Thursday, January 14, 2016

Project 365: Movies 266 - 272

266 / 365: Beasts of No Nation (2015)
© Netflix

2015 was a bang-up year for Netflix. We all know this, since I can't name a single person I know who doesn't use the service compulsively. In a year of incredible series and specials, they've released their very first feature film with Beasts of No Nation. While it played a limited run in many theaters here in Los Angeles, I went right to the source in my very own living room. And you shouldn't waste any time doing the same, but be warned: this is not easy viewing—you will have your eyes open, perhaps wider than you expect.

Caught in the midst of a brutal civil war, young Agu (Abraham Attah) is separated from members of his family and watches many of them gunned down. Wandering, weak and worn, through the jungle, he's happened upon by a militant group of rebels who identify themselves as the NDF. Men and boys alike wield weapons, all fighting for what they believe to be a just cause, led by a towering and violent Commandant (Idris Elba). A campaign of violence is to come, but it's Agu's absorption into the rebel fold that drives the action of the film. A gentle, quiet child inundated by anger and desire and fear, Agu begins to understand the need to survive, and not only picks up a gun, but begins to use it with vigor and anger. In a country suffering under political chaos, we witness the heinous acts committed by children who barely understand the reason they fight.

I became invested in Agu and his family so quickly, and so intensely, that I feared every moment that was to come. My heart raced and my hands shook—I've never had a reaction like that before, much less within the first 20 minutes of a movie. You will be affected, because the fear and danger is palpable. The safety and comfort of my own life crushed me with relief. In a film this brutally powerful, you're immediately bawled over by the vibrancy of everything, contrasted with the grit. Every t-shirt, every tree, every patch on a police officer's arm.

The African country is unknown, but it's not important in the least, unless you're interested in exploring the unique customs of a specific people. Appropriately, that isn't the theme the film moves to explore, because this is a story of the world. An unfettered look at the epidemic of war, abuse, murder, and power shifts that are all too common in countries around the world, not just those in Africa. Idris Elba is magnificent and frightening, but what a life changing performance from Abraham Attah. His narration begins, the voice of a naive child—slowly, steadily, it transforms into the voice of a broken soul, jaded and lost, but a survivor still swimming around the vastness of childhood. His playful innocence at the start of the film only makes his transformation sting more harshly. Attah handles his fear and curiosity and desire to be needed with expertise, his interplay with Elba that much more effective. A child shifting from boy to soldier becomes a terrifying, believable reality.

The film's final act has a difficult time living up to the intensity of what came before, and Elba starts to be upstaged by the surrounding cast, including Attah. Then again, this is Attah's story, and it's with him that we continue our journey forward, one that surprisingly, ends with a twinge of hope. Must-see viewing, especially during this awards season.

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

267 / 365: Twinsters (2015)
© Netflix

As a twin myself, I had to see this movie. It is such a special phenomenon, being a twin. A short anecdote before the review. My sister and I grew up believing we were fraternal. That framed a lot about who we were. Being asked whether we are fraternal or identical is the first—and sometimes only—question people ask when they find out we're twins. For 27 years (I'm 29 now), we answered "fraternal." That was until a friend said she felt like we were wrong—that we were actually identical. When we asked our mother, she said "I don't know, you might be." 0.o Still unknown (a DNA test is certainly in our future), it made me realize how much our identities were tied to this reality. That we were fraternal, not identical. To change that, does it change who we are? If something so small could have incited such a question, what would a revelation like that in this film cause?

In this astounding documentary, one so casually constructed it's easy to miss how remarkable it really is, we're introduced to Korean-American, Samantha Futerman, an aspiring actress living in Los Angeles. After appearing in a sketch video that went mildly viral online, Samantha's approached on social media by someone who claims she looks just like his friend—like maybe, could they actually be twins? Samantha, having the incredible foresight to document this odd experience, reaches out in curiosity, and is put in touch with French-Korean, Anaïs Bordier, a young artist living in London. What follows is a discovery of their origins, both adopted from South Korea in eerily similar circumstances, and moreover, an exploration of sisterhood (and twin-ship) that can only be seen to be believed.

To have the foresight to film something like this... to know that it had the potential to be as impactful as it turned out to be... that gives the film an exciting foundation and glosses it with a wonderful quality. This is not an intense mystery about investigating the truth behind the girls' past, or if they are in fact *gasp* really twins. While that is a passing plot point that surges our interest, the film is never about that, because once Samantha and Anaïs meet... they know. They just know. And so do we.

As they communicate first via email, chat, then Skype, the inside jokes begin immediately (*pop*), and the connection that develops between them is gripping. A connection I know all too well, and witnessing two young women—who have, essentially, been without their "other half" their entire lives—experience the rush of intense love and sisterhood leaves me in a puddle of happy tears. When the girls meet each other, face to face, for the first time, it's as beautiful and awkward as you'd imagine it would be. Sam and Anaïs couldn't be less melodramatic about their situation. They're down to earth and relatable, and it's what makes their story so impactful. It's not a complex movie, and it's simplicity is what keeps it from reaching that next cinematic level, but at the same time, nothing feels missing. I loved watching the relationship flourish here, something so private shared so willingly with me.

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

268 / 365: Krampus (2015)
© Universal Pictures

I can imagine Krampus being to a modern day 9-year-old what Gremlins was for kids in my generation. Significantly too dark for children, but made up of that playful, childlike wonder and sense of mischief that ingrain itself in your mind when you're a youngster, destined for nostalgic rememberings. Now, that doesn't mean it's very good. I mean, Gremlins wasn't good, either (*dodges rotten vegetables*). But when you're a kid, none of that matters, because all that matters is that it's like nothing you've ever seen before, and you just can't believe your parents are letting you watch this right now! That is what Krampus felt like.

Inspired by the the Alpine legend telling of the mythical anthropomorphic, goat-like counterpart to Santa Klaus, in which bad children would be punished by—in some tellings—being eaten alive, Krampus is, for all intents and purposes, a modern Christmas fairytale. Days before Christmas, the Engel family prepares for the arrival of their extended relatives, a fact none of them are looking forward to. Youngest son, Max (Emjay Anthony) does his best to stay positive and writes out his letter to Santa. When his vindictive, cruel cousins find it and make fun of him for even believing in Santa, he runs off and tears the letter up, sending off into the snowy night. It isn't long before his hateful wish to be rid of his family starts coming true, as a massive storm settles on the neighborhood and the house falls under attack from evil creatures, all preparing for the arrival of a much more terrifying monster. But as Grandma Omi (Krista Stadler) warns... they must not let the fire die out!

The caliber of acting talent in this movie is perfectly juxtaposed with the absurdity of the plot. Toni Collette as Martha Stewart-esque mother, Sarah, does some of her very best freak outs here, and Krista Stadler pulls off lovably creepy to a T. Somehow, it all just works! The violence is all pretty bloody disgusting, and the very best part is that it doesn't pull a lot of punches. When you're dead... you're dead. All of the child actors (excluding the adorable Emjay Anthony) commit wholeheartedly to being awful little sh*ts, which adds to the feeling of justice we feel when they start to get picked off one by one. At the same time, the extended relatives, including machismo Uncle Howard (David Koechner) and Great Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell), start out as total nightmares we're set up to hate, and slowly but surely, the entire family comes together to fight this medieval demon-goat and his cackling minions.

All of this mayhem and fear leads up to a very satisfying climax that was almost about to anger those of us worried the movie would puss-out of all it'd given us so far—but thankfully for everyone, and all the kiddies that will sneak a peak of this flick at friends' houses for Christmases to come, the movie came through in the end. Dark and twisted, ridiculous and silly, it's a solid treat with all the festive trimmings.

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

269 / 365: Pitch Black (2000)
© USA Films

I saw The Chronicles of Riddick in the theater back in 2004, dragged there by a friend and completely uninterested in the terrible effects, characters, and dialogue... but there was something about that Riddick fellow that made me think "I'd like to know more about this guy." Well, thankfully for me, there was a whole movie about him that I'd missed years and years before, one that was advertised more like a horror/sci-fi version of Flight of the Phoenix rather than the kick-off of a potential franchise—and introduction of one of my favorite action characters. I'm not surprised I overlooked this underrated film back in the day, but it surprises me that many movie fans still do. It's in this franchise where Vin Diesel proves just how big of a muscular bad-ass he truly is.

The year is whoknows, whocares... in deep space, a ship transporting a group of travelers in hyper-sleep hits an asteroid field, and surviving pilot Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell) makes an emergency landing on a nearby planet--a three-sun rock, origins unknown. With the ship destroyed and no means of communication, the recently awoken survivors explore the surrounding, desert-like land for signs of water, life, or a means of escape. When cop William Johns (Cole Hauser) reveals the prisoner he's transporting, a sub-human named Riddick (Vin Diesel) might be a danger to them all, the group goes on high alert and scrambles to power up the only working ship--that is until they discover that the planet is about to go into a month-long eclipse, awakening the flesh-eating creatures that live beneath the ground and fear the light. As the survivors begin dying one by one, Fry and Johns must turn to Riddick, whose ability to see in the dark may be their only way of escaping the planet alive.

Everything in this film is physical, to the point where we all feel exhausted. The grit, the sweat, the rain, the exertion of survival, all of it plays out in a hurried fever pitch. The lighting design also works overtime to convey this. The orange light is so bright and hot, the blue light is so cool and soft... and the darkness is utterly terrifying. The extremes compliment the film and add to the alien landscape, reminding us how uncivilized and un-populated this planet truly is. Diesel plays Riddick like an animal, and overly sensed creature that can easily go head-to-head with these creatures; we don't doubt it for one second. Everyone else is so human by comparison--emotional and overwrought, they'd never survive, regardless of strength and will. The film exceeds expectations in this way, pushing past mere horror and giving these people lives and personality and weakness. And we love Riddick all the more for being above all of it.

The graphics in this film are beginning to show their age, but the rest is still completely solid. The acting is exaggerated only where it matters, and Diesel's gruff voice and rippling muscles quite literally make the character of Riddick--he's flawed, he's dangerous, and he's sexy, but none of that is as impressive as how capable he is. Watching him plan and execute every aspect of their survival brings so much tension to the film. It's the reason why this character, not this film, went on to inspire two sequels, and likely more to come. Hands down, one of my favorite franchised characters of this century, and I can't wait to see Diesel bring him to life in something else. Guilty pleasure to the max.

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

270 / 365: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
© RKO Radio Pictures

This movie was the #37 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

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

© Run Rabbit Run Media

An open, honest, and patient documentary. Reminiscent of gut-wrenching, personal explorations like Dear Zachary, but as opposed to the fervent, violent energy and rush of storytelling, the reveals are slow. Our subject's close friend is telling her story, the stories of the people that knew Matthew Shepard before he was a victim in Laramie. And unlike Dear Zachary, you can feel the passage of time—the change in how they view their friend, their son. This is a boy who has been gone a long time, and whose story has been told in a variety of ways. But it's never been told like this, and that's why it's so important to his memory and legacy.

There is so much empathy you feel as a viewer, internalizing this exploration with Michele Josue, the filmmaker and Matt's friend. This is the film's most powerful asset. She reveals the painful juxtaposition between the outpouring of both love and hatred directed towards Matthew in the wake of his death, and towards what he represents. It's a brutally harsh perspective, and Josue's pain is echoed in the unprecedented interviews she does with those who knew him best.

Josue doesn't forget to inform you about who Matt was to the outside world. A young gay man living in Laramie, WY, who was found beaten nearly to death by two men because he reportedly flirted with them, later dying of his extensive injuries. The man who became the face of homophobic violence and crimes of hate, who inspired country-wide change in legislation and, moreover, triggered a conversation about how we treat the LGBT community in America.

No, Josue doesn't neglect to mention any of this, but she quickly takes us back to remind us that Matt was a person. A happy, bubbly, social child who traveled the world and experienced an adventurous life. A boy who grew to face challenges and fears as a young gay teen well before he could confide in anyone his secret. Ups and downs reveal a human being, not just a headline, and Michele Josue does a splendid job in constructing this story. It is a build to a tragic end that doesn't dwell on its finale. While it doesn't reveal much that wasn't known to anyone interested in Matt's life, the perspective is completely fresh. Down-to-earth and emotionally charged, it's a worthy cap-off to Shepard, usually only remembered for this notorious American crime.

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

272 / 365: Gone in 60 Seconds (2000)
© Buena Vista Pictures

A movie starring all those people you totally forgot about from the early 2000s (I'm looking at you, Delroy Lindo)! And some who managed to star in TV shows so they'd stay relevant (lookin' at you, Timothy Olyphant)! A remake of the 1967 film of the same name (which I, admittedly, haven't seen), the new millennium kicked off with this enjoyably mediocre movie that gave all kinds of naughty feelings about pretty, shiny cars.

Notorious—and retired—Long Beach car thief, Memphis Raynes (Nicholas Cage), is pulled back into the game when his younger brother, Kip (Giovanni Ribisi), botches a job to boost 50 cars for new Big Bad on the block, Raymond Calitri (Christopher Eccleston). Now, he has 72 hours to get a team together to heist all the vehicles and save his brother's life. Tracking down an appropriately rag-tag group of former professionals proves easy enough—the Memphis-love runs real deep—but with a group of detectives (the aforementioned Olyphant and Lindo) hot on their trail, they must pull off the heist of every car in just one night to keep the police off their scent.

You've also never seen anyone have less chemistry with their on-screen love interest than Angelina Jolie has here with Nicolas Cage. I mean, it's not their fault, they're given absolutely nothing to work with, but the lack of tension between them is... what's the opposite of palpable? Google tells me 'imperceptible.' That sounds right. The script is terrible, just downright cliche. But one has to ask, is the script important? I argue that it's not, not even a little. Mundane dialogue aside, the formula is rock solid. A list of cars to check off, absconded in quick succession by a slew of awesome actors who look like they're having a blast? What's not to love about that??

Too bad Raymond Calitri as the villain is so lame and forgettable... this movie might have made a bigger impression, but Eccleston looks like Eddie Redmayne's older, more boring, less talented brother. He disappears for nearly the entire movie, replaced with sub-villains—guys from a different heist crew?—who are more useless than him. Then he reappears only to make the cops go "oh, well, I guess Memphis isn't that bad compared to this wackadoo." It's the most glaring aspect of the plot that totally guts the film. Thankfully, it doesn't take up too much time; the car-jacking is action-packed and exciting, and it's what we all walk away remembering. That and everyone getting horny listening to "Low Rider."

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

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