Tuesday, March 4, 2014

February 2014 Film Wrap-Up

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (Stephen Herek, 1989) = 1.5/5

You mean Bill & Ted's Cringeworthy Adventure? This is not so much a film as it is a series of unfunny, outdated vignettes. This is so light it doesn't even cast a shadow. The overuse of words such as dude and excellent just killed me. This appears to be a hybrid of Back to the Future and Wayne's World, but unfortunately it isn't half as good as either of those films. I don't understand why the movie has a cult following.

Jack Goes Boating (Philip Seymour Hoffman, 2010) = 3.5/5

Philip Seymour Hoffman's sole directorial effort is a quiet film that may not stay in your memory, but will certainly not disappoint. Its treatment of human relationships is incredibly mature, and the film just looks fantastic. This film convinced me that we didn't just lose a great actor in Mr. Hoffman, but a great director, too. It's extremely sad that he'll never be able to expand on this respectable work. Vale, you wonderful man.

Monster (Patty Jenkins, 2003) = 4.5/5

A brutal, immensely absorbing film that wants us to understand its protagonist and wisely avoids painting her as a caricature of evil. Jenkins respects the audience and their prudence to make a judgement about the events portrayed. Theron gives the performance of her life, surrendering every ounce of her being to make Aileen Wuornos uncomfortably real.

Monsieur Lazhar (Philippe Falardeau, 2011) = 4/5

The film's simple structure and natural dialogue is what makes it so compelling. A quiet exploration of the politics of grief. I've always loved films set primarily in schools, especially character studies of teachers. The overlap between a teacher's personal and professional life always makes for compelling viewing. I think this stems from my own curiosities when I was a high school student. I would always wonder what each teacher goes home to, and what private mental preoccupations they would bring to school each morning. 

(500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009) = 4/5

This was my second viewing, and I upped my rating by half a star. I first watched the film when I was in high school, and I thought it was good without being great. I liked its atmosphere and it appealed to my pathos in a beautiful way, but I was annoyed by its forced quirkiness and self-indulgence.

I felt compelled to rewatch this because, over the past year, I've fallen for a girl who is very much like Summer in this film. She doesn't love me back. I mean, I haven't told her how I feel, but if the feeling was mutual, something would have happened by now. I expected to win this girl over because we share some interests, but like this film argues, romanticising trivial commonalities and coincidences is not healthy.

My personal experience allowed me to enjoy this film a whole lot more this time. Scenes that I first thought pretentious are ones I now find endearing and moving. I'm still not a big fan of the ending, but where it counts, this film treats love for what it really is: the cause of and solution to all of life's problems.

Vanilla Sky (Cameron Crowe, 2001) = 4.5/5

A rare film where incomprehensibility is a virtue. It's a profound viewing experience with a myriad of layers. We have several genres at play here: fantasy, mystery, romance, drama, sci-fi, and thriller (with a dash of comedy). What's remarkable is how Crowe doesn't adhere to strict genre conventions, allowing the characters to revel in a haunting odyssey that is never over until the end credits roll.

Back to the Future Part II (Robert Zemeckis, 1989) = 3.5/5

It's not as emotionally involving as the first, and it's too convoluted to truly love, but it's still a fun flick with captivating special effects. Remember that I'm still fairly new to the BTTF films. I LOVED the first film, and I am yet to watch the third and final instalment

Empire Records (Allan Moyle, 1995) = 3/5

I may not remember it in a month, but for 90 minutes, I was entertained. Good-spirited with likeable characters and a killer soundtrack.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black, 2005) = 4/5

This is a delightful concoction of genres that strikes a perfect balance between comedy and thrills. Robert Downey, Jr. is in top form, and his chemistry with Val Kilmer is just delightful. As you would know, I very rarely watch action films. I did not mind the action sequences in this film because I was deeply invested in the characters caught in the middle of them, and thoroughly engrossed in the story.

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013) = 5/5

I was surprised by how much I loved this. The film revels in excess but somehow it never felt gratuitous to me. The characterisation of Belfort is ingenious. We hate the character but DiCaprio pours so much energy into the role that we inevitably see the world through his eyes. Scorsese's direction is impeccable, and unlike others, I don't think the running time is too lengthy. Like all great black comedies, it makes you feel guilty for finding it hilarious. Most of all, I was surprised at the tinge of sadness it carried throughout. Watching this megalomaniac cruise through life with all these delusions...it's so miserable to watch. 

Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975) = 3.5/5

As with other giallo films, it is tough to penetrate. However, the script is surprisingly coherent. As expected, it was beautifully shot with a hypnotic score by Goblin. This was only my second Argento film, following Suspiria. As a major horror enthusiast, I want to love his films so badly. Unfortunately, the best I can do is like them.

The Goonies (Richard Donner, 1985) = 3.5/5

It hasn't aged terribly well, and maybe I'd need to be a child of the 80s to truly love it, but it made me feel like a kid again. For an adventure film that doesn't cover *that* much distance, it felt like quite a journey.

 Chasing Amy (Kevin Smith, 1997) = 4.5/5

An entertaining and touching film exploring the intricacies of love, attraction and friendship. Unlike many films about messy relationships, it argues that we can learn from our mistakes rather than let them destroy us. Ben Affleck and Joey Lauren Adams are painfully convincing in their roles, and Jason Lee is side-splittingly hilarious whenever he opens his mouth.

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013) = 4.5/5

This may be McQueen's most conventional film to date. I definitely found Hunger and Shame to be more rewarding as viewing experiences. However, the man's talent behind a camera cannot be denied. Watching this film is a visceral, uncomfortable experience. But you have to think about why it makes you uncomfortable, and then count your blessings. I'm definitely not complaining about its Best Picture win at this year's Oscars. 

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1982) = 0.5/5

Not only is it not scary, but it doesn't even have the decency to be campy fun. If not for its title, I wouldn't have the slightest clue this belonged to the Halloween franchise. I knew Michael Myers wasn't in it, but I still wasn't prepared for how bad it would be. It's essentially a sci-fi film, with some moments of [attempted] suspense that lend it the atmosphere of a horror film. Unspeakably weird. Such a mess. If you get any trick-or-treaters, you would have to be one mean bastard to give them this movie instead of candy.

Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg, 2013) = 4/5

I went to the Golden Age Cinema at Surry Hills one Friday night last month. I had never been there before, and I originally intended to see this film back-to-back with David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. Due to some circumstances, I could only watch Drinking Buddies, which was first on the schedule. I wasn't expecting a lot from it, and I was mainly interested in the film because it stars Anna Kendrick, my number one celebrity crush. 

Oh man, don't let the generic poster fool you! This film is a treat. Each character feels painfully real, and we switch our allegiances multiple times throughout the film because no one is perfect. It is directed with an intimacy that makes the viewer feel like an eavesdropper. I laughed a lot, and although I think it was capable of a better ending, I left the cinema feeling warm inside. This is a picture John Cassavetes would've been proud of.

In retrospect, I'm glad I didn't watch Mulholland Drive afterwards. I wouldn't be able to focus on it because Drinking Buddies had such a profound impact on me. I thought about it for days afterwards, and I was oh so close to upping my rating to 4.5. Alas, I have decided I am comfortable with my 4. However, this film is a reminder that a film's true worth lies not in its star rating, but in the way it nestles in your heart, mind and soul once it is over. Please make an effort to see this one.

Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 2013) = 3/5

I admire its stylistic choices, but its characters just aren't enigmatic enough and border on archetypal. The shift from comedic scenes to dramatic scenes was too heavy-handed, and the pacing was a bit awkward. I just think it needed a longer runtime to flesh out its story. Like a pornographic video, it leaves you feeling mildly satisfied but ultimately with a craving for something more fulfilling. That said, I am very intrigued to see Gordon-Levitt grow as a director. There's enough promise here to suggest he'll make some great films in the future.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, 2011) = 3.5/5

It deserves praise for never surrendering its unsettling atmosphere, but structurally, it gets a little boring. It wants so badly to be a mood piece, but it winds up feeling repetitive. The ambiguity felt so forced in the final act. Its main strength is the chilling performance by Elizabeth Olsen.

Risky Business (Paul Brickman, 1983) = 3/5

There are some great individual scenes, but it hasn't aged well and there's nothing to cling to, emotionally. It's a testosterone-fuelled fantasy. 

Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013) = 5/5

This film confirms that Alexander Payne is still one of the greatest directors working today. His films are like comfort food—slices of freshly-baked apple pie with a side of ice cream. Nebraska engrossed me from start to finish without any extravagant gimmicks. We embark on the journey with as much curiosity as the film's protagonist. It is touching without being emotionally manipulative, and funny without resorting to obvious gags. It is a picture made with genuine human warmth, and you owe it to yourself to see it.

In Summary - The Must-See Films (4.5 or 5 Stars)
* Monster
* Vanilla Sky
* The Wolf of Wall Street
* Chasing Amy
* 12 Years a Slave
* Nebraska