Thursday, December 31, 2015

Project 365: Movies 259 - 265

259 / 365: Straight Outta Compton (2015)
© Universal Pictures

This film tells the story of a group of friends and aspiring artists/producers living in Compton, CA in the 1980s, who go on to form the group that revolutionized hip-hop music, its culture, and the social conversation: N.W.A. Beginning with visionary DJ, Andre Romelle Young, aka Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and friend O'Shea "Ice Cube" Jackson (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), a writer and rapper daring to write lyrics that represent the aggressive realities of living in such a dangerous place, reach out to a local drug dealer, Eric "Eazy-E" Wright (Jason Mitchell), about funding a hip-hop record. As N.W.A. takes form, their songs hit the music scene like a shockwave, and with success inevitable, the crew must deal with the scavengers that run the industry and fight to maintain their voices—even if that means parting ways.

The introduction of each song, some I was familiar with, some I wasn't, gave the film a structure and foundation to build upon, as reveals were accompanied by a flurry of excitement, changes in the lives of the men, or even as simple as a crowd of people reacting with fervent enthusiasm. Some of the best editing of the year. A film that doesn't rely on montage when it easily could have, there is a clear objective throughout as the story unfolds. A long stream of songs may well have served to satisfy fans, but by incorporating a rich story with layered conflicts, both personal and professional (and social), perspective is injected into the film, something that brings a new audience to the subject. And this was a story I was hugely unfamiliar with, so I found myself gripped by every moment.

The casting could also not have been better, on every front. O'Shea Jackson Jr. made his acting debut playing real-life father, Ice Cube—to say that the resemblance is astounding is simply stating the obvious. But not only familial relations scored high on the look-alike meter. Paul Giamatti had the right amount of spunk and balls to play manager Jerry Heller, who, granted, is villainized to an almost unrealistic degree.

Obviously, the film ignores a few significant personal truths, like the very real evidence that Dre assaulted women on many occasions, and here, he's portrayed more as a frustrated and misunderstood genius. A glossy portrayal, to be sure. But cinematically, making the story about that aspect of their lives would have gutted it of its significance—and relevance in today's world, even after over 25 years. Straight Outta Compton plays out with thrilling purpose, and F. Gary Gray's direction complimented the story, culture and time period, but it was the acting that really stood out. This ensemble played off one another, established depth beyond what the world had already known about these men. A personal, touching, and informative look at the birth of modern hip-hop.

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

© Warner Bros.

This movie was the #38 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

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

261 / 365: Room (2015)
© A24

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

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

262 / 365: Iris (2014)
© Magnolia Pictures

This is an un-flashy documentary about a woman unapologetically flashy to her core. Iris Apfel is a 93-year-old fashion icon and visionary who has inspired the world of fashion through her unique collection curated from pieces designers and culture throughout the world. From a world of interior design and fabric weaving, Iris is known as the 'Rare Bird of Fashion' and considered the first fashionista, with exhibits of her collections on display for audiences, even represented in a photography book. The documentary opens a door into her life, her passion for art and antique fabrics, and her unapologetic approach to life.

Iris is a magnetic subject. You're bound to be impressed by her modern, youthful vocabulary; an indication that she stays connected with the world and the culture throughout the decades. Gracefully aging into a time when many her age would have rejected the societal changes, she embraces them with enthusiasm. Her humor and passion are infectious, one could only dream of being a nonagenarian with such verve. Watching her alongside her constant companion, husband Carl Apfel (recently deceased at the ripe age of 100, 3 days shy of 101), it becomes clear that she's a woman who never compromised herself for anyone, but has never let her interests get in the way of caring for what mattered most.

There's an appreciation of things that this film glorifies in an exhaustively effective way. Collections and pieces that aren't only displayed, they are loved; that distinction between "hoarding" and "curating" is not blurred—it's very, very defined, not by the things themselves, but by the person who possesses them. Watching her give away pieces that mean the world to her is also a test in perspective, as she describes the things that are really important, such as her health and longevity... and that of those she loves. A festive, carefree documentary full of optimism, where aging doesn't look at all that bad. A rare thing.

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


Of all the movies that have ever been made, this one may be the very best argument against "pan and scan" or "full screen" edits of letterbox / widescreen films. When I was growing up, I hated seeing those black bars taking up room on my itty-bitty (by today's standards) television screen. Luckily for me, everyone else hated them too. What I didn't know then was just how much I was missing—and in a movie as CinemaScope-tastic as this one, it may well have been called "Four Brides for Four Brothers"... because all lined up, that's all I'd ever see in 4:3 aspect ration, the others lying somewhere on the cutting room floor.

Mountain-man Adam Pontipee (Howard Keel) travels into town one day with a mission: find himself a wife to bring back to the farm and take care of the homestead. Hoping to find a woman strong and capable and not afraid of a little work, he comes across Milly (Jane Powell), a strong-willed tavern cook who is impressed by Adam's upfront nature after he asks her to marry him moments after meeting her. Impulsively, she says yes and ventures off into her new, quiet life in the mountains. Or so she thought. When she arrives at her new home to discover that Adam has six unruly, unkempt brother—Benjamin, Caleb, Daniel, Ephraim, Frank and Gideon—she takes it upon herself to clean them up and teach them the ways of courting a woman—hoping that the sooner they're married, the sooner they'll leave the house. After a visit to town for a barn-raising in which each boy meets and impresses a single (ish) girl (each one has another prospective suitor), the boys take it upon themselves to return to town to commandeer themselves a wife, just like big brother Adam did—even if that means taking them by force.

This musical is a rare one for Hollywood, as it was in fact a movie before it went on to Broadway in the 1980's, where it did not do well at all. Considering its 50's screen release appeal, that might be a surprise, but the dated subject matter and themes have always been a bit on the questionable side. Sure, this movie might be about Stockholm Syndrome on the surface, but really it's about... well, that's kind of it. Being [distantly] inspired by a short story that was itself inspired by the Roman legend The Rape of the Sabine Women, it's hard to not feel bad about enjoying how lighthearted and fun the film is when the actions of the male characters are so deplorable. Even listening to "Bless Your Beautiful Hide" and "Sobbin' Women" is enough to make anyone mutter "ohmygod..." and shake their head.

But really, the dancing and music are what brings us back and washes away everything else. The brothers, despite their absurd notions about women, are represented as sweet and playful with their color-distinctive shirts, and the women are feisty and curious—as a result, the filmmakers' attempts at romance aren't completely lost. Powell as Milly is the film's moral center, and watching her set all these men straight, whipping them into shape and refusing to compromise her morals, dampens the machismo ridiculousness significantly. Howard Keel is the opposite—a huge, oblivious oaf who looks like he's probably broken a few doors (accidentally) in his day. It all makes for good chemistry, because watching Powell and Keel together is, at the least, never boring. By the end, the journey may have raised a few eyebrows, but every pair of lovebirds that finds each other is conveniently adorable.

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

264 / 365: Hercules (1997)
© Walt Disney Studios

The first stylistically exaggerated Disney animated feature came in the form of this Grecian musical epic, a twist on the legend of Hercules that combines a mixture of musical genres with the snappiest dialogue you're bound to find in a movie directed towards children.

The newborn son of Greek gods, Zeus (Rip Torn), and Hera (Samantha Eggar), is kidnapped by the minions of Hades (James Woods), God of the Underworld, and drained of his immortality. Found and adopted by a older human couple, the demi-god Hercules (Tate Donovan) still possesses his inhuman strength, and as he gets older, goes in search of answers to where he came from. When he discovers he is the son of gods, he must train to become a true hero with Philoctetes (Danny DeVito) in order to regain his immortality and rejoin the gods on Mount Olympus. Little does he know that Hades has come in search of him, and will stop at nothing to keep Hercules from becoming a god once again.

A script this fresh and modern may not suit the original Greek mythology, but it certainly relates it perfectly to the modern day—and no character represents this better than villain Hades, portrayed brilliantly by James Woods. He upstages every other character in the film, without exception, setting him up to align with Maleficent as the best and most charismatic Disney villains. The beauty of this film is that it came at a time when animation styles were becoming more and more realistic, detailed to a degree audiences had never seen before. Suddenly, with Hercules, a color-blocked, simple animation was embraced—and it paid off in spades.

Likely one of the most creative Disney films to come out of the nineties, it may also be the funniest. A lot of that is credited to James Woods, but DeVito delivers a one-two punch of comedy and emotional sweetness you wouldn't expect. I still tear up every time that guy says "Hey look, it's Phil's boy." *sniff* It may suffer from over-exaggeration, both in visuals and performance, at times, but placed alongside a catchy soundtrack using fantastic Broadway voice talent (Susan Egan as Meg, and Roger Bart singing Young Hercules!), it's hard to ignore an animated movie this successfully playful and clever. A surprise standout in a decade full of cinema's greatest cartoon features.

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

265 / 365: Clueless (1995)
© Paramount Pictures

You guys, it happened. Clueless has started to show its age. Still the classic high school story you know and love, just a bit less timeless. Having seen it an estimated 20+ times, I'm as surprised as you are about this. But that doesn't mean it isn't still everyone's favorite nineties teen comedy.

Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) is a 15-year-old Beverly Hills rich kid, sharing the "most popular girl in school" title with her best friend, Dionne (Stacey Dash). On the surface, Cher plays her ditzy, helpless role to a "T," leaning into a superficiality that appears to be the only aspect of her personality. That is until her true colors start to creep out, revealing an intelligent, strategic mind underneath all that lipgloss and mousse, when she makes a commitment to bettering the lives of those around her. From finding love for two lonely teachers to taking the clueless new girl at school, Tai (Brittany Murphy), under her wing of popularity, Cher begins to discover that it may be her in need of a life makeover.

The incredible truth about Clueless is that it's relatively plot-less. This was a fact I always noticed, and I thought it impressive that the film was still good despite this fact. A girl hanging out with and trying to set up her friends isn't exactly a recipe for conflict and character arcs, regardless of how many times you remind me it's based loosely on Jane Austen's Emma. Regardless of the intention, it's a film structured like multiple vignettes, sequences that aim to serve Cher's current initiative—be it finding a boyfriend for Tai, or trying to get her driver's license, all of it is pieced together with only a thinly-veiled plot string binding it.

Don't get me wrong, that thin plot is a major driver in revealing a slew of fascinating characters, all of whom have a purpose in informing Cher's life—her problems (Elton/Jeremy Sisto) and her solutions (Josh/Paul Rudd). We're also talking about a film that introduced an entire vocabulary of slang phrases to the American vernacular, words so ingrained in our culture we could scarcely harken back to their origins. But it was Amy Heckerling and the brilliant Clueless that did it. I could talk for ages about the quotability of this film, the Los Angeles callbacks that make it impossible for me to drive by Olympic Blvd without saying, out loud in Tai's thick New York accent, "I live above Olympic." Or pronounce "Sun Valley" exactly like Cher does in her disheartened state every time I see a bus driving through North Hollywood headed straight there.

There isn't a line in Heckerling's script that isn't delivered with absolute perfection, and that's what makes this film so incredible, despite how dated it truly is. It's a snapshot in time, where we were all listening to our Cranberries CDs, wearing tie-dye, and swooning over Mel Gibson in Hamlet. Now, we can all marvel at an ageless Paul Rudd and lament the tragedy of Brittany Murphy's passing, remembering just how freakin' amazing she really was. I couldn't be more grateful that a movie existed than Clueless—it informed so much of my teenage optimism and delusion. The most culturally important movie of the nineties.

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

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