Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Project 365: Movies 254 - 258

254 / 365: The Sound of Music (1965)
© 20th Century Fox

This movie was the #40 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

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

255 / 365: Spectre (2015)
© Columbia Pictures

Looking forward to the next James Bond movie is, at this point, an unconscious habit. Title reveals, casting news—Bond Girl and Villain, oh my!—plot tidbits that we devour endlessly... but the truth of the matter [usually] is that once the movie is released, interest wanes and we're on to looking ahead to the next one—disappointed in one way or another by the full package handed over. Maybe the idea of James Bond is simply more intriguing than its mediocre reality? While 2012's Skyfall managed to bring fresh, new ideas to the franchise, likely unseen since the Brosnan days of Goldeneye, the most recent venture suffers from the most heinous of 'action movie' crimes: it's boring.

Long-suspicious of the existence of a rogue criminal organization called SPECTRE, MI6 agent, James Bond (Daniel Craig), investigates a trail of dangerous activity, leading him from Mexico City to Rome to Morocco. With a new head of National Security, Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), setting up shop in London and cracking down on MI6 activity, Bond must rely on his reluctant boss, M (Ralph Fiennes), and non-agent friends, Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), to help him track down the only person who may be able to help him infiltrate SPECTRE—Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), the daughter of a former assassin and key member. As the web of the organization begins to unravel, Bond realizes the enemy he seeks may be someone whose path he's been crossing his entire career.

The four writers attached to the script were the first bad sign. Even Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes couldn't fix a story this predictable and rudimentary, with its "cut and paste" dialogue and zero edge. Hand-jammed story lines from the previous "Craig-Bond" films are meant to give the entire series some semblance of unity, but for what? The pay-off for taking up such a huge chunk of the movie's run time to establish it was almost non-existent. The action sequences—save the opening during the Dia de Los Muertos celebration in Mexico City—were cookie-cutter and repetitive. Even the brilliant Christoph Waltz, someone who can [usually] do no wrong, is a flaccid and forgettable villain whose hatred of Bond is more silly than frightening.

Where the film hit the right notes was in casting Seydoux as a very capable, interesting "Bond Girl" that had more to offer than just a pretty face. Monica Belucci's far-too-brief appearance as the wife of a deceased SPECTRE leader was also a highlight—her chemistry with Craig should have found her in an expanded role, but alas, Mendes and team ignored the obvious. In the end, the climax was weak and attempts to wrap Craig's Bond legacy up in a nice little bow did absolutely nothing to enhance the series.

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

256 / 365: The Italian Job (2003)
© Paramount Pictures

There is really nothing like a playful heist flick, and this is one of my favorites. A remake of the Michael Caine-fronted, 1969 classic of the same name, this Marky-Mark led version makes a few useful changes to the formula that still contains the diversions, the creativity, and most of all, the car chases. In the 60's tradition of action-heist-comedy, there's nothing else needed to have the time of your life watching this.

When a heist to steal $40 million in gold bricks from Venice, Italy goes south and his mentor, John Bridger (Donald Sutherland), is murdered, mastermind thief, Charlie Croker (Mark Wahlberg), reassembles his skilled team to go after a former member that set them up. Hoping to steal back the gold that's rightfully theirs, Charlie enlists John's estranged, law-abiding daughter, Stella (Charlize Theron), to help crack the safe, take the gold, and get revenge for her father's death. With the mustachioed betrayer, Steve (Edward Norton), holed up in a mansion in Los Angeles under the belief that his old crew are dead, Charlie and team--including Handsome Rob (Jason Statham), Left-Ear (Mos Def), and the Napster (Seth Green)--descend upon LA to pull off the perfect heist... for the second time.

I love every moment of this movie, and it's not even that good. The dialogue could use some work, and all of the plot twists are more than a little convenient, but none of that matters. Just like any great sports movies, where you know exactly how everything will turn out, it's not about the predictable ending--it's about the journey to get there. Watching Charlie come up with a plan, the montages as they all figure out the best execution, takes up 75% of the movie, making it 75% perfect. Despite some distracting side "villains," there's no question where allegiances lie. Everyone with Charlie, and Steve all by his lonesome. Watching someone that cartoonishly villainous get their comeuppance is what going to the movies is all about.

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

© Universal Pictures

This movie was the #39 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

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

© Lionsgate

Having read the books by Suzanne Collins—the first two, cover to cover in record time—watching the cinematic struggle to make a watchable adaptation of Collins' third Katniss Everdeen novel, Mockingjay, was both a frustrating and inspiring experience. First, the book is hugely disappointing, completely separate from the film series most people are familiar with. It's slow, confusing, oddly paced, and characters that were once interesting and fierce feel limp and useless. Tragic, considering it's meant to be a feverish climax to a politically rich story.

Many consider the breaking up of Mockingjay into two films an obvious studio cash grab—I mean, don't get me wrong, it totally was—but it was also completely necessary. Just like the films, the book feels like two different stories: one where nothing happens (Mockingjay - Part 1) and another where everything happens at rapid pace (Mockingjay - Part 2). To say that I'm impressed the final two films are even watchable is a testament writer Danny Strong's tenacity and storytelling abilities.

Former winner of the Hunger Games and reluctant figurehead of the Resistance in Panem, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), is at the end of her rope. With the war raging on both sides, Katniss' lack of action on the ground, and her desire to ensure the assassination of tyrant President Snow (Donald Sutherland) by her own hand, is pushing her to act outside the jurisdiction of District 13 leader, President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore). Despite Katniss' desire to venture to the Capitol alone, she assembles a small team to help her infiltrate the Capitol walls and navigate the Hunger Games-like minefield that awaits her. But she carries more baggage with her on this journey, torn between her love for two men, both of whom she comes to learn she may not know at all.

Where this film differs immediately from Part 1 is in the action. With the inclusion of the terrifying land traps, it starts to once again find the magic of the Games elements that made the first two films so entertaining. Fast-paced with higher stakes (more than a few people face gruesome deaths), it's good to watch Katniss with such purpose again. This script has some stunted moments, usually when Katniss is having quiet kissy-time with Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but that's counter-balanced by a troubled Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) trying to strangle her every two minutes. Unpredictable dynamics make there way into the story and take root, driving the film to a satisfying and cathartic end.

There isn't a lot more I could have asked for with this series. The Hunger Games could have served as a spectacular standalone film, but bringing back the talented Jennifer Lawrence for a few more rounds is impossible to scoff at. All of the films stayed pretty true to their source material, likely because action-oriented characters and plot devices are pretty easy to recreate. In the end, it's really only Katniss as a character that doesn't always come through on screen—we miss out on so much of her internal struggle, but she's not so complex that we can't follow her slight character arc.

Overall, though, the Hunger Games series is a huge success, four films released in less than four years that bring an impressive level of action and creativity to the screen. Enjoyable single-day marathon material, to say the least.

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

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