses. And watch for Tom Cruise reminding everyone why he's a goddamn movie star.

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

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

AFI Top 100: #45 "Shane"

Alan Ladd in Shane (1953)

We've made it now to our fourth of seven Westerns (arguably; this truly is a nebulous genre) on the AFI Top 100 list. Coming in at #45 in Shane, the family drama set in the West that may well be among several others on this countdown (Network, the upcoming Midnight Cowboy) to have a line more famous and memorable than the movie itself. In the film's final moments, when the words "Shane. Shane! Come back!" ring through the speakers and the credits begin to roll, we're reminded that sometimes, it only takes one little thing to keep a movie in America's heart forever.

A retired gunslinger comes upon the small farm of Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) and his family, homesteaders fighting to keep their bit of land in the face of being pushed out by the callous landowner, Ryker (Emile Meyer), and his men to make room for roaming cattle. This mysterious stranger, Shane (Alan Ladd), offers his help to drive away Ryker's men and prevent continued harassment. When the entire family, including Joe's wife, Marian (Jean Arthur), and son Joey (Brandon De Wilde), begin looking to Shane for protection, he finds himself embroiled in a fight that becomes much more personal than he'd bargained for.

The film's representation of the impactful relationship between Shane and young Joey, who idolizes him, may not be the foundation of the story, but it's certainly the emotional drive. Much of the movie's events, the fights, the struggles, the fear, are all seen through Joey's eyes. Shane's appearance during the opening sequence, and Joey's fascination with everything from his horse to his gun holster, establishes Shane as an almost unreal manifestation of safety and hope.

Jack Palance as Ryker's gun-for-hire, Jack Wilson, is a spectacular, morally corrupt villain. He also appears to be unbeatable. Next to Palance, Ladd has a steep hill to climb in order to prove toughness. He manages to do it through an eerily calm demeanor, but there are moments where he simply gets lost. Palance's face twists and contorts in brutal delight, and his eagerness to kill makes him restlessand frightening, as a result. Ladd couldn't accomplish this level of menace if his life depended on it. The film relies on his innate, harmless qualities so we'll buy into this frontier family's immediate trust in himas well as his unfazed, reluctant involvement in the fight.

The realism of the sets and locations, the props and the costumes, are notable from the start. Especially the Starrett homestead. The landscape is sprawling, the feeling of isolation and the distance between each set contributes to the vastness of this almost lawless land. It's strange that Shane's fringe buckskin doesn't fit in with the same subtleties, and it is an often criticized aspect of the character. The ironic thing is that even Shane's overly "costume-y" costume is remarkably authentic. The exaggerated authenticity that director George Stevens fought to convey is likely what gives the entire film its staged feel.

The soundtrack score is epically over-the-top, and for much of the film, it's clear that such intensity is undeserved. The events are systematic and calm, building up to a climax that might be the only sequence worthy of the score's cinematic glory. As Shane and Jack Wilson face off in a final gun battle, it's not surprising why many Western aficionados claim this as one of the best gunfights in the movies. The stakes are remarkably high, and once again, we're viewing it through the hopeful eyes of a child, as little Joey looks on after his idol. It's what makes the film's final, famous line so cripplingly effective.

This memorable Western benefited from straddling two very different eras within the genre: the Golden Age of John Wayne and the glorious west, and then the dark and gritty, neo-Western that became popular during the 1960s (think The Wild Bunch). For Shane, it shares qualities of both styles, which makes it a unique film. Touching and emotionalnot to mention a bit glossybut there's a dark truth within it that often gets lost among the quaint dialogue and the starry eyes of children. The West was a lawless and dangerous place, almost as much as it was a place of opportunity.

That is what has given Shane legs among the best of American Cinema. It's ambivalent ending also shouldn't be ignored. Many might not agree that its other qualities warrant such praise (I happen to be among them), but it's hard to deny the performances or how greatly this differs from other films in the genre.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Paramount Pictures]

Check back next time for #44 on the list, The Philadelphia Story — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Movie Review: "Crimson Peak" (2015)

© Universal Pictures

Guillermo Del Toro's new film, Crimson Peak, is an intricate dalliance between Gothic horror and romance. Like Lemony Snicket meets The House of Yes, there is a spectacular style that feels dark and lived in, with a morbid air of sinister danger. As beautiful as it is, the movie is also wholly predictable. This is a ghost story that suffers from the injection of the love story within it. The result is a less-than-scary, almost boring mystery that may be the most visually stunning film of the year.

Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is an aspiring horror writer and daughter of a wealthy building financier who is more than a little familiar with ghosts. On the day that her ghost story manuscript is turned away from being published for its 'lack of romance,' she meets the dashing Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Accompanied by his mysterious sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), Edith is drawn to Thomas' passion and the attention he pays her, despite the obvious affections her childhood friend, Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), has for her. After a sudden tragedy, Edith marries Thomas and runs off to England to escape the ghosts of her past... but when she arrives at the dilapidated family mansion, she discovers that the spirits of Crimson Peak will not let her rest.

It was difficult to describe the basic plot of this film just then without giving the whole thing away. Mainly because it's not hard to figure out where the story is going to take you. The motivations of the characters are not subtle, so the decision to create conflicts between them can and will lead you to only one conclusion. For a movie that's trying to weave together a compelling mystery, this proves a bit of a problem. Our instinct as moviegoers is to put pieces together; when they fit together too easily, it's a recipe for sudden boredom.

The vision of the ghosts of mucky and unformed. The ghosts as characters are sadly underutilized, and even the ethereal hallucinations transforming into dripping, cracking manifestations (in another under-used performance by Del Toro favorite and prosthetics actor, Doug Jones) were over before they began. They were teases, nothing more, and the purpose they served in propelling the story forward is minimal, at best. As a result, the film loses any claim it had in calling itself a "ghost story." Because it clearly is not. It is sporadic in its gruesomeness, leaving us wanting more even if just to show us what's at stake.

Mia Wasikowska has a difficult time controlling her emotional shifts, a fact I've noted before in her past roles, but she does relatively well here. The stability—and rigidityof unemotional, Victorian constraints is a good foundation that serves her performance well. Where Mia might struggle at times to get a grip on her performance, particularly at the film's start, Jessica Chastain has masterful control of hers. Like Rebecca's Mrs. Danvers, no emotion slips through her hardened exterior without rich significance. She gives Lucille an eerily calm rage and pain that becomes the only mystery we're interested in solving. Hiddleston is a personal favorite of mine. He's charming, which suits this role well, with an untrustworthy glint in his eyes, which serves him even better. Sadly, the script reveals too much, too soon, and we're all left nodding our heads knowingly when the twists don't surprise us.

The way Del Toro attempts to counteract our ebbing boredom is through the utter brilliance of the artistic direction. This film is set dressed to within an inch of its life, and I fell into a sort of trance watching the pieces come together. The Sharpe home is spectacularly realized. The levels, the snow falling delicately through the roof, and even Edith's gowns as they drift through the hallways. It's rare to see a movie with so much texture. A shoe-in for Costuming and Artistic awards come Oscar time. It's enough of a distraction from the film's predictability that I would certainly have no qualms about watching it again, nor recommending it to anyone else. But be warned: this is not a horror film. It is a macabre romance with visuals to die for.

Rating: ★★★ / 5 stars

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Project 365: Movies 209 - 216

209 / 365: Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
© 20th Century Fox

When I thought about this movie before seeing it, I always thought "It looks like a John Carpenter movie that had a baby with The Goonies." Would you believe me if I told you that I freaked out when I saw that Carpenter was actually the director of this thing? To say I had no idea would be an understatement. My self-satisfaction meter went a bit haywire. Carpenter's involvement should be all you need to know about how far this movie commits to its extremes in costuming, makeup, and prosthetics. Where those are well-done, the special effects are terrible. Very Carpenter.

What begins as a Little China West Side Story quickly veers into the magical world as sorcerers descend upon the city for no discernible reason. Something about their leader marrying a girl with green eyes? Caught in the middle of all this is truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), who tries to help his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) when the kid's girlfriend gets kidnapped by ninjas when she lands at the airport from China. The only way to save her is to find a way into the Chinese brothel deep in Chinatown where they believe she's been taken. Oh, and it's guarded by the aforementioned ninjas and a bunch of magic.

This movie's overt racism is a part of its satire, this is true. The question is whether it's making fun of the right things. The moment Kurt Douglas cut through that locked door made of paper, it was clear they knew the right jokes to focus on—and the right ones to slide right past. At the same time, Big Trouble is a bit too messy and all over the place for my tastes. There's much that I admire, particularly the detail Carpenter took in the sets and the physical characterizations. The rest, though, I didn't enjoy at all.

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

210 / 365: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
© Warner Bros.

This movie was the #47 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

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

© Columbia Pictures

The American adaptation of the popular Swedish novel, the first in a trilogy by Stieg Larsson, should not be considered a "remake" of the Swedish film based on the same material. I have friends who flat out refused to see this David Fincher-directed thriller because of their love for the original tele-series. It did, in fact, air on Swedish TV in several installments. For me, this one stands all on its own, and while this isn't a comparison critique, I can and will state flat out that this is a far better movie, as well as a better adaptation of the book.

A complicated, detail-heavy story centered around a disgraced journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), who takes an assignment in an attempt to get a break from Stockholm and the insanity surrounding his life. On a private island far north of the city, owned by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), a wealthy industrial tycoon, Blomkvist is asked to write the man's memoirs—officially; unofficially, he must investigate the disappearance of Henrik's niece, Harriet, presumed murdered on a fateful night forty years ago. The suspects? Every single person in the Vanger family. Paralleled with this mystery is the story of an anti-social hacker, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a ward of the state who possesses her own brand of justice—so when Blomkvist approaches her to help him find a serial murderer of women, she doesn't hesitate to join him. But she might be a bigger mystery than the one he's been hired to solve.

I want to speak first about the casting of Rooney Mara in this role. She could not be more perfect. She is boyish, small, meek, and frail looking, exactly as Lisbeth should be. On sight, she should practically disappear from view, because her mind is her weapon and she's far smarter than anyone else around her. Rooney delivers on this characters complex levels with ease. Her famous transformation to play the part might be considered surface-level makeup magic, but that should be a testament to the filmmakers and their vision of the story. Mara simply took the image and ran with it.

The best part of the film is how Fincher develops the location of Hedestad where the Vanger's live. The course of the year, the changing of the seasons (something the Swedish version never conveyed), and just how difficult and long this investigation is taking, it's all incorporated beautifully into a tense and focused story. There is so much information from the book that could never be covered within the confines of one film, but Fincher and writer, Steven Zaillian, cherry-pick exactly the right things. The mood and energy of the book is captured, but it all comes down to Craig's Blomkvist and Mara's Lisbeth. A subtle chemistry, stemmed from request and equality, they're the reason we come back to the story. Lisbeth Salander as a character is better than the story she's in—but she rises the plot up to more than a paperback crime thriller into something urgent, sinister, and electrifying.

I cross my fingers and hope every day that the trio of Fincher, Craig, and Mara come back together to make the sequels, especially since they focus so solidly on Lisbeth. A girl can dream.

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

212 / 365: Dear White People (2014)
© Lionsgate

One of my favorite trailers of the last couple years. Too bad the movie couldn't live up to its introduction. Political and racial satire is sorely needed in cinema these days, especially as the climate around race relations has to begin by conversations igniting around important perspectives, issues, and rights. That's the promise that the preview made. Unfortunately the script itself had a difficult time getting a handling on its talking points, and most importantly, it's message.

The collegiate life of four Black students attending a predominantly white Ivy League university is told through their varying perspectives on their individual places within the social structure of the school. When radical radio show host and filmmaker, Sam White (Tessa Thompson), gets elected as the head of an African American dorm, a primarily white dorm reacts to her supposed "extremism" by planning a Hip-Hop themed Halloween shin-dig that quickly turns into a racially infused black-face party that ignites a firestorm of controversy—among the faculty as well as the students

There's something stale about the dialogue despite its occasional sharp wit and even sharper editing. The script explores the novelty of Black people, portrayed through the eyes of these black students witnessing how they're treated by the bevy of white students around them. There are certainly tongue-in-cheek moments that speak strongly about the state of our country's aggressively "I'M NOT RACIST" approach to minority groups, but the plot surrounding this story bogged it down with too much nonsense, making it difficult to get the main idea across. That idea that pigeon-holing anyone in any race is arbitrary, stupid, and nonsensical, but also recognizing that the denial of significant histories, struggles, and privileges associated with any race will only lead to a racial divide.

A great cast with a mediocre script has enough interesting and telling moments to accomplish its bare minimum. But don't expect groundbreaking commentary about race relations in a post-Obama world. We've got a long way to go to do that effectively.

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

213 / 365: Masters of the Universe (1987)
© The Cannon Group

No matter how you watch this movie, when you press "play", you're watching it on a VHS tape. That's just how it works. Based on the Mattel line of toys including He-Man and She-Ra—the concept of the storyline taking place on the fictional planet of Eternia, where our heroes battle against the evil Skelator who seeks to rule the whole planet. Naturally, leave it to the 80s to deliver us a live action version of this.

This time around, He-Man (Dolph Lundgren), and his band of soldier friends attempt to fight Skelator (Frank Langella) when he captures the Sorceress of Grayskull to steal all of her powers. During the attempted rescue, the Cosmic Key (a device that can control time and space) is sucked through a portal, and He-Man and his crew are forced through it in order to escape Skelator's forces. Where does this portal take them? Well, Earth, of course! There, the Key is found by an aspiring musician named Kevin (Robert Duncan McNeill), who thinks it's a synthesizer. Against his girlfriend, Julie's (Courtney Cox) warnings, Kevin sets off the Key, signaling to Castle Grayskull exactly where they need to go to track it down.

This can't even be called a terrible movie, simply because Skelator's makeup is so good. Plus, he's played by the amazing Frank Langella! At the same time, Lundgren as He-Man couldn't be more useless. He is actually a good actor too, so I don't know how this role turned out so boring and pointless. He's a secondary character in this, at best. The script is ridiculous and the special effects are laughable, but it's still a totally fun time. The fact that it has a story with a beginning, middle, and end that mostly makes sense should officially keep it off any and all Worst Movies lists.

It's easy to watch this now and think "Wow, how'd they get Courtney Cox to do this?" but I mean, this was released 6 years before "Friends" premiered—it's not like her star had risen or anything. She was probably just happy to have a job. Aniston has Leprechaun, Courtney has Masters of the Universe.

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

214 / 365: First Blood (1982)
© Orion Pictures

When I discovered that the entire Rambo trilogy had been added to Netflix, it took only my commute home from work before I plopped down to power through these action classics—all of which I'd never seen. Rocky was proof that Sylvester Stallone had talent as an actor and a writer, but Rambo is what made him the action icon he is today. It all started with the less than flashy First Blood.

When John Rambo (Stallone), a Vietnam veteran, sweeps into a small town in the Pacific Northwest in search of a friend from his platoon, he runs into more than he bargained for. Picked up on the side of the road by the self-righteous and bigoted Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy), Rambo is arrested for transiency when he refuses to leave town and take his kind elsewhere. Abused and humiliated at the station, he busts out by busting heads and leads the state troopers on a man-hunt through the forest. Teasle might think he'll stop at nothing to track this vagrant down, but little does he know who he's up against.

From the beginning, motivations on both sides are more than a little suspect. You want to root for Rambo, but with all that property damage he leaves in his wake, how can you? I'll tell you how, at least how I justified it to myself. By making the people who are after him far more vicious and incompetent to boot. While Rambo may be in the wrong the further into the story you get, he certainly wasn't in the beginning as he strolled innocently through that small Washington town.

The movie delivers on its promises, to say the least. Rambo has been shuffled from one losing war to another, but this one is against the vets coming home from Vietnam. And Rambo isn't conditioned to lose. My only wish for the film would have been for those motivations to be more fleshed out. I felt carried along against my will by a couple of egos and an inability to string a few explanatory sentences together. Conflict starting because one person refuses to just... say something in their own defense is one of my biggest pet peeves, and this movie relies heavily on that. It doesn't have the shirt-ripping action that Rambo movies came to be known for, however. Stallone has plenty of moments to get some good acting in after facing off against a helicopter, something the later movies do away with almost entirely. Sadly, though, I'd rather the unadulterated action over what First Blood has to offer.

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

215 / 365: Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
© TriStar Pictures

"Do not engage the enemy, Rambo." Uh, yeah. Right. Years after the small town rampage of First Blood, human weapon John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is released early from prison doing hard labor for a special ops mission: infiltrate the jungle terrain of Vietnam is search of proof that POWs are still being held captive there. When he gets there, however, it doesn't take long to realize that he's all on his own and must once again fight to survive.

James Cameron wrote this screenplay with Stallone, so your expectations on the overall plot shouldn't be too high. Cameron's scripts are essentially glorified beat sheets, and you can smell a line he probably came up with in an attempt to be philosophical from a mile away. I guarantee he came up with "I always thought the mind was the best weapon." Oh brother.

The twist still feels unexpected, though, because it's done well. The emotions are fiery, and our beloved Rambo gets put right in the position we want him in: with his back against a wall with no way out but his wits and fists. The surprising thing about this movie is that it's not excessively violent. Sure, Rambo stabs or shoots pretty much everyone, but you rarely see the blood and never see anything more gruesome (except for that one part). By today's standards, Rambo is rather tame. But this sequel is certainly where we meet the iconic Rambo. The one with the headband and the machine gun raging through the jungle fighting for justice.

And I know I should be an evolved person and care not for physical things, but damn, Stallone's body is out.of.control. I mean, I'm only human.

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

216 / 365: Rambo III (1987)
© TriStar Pictures

The hair is bigger and the muscles are bulgier. Probably didn't think that was possible, didja? John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) has found his way into combat sports as a way of making a living in post-war Vietnam. When his former commander and father figure, Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna) tracks him down with a mission—enter war-torn Afghanistan to gain intel on the invading Russian forces—Rambo turns him down in favor of his now peaceful life. That is until Trautman gets captured by Russian forces, and Rambo has to venture into the mountains of Afghanistan to get him back. A one man army killing machine!

It takes a little while for the story to get moving, maybe because the script is practically non-existent. The story relies on visuals to convey everything, even character motivations. There's a lot of interesting things incorporated though, and the action more than makes up for any slow bits. It's unapologetic, tendon-tearing machismo in full force, and I enjoyed every moment of it. When Rambo pours gunpowder into his massive bullet wound and then lights it on fire!! that was the most bad-ass thing I've ever seen! Five stars! FIVE STARS FOR RAMBO!

I make jokes, but this is likely the most tragic of the original trilogy. So many innocents are killed, and it's brutal to watch, even with its frantic, "action movie" flare. It could be considered excessive or tasteless if it didn't serve an actual purpose. A disconnected, demoralized Rambo needs only to see the devastation these people are facing to stir the fire of war inside of him. And some gunpowder. For the fire. Inside him. OK I'M DONE!

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

Monday, October 12, 2015

Music Mondays: CHVRCHES "Leave A Trace"

This weekend, I finally got the new, gorgeously white vinyl album, Every Open Eye, the new released from Chvrches! The album is incredible, but we knew that it would be, right? The perfect follow-up to The Bones of What You Believe. Today, I'm sharing their first single off the album, "Leave a Trace." But every song is wonderful, I can't recommend this album enough, especially on vinyl, since they're super affordable.

Check it out, kids!

Artist: Chvrches
Song: "Leave a Trace" | download
Album: Every Open Eye

Sunday, October 11, 2015

AFI Top 100: #46 "It Happened One Night"

Clark Gable & Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (1934)

Not many comedies are praised on Best of... lists. The American Film Institute even has a separate list for Best American comedies, since so few are represented on the AFI Top 100 each decade. Surprising, considering they are the movies that the masses (usually) enjoy most. Things were no different at the height of the Great Depression, when audiences looked to the movies for laughs and an escape from daily life. It was then, in 1934, that a comedy premiered that not only won over audiences, but critics too. Winner of the Best Picture Oscar that year, the first comedy ever to do so, is the #46 film on our countdown: It Happened One Night—a film that no one wanted to make, but everyone wanted to see.

Rich, spoiled darling Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is found out to have married a society aviator named King Westley against her concerned father's wishes. When he takes her away from him and threatens to have her marriage annulled, she jumps off their yacht and goes on the run to get from Atlanta to New York City where her new husband awaits before her father can make good on his threat. The disappearance of a wealthy heiress is big news, however, and when down-on-his-luck reporter, Peter Warne (Clark Gable), meets the entitled Ellie on a bus heading north, he recognizes her immediately and makes her a deal: he'll help her hide her identity so long as he gets exclusive access to her story for his paper. Reluctantly, she accepts his help, but their front as a traveling husband and wife might cause Ellie to become fonder of Peter than she expects.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Project 365: Movies 203 - 208

203 / 365: The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)
© Sony Pictures Classics

Bel Powley is my new hero and woman-crush. She's beautiful, and talented, and I want us to be best friends. Her first major film is based on a graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, whose art is incorporated throughout, and Powley gives one of the most honest performances of the year. A new favorite that I will undoubtedly recommend to anyone who crosses my path, like you.

Set in the 1970s, Minnie (Powley) is a fifteen year old budding artist living in San Francisco with her free-spirited mom, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), when she gets a crush on—and has her first sexual encounter with—her mom's boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). Our story begins as Minnie confesses excitedly into a cassette tape recorder that she has just lost her virginity, and when she proceeds to share her every thought and recount her every experience of this sexual awakening, she discovers a feminine power and confidence that can only come from knowing exactly what you want. Brought gloriously to life with the help of animated imaginings to represent the flights of fancy and tragedy that come with being a teenage girl, Minnie navigates her unexpected, but completely welcome, education on sex, love, and heartbreak.

This is a film about self-discovery, self-awareness, and self-love—coincidentally, in that order. A full spectrum of foolhardy teenage-hood is explored, all through the eyes of one young girl, and it celebrates her youth and freedom without ever belittling her experiences. It's rare to see a movie so fully led by its female lead, and Powley is electric as Minnie. You never feel like you're watching this girl, this child, be exploited, despite the overt nudity and sexual situations. Powley owns Minnie's sexuality as much as she owns her naiveté, turning her awakening into an evolution.

The supporting cast is just as dynamic. Wiig's role as Minnie's sexually free and emotionally lost mother is vital to understanding Minnie's limited perspective on life, as well as her curiosities about men. Even Christopher Meloni's momentary appearance as Minnie's absentee former step-father, Pascal, is telling, incorporated seamlessly into the story to add ever more layers to this teen's personality. And finally, there's Skarsgård, who manages to avoid coming off looking like a predator (even with the 70s porn-stache) by noticeably and believably falling under Minnie's spell, fighting his own attractions uselessly. And we can't really blame him. Powley is completely intoxicating, and you can't help but watch her and wish you'd had her confidence and bravery when you were young.

A bold script from first time writer/director, Marielle Heller, who spilled her heart and soul into this movie. Even in its most subtle or overly cinematic moments, Diary of a Teenage Girl is relatable. The seventies backdrop doesn't only serve a visual or stylistic purpose (even though it does, a strong one), it's also there to inform the political and social climate of the time. The more I think back on this one, the more I adore it. Expect a mention on my End of Year Best Lists, for sure.

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

204 / 365: Rear Window (1954)
© Paramount Pictures

This movie was the #48 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

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

205 / 365: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)
© Paramount Pictures

I knew I avoided this movie like the plague for a reason. The most confounding thing is how much I detested this movie, yet it still managed to make me have some very deep feels. Mostly for mutant rat/Samurai master Splinter, who deserves a serious World's Best Dad mug. But that doesn't excuse how terrible this movie is, or how unnecessary it was.

Inexplicably, this movie stars Megan Fox (who, no hate, I actually adore—thanks Jennifer's Body!) as reporter April O'Neil, the daughter of the late, great scientist Dr. O'Neil, whose research resulted in the mutation of its animal test subjects: a rat and a group of turtles rescued and released in the sewers. Years later, April discovers their secret as they've mutated into human-like creatures, trained for combat with ninja skills. Teenage Turtle brothers Donatello, Michaelangelo, Rafael, and Leonardo are 'roided out and out for vengeance when supervillian Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) unleashes his plan for total domination on the city, threatening everything they love.

The Turtles pretty much have the social grace of home-schooled kids. Admittedly the script's fault, they're not given much to work with, and every line feels like an Easter egg for fans that no one really wanted. It also takes for. ev. er. for anything to actually happen. It's like the filmmakers were afraid we wouldn't "get it," so we're overloaded with backstory and origins and the like--no, no, we were there in the eighties, we remember that they are mutants who like pizza. Remember how they like pizza? Yeah, the movie will remind you, a LOT.

To the movie's singular credit, there is still a nostalgia factor. I hadn't watched anything related to TMNT for decades, not since I was a kindergartner who got to watch the old 80's movies during daycare every week if I was good and took my nap. And believe me, I took my damn nap, because I wanted to watch these teenage mutant turtles Cowabunga! their way through the New York City sewer system. But regardless, I'd rather watch the originals—or even better, the cartoon!—because this entire production is bombastic and distracting, and no one comes out looking good. Especially Will Arnett, who took this role... I'm not really sure why.

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

206 / 365: Mistress America (2015)
© Fox Searchlight Pictures

Co-written by the team behind Frances Ha, one of my top rated movies during this Project 365, we're once again introduced to a cast of characters driven by conversation and ulterior motives that connect with the audience in unexpected ways.

Lonely college freshman, Tracy (Lola Kirke), arrives at school in New York City to pursue creative writing. When finding a social circle doesn't happen right away, Tracy takes her mom's advice and reaches out to her 30-year-old soon-to-be step-sister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig). Brooke is a social shameless social butterfly, creative and confident despite her history of distracted entrepreneurship. As Tracy falls under Brooke's spell, she can't help but notice the webs of delusion that Brooke spins as she reveals her grudges, failures, and emotional instability veiled in a superiority complex.

Tracy's opening sequence experience during her first few days at college mirrored mine to a frightening degree. She might have an idea of who she is, but she's completely clueless about how to be that out in the real world with people who might not be patient enough to figure her out. If you're lucky enough to score an incredible roommate your first time out to bat, you can band together to figure out this crazy new world together. But what if you don't? What if you're alone and looking for a friend, just one friend, to stick. It can feel like a perpetual audition that you're doomed to tank. Being taken under the wing of an adventurous, older friend can feel like complete freedom, and that's what Brooke is. She's exciting, but just oblivious enough for Tracy to not be completely intimidated.

While there's a lot to enjoy about this movie, the best sequence is the lengthy descent on the home of Brooke's former best friend and current nemesis, Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), who stole her fiancee and her cats. The dialogue is frantic and hysterical, enough to make your head spin but not throw you out of the film. Brooke is delusional to a fault, but it's tampered by how completely harmless she is. Tracy acts as a bit of a wallflower in the story—observant and quiet, but significantly more harmful in ways she doesn't even understand.

The only similarity between Brooke and Gerwig's Frances is their obvious lack of self-awareness. There might be an argument that they have an over-abundance of self-awareness that blinds them to other people entirely, but tomato/tomatoe, right? Where Gerwig understands character most is in their levels of maturity, and how characters grow through that pivotal shift. Mistress America may not have the powerful sucker punch that Frances Ha had, but that's okay. It didn't need to. In fact, I'm glad it didn't, because I might not have enjoyed this as much. Playful and light, it has a lot to offer, especially in the talents of Lola Kirke.

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

207 / 365: Bloodsucking Bastards (2015)
© Scream Factory

I think that this film pitch went something like this: "Office Space meets Idle Hands, but with vampires." End of pitch, because quite simply, that's all this is. Workplace horror comedies aren't too common, despite how obvious the combination is. This movie's potential was pretty solid, but it's execution is noticeably weak. When you have all the ingredients for success, it's disappointing when it's such an underwhelming experience.

Evan (Fran Kranz) is a loyal and hopeful interim manager at a soulless sales corporation trying to set himself apart from his useless co-worker buddies so he can finally get a promotion. When he's passed over for the manager job in favor of an old college rival, Max (Pedro Pascal), he begins to notice that the office is slowly changing... and everyone in it is being turned into vampires. In order to survive, he must team up with his best friend and lazy co-worker, Tim (Joey Kern), and save his ex-girlfriend and the head of HR, Amanda (Emma Fitzpatrick, who you might remember as 'For Your Consideration' Anne Hathaway!), from being seduced by Max and turned into a vamp herself.

The dialogue was stale but funny. Anyone who isn't Evan talks about everything in overly nonchalant ways; an attempt at comedy that doesn't always land, but has its moments. Kern's Tim has the best moments, especially when he chats with recently turned buddy, Andrew (Justin Ware), about who's gonna kill who first. Kranz is a perpetual supporting man, so it's nice to see him step into a starring role. It's too bad that it doesn't give him any subtleties to work with, though, and even his chemistry with Fitzpatrick is lukewarm.

On a positive note, this movie is bloody. Like buckets and buckets of blood. Easily half of the budget was spent on drenching this 20'x20' windowless office room with corn syrup, so while the story is a bit half-baked, you'll at least walk away with the satisfying feeling of carnage delivered. A easy Halloween renter for people like me who prefer their horror funny instead of scary.

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

208 / 365: 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
© Buena Vista Pictures

This high school adaptation of Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew" doesn't skirt away from its source material. It's not a subtle remake, with more than enough nods to the play, but the nineties snapshot gives it a little something extra special.

Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the new kid at school, starting his senior year. While getting the social ladder rundown during lunch by A.V. nerd, Michael (David Krumholtz), he sees heaven personified in the form of sophomore, Bianca Stratford (Alex Mack Larisa Oleynik). Devastated when he finds out she's only allowed to date when her anti-social and hostile sister, Kat (Julia Stiles), does, Cameron goes on a mission to find a single guy at school who's willing to take on the impossible task of courting Kat, bringing him face to face with rumored criminal and psychopath, Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger). Things only get more complicated when popular pretty-boy, Joey (Andrew Keegan), tries to get in on the action and take the naive Bianca for himself.

It's charm might be admittedly lost on anyone who's not (a) remembering watching this movie during their high school years, or (b) experiencing high school for the first time, but who cares? The acting is a bit surface level, the actors all reading the lines well, but with not a lot of emotions behind the eyes. At the same time, this is an all-star cast, well before any of them were stars. In my middle school years, Keegan and Oleynik were far bigger stars in my mind than anyone else. Heath Ledger is always a delight to watch, and this is the rare movie from his filmography where he gets to use his lovely Aussie accent. This was the first movie I watched when I found out he passed away back in 2008, because this is the movie that started it all for me as a fan. Same with Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

This is also one of the only movies where the shooting location had as big an impact on me as the story itself. The high school is a real public high school, Stadium High in Tacoma, WA—nicknamed "The Brown Castle," I was and still am completely obsessed with it. It's beautiful, and I'm jealous of anyone who got to go there. I even forced my friends to take a detour on a Seattle road trip just to stop there to see it. It truly is as magnificent as it looks. A most memorable backdrop for a memorable, albeit simple, movie. With its straight-forward and predictable story, it's still a joy to watch. Besides, it's worth it to listen to Letters to Cleo rock out on that soundtrack.

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

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Movie Review: "The Martian" (2015)

© 20th Century Fox

Things rarely go well for Matt Damon in space. Try as he might, he more often than not finds himself in need of rescue. The first big Fall blockbuster is here in the form of a science fiction adventure directed by Ridley Scott, based on the bestselling book of the same name by Andy Weir. It doesn't have the pit-in-the-stomach intensity of Gravity, nor is it the poetry slam that is 2006's Sunshine. No, The Martian is a balanced combination of the two; a slow and methodical commitment from the audience, and there's much to endure to reach the end.

The six person crew of the Hermes make up the Ares III mission to Mars. Deep in their research phase on the planet, a massive storm hits, threatening them and their lives. Hastily, they're forced to abort the mission and return home. During the evacuation, Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is hit by debris and assumed dead—the crew, led by Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), has no choice but to leave his body behind. As it turns out, Watney is very much alive, and now the only living thing left on a very hostile, unforgiving planet. Faced with certain death, Watney must use his training and ingenuity to survive until he can make contact with NASA—and hopefully receive help before the next Ares mission touches down in four years.

As multiple stories unfold, centering around bringing Watney home, we're introduced to a dynamic cast of characters. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Vincent Kapoor, the Director of Mars missions at NASA, butting heads with Head of NASA, Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), in a battle to do what's right—or what's feasible—is just the beginning of the tensions on Earth. Despite a compelling cast and fascinating characters, the expectation for character growth should be tossed aside immediately. For once, it's not a necessity for this story. In fact, it would probably be a total waste of time if we were forced to focus on personal revelations during the course of this survival tale.

The fact that this works in the film's favor is a credit to Drew Goddard's gripping script, which has so many levels, transcending genre, as his work often does. A re-envisioning of stories we all thought were tired and overdone (monster movie, Cloverfield, and zombie apocalypse flick, World War Z, come to mind—don't even get me started on Cabin in the Woods), and it's no different for this realistic space travel adventure. The mix of comedy and playful experimentation is bittersweet as it's overlaid with such desperation.

Watney is the right mix of hot head and realist. He's an astronaut, so the built in ego is what not only saves his life, but his sanity. Damon's inherent charm slips nicely into this role, and it makes Watney's conversations with the astronaut video log (i.e. us) that much more optimistic and entertaining. And the bonus is that he doesn't only interact with us. Not to spoil anything, but the creative wheels at NASA are turning just as quickly as Watney's, and to watch them come together to solve problems is a movie highlight.

The movie never lapses into maudlin depression. If you want to watch a movie about a man alone in space going slowly insane, watch Moon. Because this is not that movie, either. Comparisons aside, The Martian is unique in its ability to keep the mood light in the face of such overwhelming obstacles and underwhelming odds of survival. I enjoy a movie that is patient with its subject matter, and no movie's success is more dependent on the audience comprehending the details of time than this one. How many Martian days, how many Earth days... the film's entire structure relies on this being clear from the start. Thankfully, Watney's never far away from reminding us how many SOLs (or "Solar Days") have passed, and how many more there are to go. It doesn't hurt that the soundtrack is full of upbeat disco music, the only music the Commander brought on the trip and the source of more than enough jokes keeping the mood light, and breaking some of the suffocating tension.

In the end, it's science that's treated as a hero, something that usually means a flurry of inhuman attempts to make sense of the incomprehensible. Not here. The science—be it botany or astro-dynamics—is never heavy-handed, and the audience's intelligence is never belittled. Science making sense within the context of the story is a relief, where in most movies it's a confounding mess meant to make the characters seem more brilliant, and thereby, less relatable. I loved every moment of The Martian, and much of that comes from its lack of pandering. A movie for thinking adults that still manages to entertain with thrills and triumphs.

But if I learned one thing from this movie, it's this: Duct tape is your friend. Bring it with you wherever you may go, because it might save your life.

Rating: ★★★★½ / 5 stars
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