Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Project 365: Movies 273 - 279

273 / 365: Brooklyn (2015)
© Fox Searchlight Pictures

This past year wasn't known for it's easy-breezy cinema. Most were wrought with violence, or injustice, or emotional turmoil, so to be met with a film this light and refreshing is almost unheard of this time of year. For that film to receive the awards recognition that it has goes to show how audiences were in need of more movies that have no more to say than "love will prevail." There are obvious elements of classic Hollywood cinema in Brooklyn, from the story itself to the romance to the exquisite costume and set design, proof that a happy ending doesn't have to feel trite or cliche, but can be absolutely necessary and welcome.

Young Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) finds a lack of opportunities in her small, cloistered Irish hamlet in the 1950's, and with the help of a family friend and Priest, makes the nerve-wracking and unfamiliar voyage across the Atlantic to Brooklyn, New York. Leaving behind her hopeful mother and older sister, Eilis is put up in a female boarding house for like-minded Irish transplants, and she soon realizes that her meek, quiet, and nervous nature may not get her too far in the fast-paced city. With a new job at an upscale department store, coming face to face with glamorous and confident women doesn't do anything to settle her nerves.

Wracked with homesickness and without any close friends, she's unexpectedly wooed by a sweet and playful Italian boy named Tony (Emory Cohen). As a whirlwind romance quickly transforms her life and outlook on her new home, she must put her new-found happiness on hold when tragedy calls her back to Ireland. With the call of two homes weighing heavily on her mind, Eilis must choose between the prospect of greater opportunities from her past... and the anticipation of a blissful future.

The film is refreshing in its lack of stakes. How personal it was counteracts our desire to see our protagonist encounter insurmountable trials left and right. She felt like an honest, real person, experiencing a new life—first crippled by homesickness, probably one of the best portrayals on screen of the complex emotion I've ever seen, and then by infatuation, the temporary cure for almost any sickness, as most of us know. Ronan is absolute perfection. She has come into her own as an actress, and as a woman, she possesses a wholesome maturity that is so rare these days. There is nothing hard about her, but her strength is indisputable. Watching that strength come out is Eilis' entire journey.

Brooklyn is a movie that's nearly impossible to hate, because it's genuinely the most harmless movie of the year. That could be considered a not-so-good thing by some critics. This sweet and not-so-subtle romance about self-discovery may not push the envelope of cinema or any aspect of the medium, but it does remind us how necessary a story this hopeful and genuine really is for jaded American audiences.

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

274 / 365: Bridge of Spies (2015)
© 20th Century Fox

During the early years of the Cold War, the CIA intercepts knowledge of a Soviet spy working on American soil. When Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is apprehended by the CIA, the image of a fair and balanced trial becomes a government priority, and insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is hired (or rather, forced) to represent him. But when a CIA U-2 spy plane is downed over Soviet air space, pilot Francis G. Powers (Austin Stowell) is arrested and used as a pawn to orchestrate a trade for their KGB intelligence officer. Donovan then finds himself traveling to East Berlin to negotiate the trade, and discovers that the internal struggle between Soviet territories may well cost him his life.

Spielberg's take on the subject matter is undeniably heavy-handed, reminding us constantly just how much better America is than the Soviet Union. We treat our prisoners better, we represent them better in court, we even wake them up in their prison cells nicer. Steven, we get it. I'm happy to be an American, too. Maybe back off the rhetoric a little. It shouldn't a surprise that the emotions are heightened and turned up to eleven here, especially as audiences are further and further removed from the political nuances of the Cold War. But the overt comparisons of "them" versus "us" was done with the subtlety of a freight train.

There is quite literally a scene in which Donovan rides the train from East Berlin back to the West side, and as he passes over the wall, he watches young people attempting to run over the battlement only to be shot dead. CUT TO: Donovan has returned home to America, and it riding the train to work. As he passes by a neighborhood, he sees a group of young boys making that same run... but this time, it's over fences in the sunshine, and there's nary a gun in sight. I KNOW, WE GET IT. And moments like this aren't rare; there's one at least every 20 minutes, and it's an unnecessary distraction that detracts from the very real nature of this story.

The direction otherwise is, of course, beautiful. Hanks is still a man with the world's most trustworthy face, and he plays Donovan as an earnest man unwilling to compromise with the lives of any political prisoners. When he plays hardball with the East Germans, we don't question his convictions for a second, even though the US government does. He's the foundation that the film needs, because otherwise it would suffer from an over-inflated sense of self. Hanks, however, can't ever be applauded enough, in my opinion.

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

275 / 365: Furious 7 (2015)
© Universal Pictures

This isn't as bad as you'd probably imagine, though perhaps you're in the camp of people that root for an endless stream of films from the Fast & Furious franchise? If that's the case, I'd think this one might just live up to your revved-up, cinematic expectations. In the seventh iteration of this popular series, it's unique in that it features the late Paul Walker's character, Brian, and—through the magic of creative shooting and CGI—Walker himself. The film has so much heart as a result, knowing it is, in more ways than one, an ode to a wonderful guy, honoring what he contributed to over a decade of this cinematic franchise.

Dominic Toretto and his team are finished with their criminal pasts. Having reformed and many of them settling down, parting ways, the brother of an old enemy, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), has begun attacking Toretto's crew, aiming to kill them one by one. At the team comes together to mourn the loss of one of their own, they're once again enlisted by the government to stop a computer terrorism program called "God's Eye," from falling into the hands of a Somalian terrorist, Jakarde, and another unknown entity who will stop at nothing to get their hands on it.

Once again, Vin Diesel is the obvious star, not only due to his prominence in the story, but because acting-wise, he's the steadiest talent you can find in the bunch. Dominic is a strong character, and more complicated than everyone else (despite how hard the filmmakers try to make Michelle Rodriguez' Letty a hot mess ready to implode). Walker was body-doubled by his own brothers, and voiced by them two, and it was remarkably well done. The best part was that they didn't back down from using his character, including him heavily in the plot, and avoiding the "easy way out" that would involve simply killing the character off. That shows loyalty that most production companies have no patience for, and for that, I tip my hat.

Constant slow-mo transitions litter the film, usually involving cars rolling up, nearly naked women passing by, clothes waving in the wind... That happened at least nine times. A familiar Furious motif, no doubt. All the fun visual action is clearly a plot to keep us all from realizing that the plot is a total mess. And it works too! You don't really notice that you're unsure who is battling who, why the government is involved, and that there are two, only-okay plots happening simultaneously. Much of the hand-to-hand, man-on-man action comes from Statham battling Dominic's crew. His story line is spill-over from previous films, so if you missed those (like I did), you'll probably be left scratching your head. Then there's the actual plot, which involves the "God's Eye" program, and naturally, trying to stop it from falling into the wrong hands.

Fast cars, male AND female-driven action, and a sequence in which a car flies between not one but THREE buildings! Oh, and The Rock literally breaks off his own arm cast by flexing his bicep muscles. All of the favorite action tropes are here, and this time around, it might actually make you feel a thing or two.

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

276 / 365: Trumbo (2015)
© Bleecker Street

Unless you were a fan of 1950s cinema, familiar with all the players and the moving parts and the politics hovering over that time... this might not be a movie for you. It's charm very well could be lost, and what you're left with is cantankerous characters, political fuckery, and a lot of industry "intrigue" that, unfortunately, had a pretty specific shelf-life. Directed by Jay Roach, it's a comedic and playful look at the blacklisting of the Hollywood 10 that also doesn't shy away from the dramatic impact it had on Hollywood, and the lives of those forbidden to work.

In 1947, Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), along with his close friends in the business, were at the top of their game. Trumbo is offered an unprecedented contract to write movies for Louis B. Meyer (Richard Portnow), that is until gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and the conservative film community begin running smear campaigns, citing Trumbo and his kind as unforgiving Communists—and Soviet sympathizers. At a time when the Cold War was just beginning, the House Un-American Activities Committee was aggressively attacking Hollywood, and those who may be inserting their Commie agendas into the pictures. When famous Hollywood insiders named names, Trumbo and other artists were blacklisted and jailed, forced to write or work in secret in order to avoid financial ruin. For Dalton Trumbo, blacklisting couldn't stop him from going on to write some of the post popular films of all time, or from winning two Academy Awards—under someone else's name.

I am a fan of this era, and it's charm was almost lost on me. I delighted in seeing the characters take familiar form, and the political climate surrounding the Hollywood Ten, blacklisted for their polluting of films with Communist propaganda, is done extremely well. It doesn't shy away from discussing the hypocrisy of these rich writers claiming to fight for the little guy, but supports their fight for free speech in whatever form they, as writers, see fit. The highlight of the film is the flurry of script-writing done under different monikers for B-movie producers, Frank (John Goodman) and Hymie King (Stephen Root). Brian Cranston knows Dalton Trumbo, and plays him with a lot of wit and forcefulness, never forgetting that he was a stubborn, but brilliant man, who wasn't at all flawless. He's an interesting character to root for, because while he's technically in the right, he's morally ambiguous.

The rest of the casting was a fun element to watch play out on screen, as well. Elle Fanning, as Trumbo's youngest daughter, is the only actor in the film not sporting an array of wrinkles, and there's something refreshing about that. Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, David James Elliott as John Wayne (whose accent was a bit all over the place, I will admit), and of course, Dean O'Gorman as Spartacus actor, Kirk Douglas, all of them added so much personality to the film. But at the same time, the entire plot suffered from being overly busy. We're left trying to make connections between people, some who change from scene to scene as motivations shift and alter--complex, sure, but also dizzying. The film isn't fast-paced enough or dynamic enough to warrant the back and forth, yet is does a marvelous job establishing the political climate at the time, and just how unforgiving HUAC and the conservative press were at the time.

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

277 / 365: The Danish Girl (2015)
© Focus Features

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

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

278 / 365: Carol (2015)
© The Weinstein Company

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

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

279 / 365: The Big Short (2015)
© Paramount Pictures

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

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

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