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

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