Friday, February 26, 2016

Project 365: Movies 288 - 294

288 / 365: Suffragette (2015)
© Focus Features

I don't know how many of you were a mess of tears when you saw this film's trailer in the theater, featuring a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide," sung by Robyn Sherwell, but it was enough to make me think that this could easily be the best film of the entire year. That's how effective the trailer was. Sadly, the film didn't quite live up to the promise of it's advertisements, though admittedly, the snapshot provided in the 2+ minute preview is, in fact, as perfectly succinct—and almost more emotional—version of the actual film.

In early 20th-century Britain, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) has been working as a laundress since she was seven years old. Now a wife and mother, the mild-mannered Maud befriends fellow laundry-worker, outspoken Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff), who encourages her to join the underground suffragette movement in an attempt to fight for their rights as women—and mothers. Inspired by the infamous Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), a political activist and leader of the suffragette movement in London, Maud begins to find her voice as she engages in peaceful—and not so peaceful—protests in the face of police aggression and injustice. Risking their jobs, families, and lives, Maud and her compatriots fight selflessly to change the course of history.

The first thing that I noticed was that the film was structurally confounding, and the arc of the storytelling was limited by how the scenes were organized. Sequences, moments, dialogue, whatever it may be, anything of emotional depth or inspirational gravitas never seemed to hit at the right time. There was a lot of build-up to Streep's Pankhurst, who acts more as an inspirational figure than an active participant in the on-the-ground cause. Yet her reveal comes mid-way through the film, which means that it's bookended by a flurry of activity that deflates the entire sequence's importance. Had she appeared at the start, or maybe the end, the build up would have been justified and added just the right touch to aide Maud in her journey.

Otherwise, the significance of the story isn't lost on us, and Mulligan is a spectacular leading lady. I consider her a premiere talent, and I'm never without positive things to say about any one of her roles. The same is true for her performance as Maud Watts. She goes through a tremendous transformation during the course of this story, and it never feels forced, like its only for a desperate emotion-grab. Her tears and fire and anger are palpable, particularly in her scenes with her young son. It was impossible not to feel a drive right alongside her. The difficulty is trying to translate that same personal journey into such a massive political movement, one that—when we're taken away from Maud's story—feels more like a history lecture, and a dragging one, at that. But just watching the scene when Maud comes face-to-face with the Police Inspector, played by Brendan Gleeson, is worth the price of admission.

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

289 / 365: Anomalisa (2015)
© Paramount Pictures

Just look at this image of the shooting process, an exhausting construction of movements and shifts that would be enough for even the most patient filmmakers to lose their minds. Part of watching any Charlie Kaufman film is noticing the minute details that he incorporates, and oftentimes, figuring out how the hell he did it, and Anomalisa is no different. The script has a mighty message, one that changes its tune mid-way through, but that challenges the viewer to accept that life just might be as meaningless, or as meaningful, as we make it. Oh, and it also features the most realistic sex scene I've ever seen—between two puppets.

While on a one-day business trip to hold a seminar in customer service, author Michael Stone (David Thewlis), moves about his routine with disinterest, interacting blandly with those he must, but never attempting to make a connection with anyone. The purpose of his life appears to have diminished, even as it relates to his own wife and child—that is until he hears the voice, and sees the face, of a stranger named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is staying at his hotel. From his perspective, she just might be the most special person in the entire world, and quite possibly the cure for his apathetic, mundane existence.

Thematically is where I begin to have issues with the otherwise flawless execution of the puppetry/stop motion. The entire concept of the film's first half hinges on the idea that life is a monotony of continuous sameness. That as you get older, it becomes obvious that people are just inherently the same, with the same selfish, boring desires. But the first half is hopeful, because, as Michael discovers, sometimes, there will come into your life a person that stands out from the rest, and shows you just how brilliantly unique and special life can be. A powerful, life-altering discovery that Kaufman handles with absolute brilliance. Lisa is so relatable, and she makes Michael relatable, and the way their relationship comes about is easily the most touching aspect of the film.

But then the shift. The very Kaufman-esque one that I should have known was coming, because things were just going too damn well for these characters. I don't want to spoil the last part of the film, but it's a huge factor in my not loving it more. When Michael experiences a very obvious shift in his perspective about Lisa, about his life... there is no more dismal reveal than this. What a damn disappointment. The transition that Michael is making to truly accepting that life can be a joy is cut down at the knees, and us optimists are left with our mouths hanging out, with pessimists left nodding their heads. Your enjoyment of this film really will hinge on if you're a "glass half empty" or "glass half full" kinda person.

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

290 / 365: The Hateful Eight (2015)
© Warner Brothers

Many mixed emotions here. What I love about Quentin Tarantino is ability to write an irreverent script and incorporate bloody gore in a way that doesn't make my stomach turn. Tarantino was never about that, even when the violence was brutal and disturbing (Django Unchained and that dog scene comes to mind). In The Hateful Eight, moments of absolute bloody decimation were broken up only by shots of sprawling landscapes and fur trappings used for impeccable interior design—oh, and some pretty fantastic acting. But for the first time since the gimp scene in Pulp Fiction, I found myself unsettled more than I was entertained.

Navigating the vast wilderness and sensing an impending storm, bounty hunter John Ruth (Kirk Douglas) comes along another bounty man, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), in need of transport. With the Major's bounty dead, Ruth agrees to bring him along with him to the nearby town of Red Rock, so long as the man keeps his distance from his live fugitive captive, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh)—the most wanted member of the Domergue gang, and he's taking her to Red Rock to hang. The two men then encounter Red Rock's new sheriff, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), stranded on the road, so with the blizzard ranging to the point of white out, Ruth has the group seek refuge at an establishment he's frequented often, Minnie's Haberdashery.

But when they arrive, they meet many new, unfamiliar faces—and no Minnie. Bob (Demián Bichir) is overseeing the place while Minnie is away, and a few guests have already settled in: cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), Red Rock's hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), and an old Southern general, Sandford Smithers (Bruce Dern). Fearing the loss of his bounty, Ruth establishes rules among the tense, untrusting group, and it isn't long before the eight travelers are trapped inside this cabin, with nothing to do but turn against each other. That is, unless the bounty hunters can uncover the truth behind who these men are, and what they want.

While most audiences are applauding Ennio Morricone's score and the lengthy vista shots of the 70mm edition (for good reason), I was—and still am—most taken with Yohei Taneda's production design. It was distracting in its beauty and detail, and the pacing of the story was comparable to watching a perfectly executed play, with a set to match. The perpetual movement through the cabin's distinct sections, the props littering the walls, shelves, arm chairs, and tables, rich with texture. How each piece catches your eye—as a distraction—but eventually comes into play later in the film with significant purpose. I was taken by it immediately, and it remains my favorite thing about the film. The script is a close second. Witty and disgusting, Tarantino does what he does best. The only difference here is that I didn't quite enjoy watching what I was hearing.

No one knows how to genre-twist like Tarantino. As likely the biggest cinephile making movies today, his attention in recent years has veered from dark noirish crime, to warped historical period myths, steeped in delightful untruths. Where Inglorious Basterds and Django managed to align the audience with whomever you perceived as the "good guys," there isn't a good guy to be found this time around. That's really what makes it so boldly brutal. Kirk Douglas' John Ruth may be as close as we'll get to a hero, but even he can't stand up against the treachery for long. Sam Jackson delivers some incredible monologues here, though he never shakes his common Tarantino persona. But he certainly does the most sleuthing, and that, in the end, is what this film is all about. Like a demented Agatha Christie/Murder on the Orient Express 'whodunit', Tarantino weaves together humor and outrageous violence that, at times, is a tough pill to swallow.

Jennifer Jason Leigh deserves a call out at this point, because she gives, hands down, the most carelessly wild performance of the year. Her character is downright appalling, crude and broken, with an appalling sense of humor. And Leigh f*ckin' delivers. Now, having said that, I'm still cringing at the beatings she takes at the hands of her captors, and there is a disconnect between the tone of the film and the story we're watching play out. The physical action we're seeing just doesn't match the comedic air of the editing and dialogue, and I'm left wondering why I'm not enjoying this whole experience more. For Tarantino's eighth feature film, I can't think of a story more appropriate, but despite the brilliant pieces that are impossible to overlook, The Hateful Eight doesn't quite come achieve the heights of is more recent masterpieces.

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

291 / 365: Scrooge (1970)
© National General Pictures

There must be something about Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol that just begs to be re-written as a musical. All of the best versions are, be it on stage or screen, and this one was introduced to me by my boyfriend and his family, who grew up on it—kind of like how I grew up on my #293 movie below. This is a simple, and incredibly magical story, and not a single beat is missed as Albert Finney takes on the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, an bitter old man with no patience for Christmas spirit... that is, until three of them—the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future—come to visit him on the night of Christmas Eve...

Albert Finney does Scrooge justice, though he edges on silly at times. A result of his wearing old age makeup and trying to act old, very likely, but it isn't a distraction. He does have the kick in his step that grows happier and happier throughout the film, and he plays it joyously. The ghosts are typical of this story, but conceived well. And no other take on this movie can claim Obi Wan Kenobi as their Jacob Marley.

The connection to all things Christmas is so dependent on your experience as a child. If you grew up singing hymns, those will always hold a nostalgic, special place in your heart, even if in your adult life, you aren't religious. When you were young, if you opened presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve, that desire continues to build out into your traditions with your children. I feel the exact same way about Christmas movies, particularly adaptations of this all-too-familiar tale. This was my very first time watching this, and it was wonderful. A top-notch re-telling that incorporated songs (my favorite element; seriously, this plot is so "singable"), which brings it as near to my all-time favorite Christmas movie as one could hope to get.

But no matter how hard it may try, or how much it might deserve it, it simply can't hold a candle to what I loved as a kid. My boyfriend swears by this version, but that's his childhood talking, just like mine.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Blu Ray
Seen Before: No

292 / 365: It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
© RKO Radio Pictures

[I watched this movie as part of my Project 365 (it was Christmas, how could I not??), but will review it in full when it comes up at #20 on the AFI Top 100]

293 / 365: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
© Buena Vista Pictures

Residing in a permanent position as my #1 Christmas movie of all time, and the first Muppet film not to headed by Jim Henson himself. But the homage to his legacy and his characters has never been stronger than in this feature film, where all of his very best creations get to join in on the fun and the irreverent joy. The timeless story of the miserable miser, determined to stomp on the happiness of Christmas, who comes face to face with his Past, Present, and dismal potential Future, thanks to three very different ghosts.

Michael Caine is the best Ebenezer Scrooge that has ever been. Maybe I'm biased... Nope. I'm not. He's the best. He plays this role, a complicated and very easy-to-over-act miser, as if it were Shakespeare. Oh, and did I mention he did it alongside the Muppets? Not for one single second on screen does Caine play down the part because of his co-stars, or give away that this just might be a version for children. He is truly one of the greats, and this is evidence of his true talent and professionalism. Nothing he does is played for a laugh, even though he's funny on many occasions. I'm still in awe of his performance, because he could have phoned it in, but he didn't. And more than that, he adds a seriousness to the story—and legitimizes the Muppets themselves—as true characters of fiction.

The best Muppet movies are the ones where the Muppets themselves have a place to "fit." Adapting classic stories where each familiar face can slip seamlessly into the character—a name tweak here, a tongue-in-cheek play on words there—and A Christmas Carol has a place for everyone. And I mean everyone (the red-headed step-child of the Muppets, Bean Bunny, whom I adore, even finds his purpose in this story). Kermit as Bob Cratchet is perfection, and Fozzi as Fuzziwig Fozziwig? Pure genius. Is there any story more ideal for a Muppet takeover than this one? I think not.

Lastly, the songs. From "One More Sleep 'Till Christmas" to "Bless Us All" to, of course, the finale "Thankful Heart," there is a beautiful, emotional track to represent each significant beat. And this Muppet version is unique in that is includes a Narrator, and a 4th wall breaking interaction with the viewer. Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat lighten the heavy nature of the story and bring light to the film, and it offers a consistency that you don't know you've missed until it's gone. A film from my childhood that will become required viewing for my future children, and one that continues to be staple during our holiday celebrations.

Rating: ★★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Blu Ray
Seen Before: Yes

294 / 365: The World's End (2013)
© Universal Pictures

It's been 20 years since Gary King (Simon Pegg) and his school mates attempted to tackle—and fail to complete—the country's most epic pub crawl in their hometown. Now, at 40 years old, a now embarrassingly immature and selfish Gary views this moment of his youth the pinnacle of his existence, and it's about time he finish what he started, with those who walked alongside him. When he eventually convinces his old friends—all of whom have grown up and moved on—to join him on this school boy dream, even though he is completely blind to the very real fact that every single one of them hates him, and maybe always did. As old wounds and memories open up, ignored completely by Gary, they soon discover that something just isn't right with the people in their old stomping ground... and it may take more than iron livers to get them through 12 pints in 12 pubs and make it to their final stop, The World's End.

Pegg plays Gary as so despicable, there is no amount of pity in the world that could make up for it. They don't even really try very hard to make you feel bad for him. Sure, you get hints about how the guy has never grown up, how stuck in the past he is, how completely delusional he is... but you don't care. He's just too mean and too unlikable. The saving grace of the movie is that everyone else thinks so, too. This is Nick Frost's best "Pegg sidekick" character since Shaun of the Dead, and it stands out because, this time, he couldn't want to be around Pegg less.

Edgar Wright's editing style—the sweeping transitions and comedic slam cuts—is what reminds us we're watching a comedy. The plot itself begins to fall apart not long after it starts, because, like ticking boxes off a list, there's only so many places it can go. The revelation about the supernatural element here is hilarious, and the action is great during the bathroom scene when everything goes to hell. But from there, it devolves into a rocky, endless stream of 'the same.' The final climactic sequence is so over the top, it isn't even interesting anymore by the time we get there, and we're still having to endure Gary in all his self-obsession. Glad I saw this at least once, but now I don't have to watch it again.

Rating: ★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Blu Ray
Seen Before: No

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