Wednesday, April 30, 2014

April 2014 Film Wrap-Up

Can't Hardly Wait (Harry Elfont & Deborah Kaplan, 1998) = 3/5

This is a 90s teen film that awkwardly tries to be an 80s teen film. It contains some engaging dialogue that elevates it above movies of a similar vein, but ultimately, I could hardly wait for it to end.

Akeelah and the Bee (Doug Atchison, 2006) = 4.5/5

Wow. I knew Roger Ebert was extremely fond of this one, but even that didn't prepare me for this film's greatness. No one makes a film where spelling is the chief subject matter because they want to get rich. They do it out of passion. Indeed, it took writer/director Doug Atchison 10 years to transition this from an idea to a motion picture, and he had tutored disadvantaged students similar to Akeelah in the film.

Atchison is aware the film may not have wide appeal, implied when one kid says "Spelling bees are serious shit" in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Well, let me tell you: this appealed to me a lot. Maybe it's because I'm a bit of a spelling nerd, or maybe it's because the film's characters are genuinely likeable.

I just really identified with Akeelah's unwavering altruism and determination in the face of misfortune. This could have dissolved into some schmaltzy tearjerker but it resists that urge and manages to be truly pleasant. If I ever have children, this film will be required viewing in the household.

The Way, Way Back (Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, 2013) = 4.5/5

A sweet, touching coming-of-age film for the square pegs that cannot fit in round holes. In the opening scene, Trent (Steve Carell) asks Duncan (Liam James), "On a scale of one to ten, what do you think you are?" I answered Trent's question in my head, giving myself a six. Moments later, Duncan revealed his answer: "Six." That's when I knew I would fall in love with this film.

Liam James is a revelation as the painfully shy and withdrawn Duncan. Sam Rockwell's performance as a shameless water park manager is what elevates the film from standard dramedy fare to something very memorable. It's a rare performance imbued with a magnetism that leaves us hanging on every word the character says, all of which are hilarious. Think Robert Downey, Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Ultimately, the film reminded me of why it's good to live a less-than-perfect life. That way, there is so much room for things that can make it better.

Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001) = 5/5

This is my 11th favourite film of all time. You will not understand it. You may not even enjoy it. But, if you do not watch it, you will miss out on one of the strangest, most hypnotic film experiences possible. Watch it alone. Watch it late at night, with no sources of light around you except for your television. I was lucky enough to watch this on the big screen.

It's a film of idyllic dreams, menacing nightmares, and everything in between. Lynch's loose ends are not drawbacks but embellishments. What I would give to see this for the first time again!

Cinemania (Angela Christlieb & Stephen Kijak, 2002) = 4/5

If you're making the effort to read this, it means you probably enjoy movies quite a bit. Perhaps cinema is in your top three areas of interest. You probably think you're an extreme devotee to the medium because you save the ticket stub from every movie you see at a cinema.

Well, if you watch Cinemania, I guarantee you will feel insecure about your love of film. When compared to these five film fanatics, the average hardcore movie buff is a casual movie-goer.

We're talking about people who watch two to five films each day. One man can recall the exact running time of every film he's ever seen. Another once saw 1000 films over a period of 8 months. He adheres to a special diet that prevents him from going to the toilet during screenings. Each film buff has his or her own idiosyncrasies and viewing preferences. No two are the same.

I think this is essential viewing for anyone who identifies as a film enthusiast. Not everyone is likeable and, indeed, these people have impaired social skills as a result of their cinephilia. But damn, I could listen to them talk all day!

Magic (Richard Attenborough, 1978) = 3.5/5

This psychological horror may not have aged well, but it's too bizarre and unapologetically morbid to dismiss. Hopkins is fantastic in one of his lesser-known roles. 

12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957) = 5/5

A minimalistic triumph, and a testament to why characterisation and dialogue are the two most important elements of a film. It also serves as an example of perfect casting. Can't believe I'd never seen this before, especially considering I LOVE films shot almost exclusively in one location.

The Puffy Chair (Jay Duplass, 2005) = 3.5/5

One of those frustrating films that comprises of brilliant individual scenes that don't quite add up to a great film. 'The Puffy Chair' is a good film, and it is worth seeing for its performances and emotional sincerity. I'm just not sure if I'll remember it in six months' time.

Romper Stomper (Geoffrey Wright, 1992) = 3.5/5

A disturbing exploration of the dark recesses of humanity. It's surprisingly stylish (at times reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange), but it feels a bit one-note in the way it uses violence to propel the plot. It just needed to take its foot off the accelerator more often.

Lawn Dogs (John Duigan, 1997) = 3/5

Despite strong chemistry between Rockwell and Barton, the film's offbeat vibe feels forced, and its frantic genre-hopping means it often struggles to be accessible. The film's poster features one critic's opinion that this is EDWARD SCISSORHANDS meets David Lynch, so I went into the film expecting that melange. I can definitely notice parallels to the former, but this is far from anything Lynchian.

Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004) = 5/5

Clueless about Cabernet? Perplexed by Pinot? Not in-the-know about Merlot? Wine is only the conduit for this film about the innate need for human attachment. The screenplay, by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, is one of the finest ever put to film. The characters are painfully real, thanks largely to affecting performances by Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, and Sandra Oh, whose facial and body gestures say as much as their words. It's my 12th favourite film of all time!

Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000) = 4.5/5

A film about the murky depths of dependence. A chaotic concoction of phantasmagoric images. A dark tunnel with no exit. Ellen Burstyn gives one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema.

But I'm a Cheerleader (Jamie Babbit, 1999) = 3/5

It picks worthwhile subjects to satirise (heteronormativity, society's fixation with sex, gender roles), but its execution just feels too heavy-handed. Hasn't aged well. The costumes and sets almost blinded me.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1986) = 3.5/5

I've seen scarier films, but few films are as downright NASTY as this. This is a hobo's fingernails, mayonnaise left in the sun, maggots feasting on roadkill.

McNaughton does not condemn his depraved protagonist. He is too smart to resort to archetypes. Henry is a man that could live next door to you. Nothing in this film is gratuitous, and McNaughton sustains a constant atmosphere of dread.

Porky's (Bob Clark, 1982) = 4/5

I'm going to be completely honest here. If you are not a male in your late teens or early 20s, there's a good chance you will not like this film. Few films have dared to be this lowbrow, but as a 21-year-old male (who went to an all-boys high school), something about these free-spirited characters getting into mischief struck a chord with me.

I have never been one to rebel against the rules. Call me a "goody two-shoes" type, if you will. Seeing this group of buddies engage in all sorts of boisterous antics was a form of escapism. Not only is it entertaining. It is very, very funny.

I would not like this film if it were made today. It was a product of its time and place, and it's no wonder it is so influential within the teen sex comedy subgenre. I guess I'm not surprised that I enjoyed Porky's. I'm just surprised I enjoyed it to this degree.

Lilja 4-Ever (Lukas Moodysson, 2002) = 5/5

A terrifying film made scarier by the knowledge that things are even worse in reality. The suspense is incredible. We know things are going to take a disastrous turn, but it's difficult to predict when that turn will occur. Could seem nihilistic or life-affirming, depending on the angle from which you look at it. All I know is that I will sleep tonight feeling extremely grateful for my bed, my family, and my free will.

Clue (Jonathan Lynn, 1985) = 3.5/5

Fast-paced with snappy dialogue which complements the film's frenzied chaos. Accessible despite its unusual source material; however, it becomes less enjoyable as it gets more convoluted.

The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002) = 3/5

I am yet to see the original, but this is a very stylish remake. Verbinski piles on layers of atmosphere, and the cinematography is brilliant. The scares are effective, too. While there are a few jump scares, the film doesn't rely on them to send chills down viewers' spines.

Despite these positives, I felt rather distanced from the characters, and didn't empathise with them as much as I would've liked. Also, the ending was too congested with detail which made it virtually unbelievable, even within the realm of a horror film with supernatural elements.

Pretty Persuasion (Marcos Siega, 2005) = 3/5

One of the darker black comedies I've seen. Occasionally funny (I actually laughed out loud), but the film seems unsure of its satirical targets, and we as an audience feel unsure about when to laugh. It tries so hard to be "edgy", almost as though it lumps together your run-of-the-mill controversial themes and hopes an intelligent point emerges.

Evan Rachel Wood deserves praise, though. She pulls off this conniving, downright bitchy protagonist so assuredly. I also found Danny Comden incredibly funny. He has an impeccable sense of comic timing.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014) = 4.5/5

I have a well-documented love/hate relationship with Wes Anderson. Before today, I had only seen four of his films.Rushmore charmed me, and Moonrise Kingdom was absolutely captivating. On the other hand, I thought The Royal Tenenbaumswas incredibly pretentious, and I found it extremely difficult to become emotionally involved in The Darjeeling Limited.

Going into The Grand Budapest Hotel, I declared that this would be the film to solidify my stance once and for all. I had heard people say this is the most 'Andersonian' Wes Anderson film, so I figured that to dislike this would be to dislike everything the man stands for as a filmmaker.

But you know what? I absolutely loved it! Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the film is its snappy pacing. It's an incredibly tight film, where each scene feels essential to the one that preceded it. Unlike some other Anderson films where events seem to 'befall' characters, the characters in this film drive the story with great gusto.

In the past, I have criticised Anderson's choices in creating a sense of time and place. One of the reasons The Royal Tenenbaums doesn't work for me is that it feels like the Tenenbaum family exists in their own private universe, extricated from humanity. But they live on planet Earth, which is why it's concerning that I felt so distanced from them.

Wes succeeds in the way he builds a convincing mythology around the goings-on inside the Grand Budapest Hotel while convincing the audience that a world exists outside of it (even if the Republic of Zubrowka is fictional). Even in its most preposterous moments, the events are still believable within the realm of Anderson's universe.

They're believable because the characters are so much easier to relate to than the Anderson caricatures of old. This quirky cineaste deserves praise for embellishing his existing tropes while expanding his scope in storytelling.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is the warmest, most human Wes Anderson picture to date, and after sitting on the fence for so long, I am no longer hesitant to call myself a fan.

In Summary - The Must-See Films (4.5 or 5 Stars)
* Akeelah and the Bee
* The Way, Way Back
* Mulholland Drive
* 12 Angry Men
* Sideways
* Requiem for a Dream
* Lilja 4-Ever
* The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

March 2014 Film Wrap-Up

In the House (François Ozon, 2012) = 4/5

When a student recounts in impeccable detail what he did on the weekend, his French teacher becomes deeply invested in his every move. This is a thoroughly absorbing film with a deliciously dark sense of humour. It derails towards the end by becoming excessively self-aware.

The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, 2007) = 2.5/5

It moves from one contrived scene to the next. It's not funny enough to be a comedy, nor is it earnest enough to be a drama. Of course, it looks spectacular...but it's Wes Anderson so that's a given.

I've decided that Anderson is officially the director who frustrates me the most. He is an intelligent man who understands cinema. He frames his shots in visually exciting ways.

However, when it comes to the stories he tells, I feel that he makes films for himself more than anyone else. Inviting empathy from audiences isn't his forte. When I watched The Royal Tenenbaums, I could not stop thinking, "Why should I care?" The same question plagued me throughout The Darjeeling Limited. Here, the three brothers are on a journey to see their mother. This matters to THEM, but as a viewer, I didn't see their mother until very late in the film. How am I supposed to care about their journey if I don't care for the person they're going to see?

Essentially, the events of this film are ephemeral. They exist merely to move the plot along. Nothing from this film is going to stay with me. Even a major scene of tragedy did not shake me because its inclusion felt so forced.

As for the characters, they became obnoxious as the film progressed, and they felt like an amalgamation rather than individuals with their own agency.

Oh Wes, how I wish you'd focused less on aesthetics and more on a story I care about...something I could experience rather than watch.

United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006) = 4.5/5

This is scarier than any horror film I have ever seen. It is written and directed with tremendous respect for its subjects. By casting unknown actors as the passengers and crew, the tragedy feels a lot closer to home. Greengrass does not paint the terrorists as cartoonishly evil, which indicates his immense trust in the audience's maturity. The film is impeccably edited and the use of handheld cameras makes the action feel very immediate. It is an important film that will stay with me forever.

Prince Avalanche (David Gordon Green, 2013) = 3.5/5

The only other David Gordon Green films I've seen are All the Real Girls and Snow Angels. I thoroughly enjoyed both, and Prince Avalanche adds yet another success to his filmography. Its earthy colour palette hit the spot like a mug of warm cocoa. It is a poignant film about isolation and human kindness.

The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955) = 3/5

Ahead of its time with a menacing performance from Mitchum. Alas, it just isn't suspenseful enough. I can understand how a 1955 audience would have been shaken by it, but I was very underwhelmed and even bored.

The Vicious Kind (Lee Toland Krieger, 2009) = 4/5

This gripping drama is incredibly intense at times, but it's also imbued with a wry sense of humour. Adam Scott gives a powerhouse performance—a far cry from the nerdy Ben Wyatt of Parks and Recreation. Despite its dark themes, I believe this film will have wide appeal because it grapples with the tribulations we all deal with in our personal lives. We are creatures of regret. We do things that hurt us for inexplicable reasons, and we all have skeletons dangling in our closets. All of the characters here are in a constant state of flux, which makes for compelling viewing. I was admittedly surprised by how good it was, and I think it's fair to say that Lee Toland Krieger is one of the most promising directors of this generation.

The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009) = 4/5

It occasionally meanders and the ambiguous ending is a little unsatisfying, but the film's impeccable cinematography creates a vivid sense of time and place. The dialogue is also rather compelling, drawing us into a tangled web of evil.

When Harry Met Sally... (Rob Reiner, 1989) = 4/5

"Men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way." Thus declares Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) to his acquaintance Sally Albright early on in the film. It's a statement everyone has given some thought to at some stage in their life, and the film dissects it very thoughtfully. This is a seminal romcom that is funny, perceptive, and subtly touching. Even at its most clichéd points, it doesn't lose its charm.

Primal Fear (Gregory Hoblit, 1996) = 3.5/5

It pulled the rug out from under my feet a few times, and Edward Norton gives one hell of a debut performance. Unfortunately, its story is let down by nondescript direction. It didn't always hold my attention because it felt as though director Hoblit (who directed crime fiction TV shows before this) was going through the motions behind the camera.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Miloš Forman, 1975) = 4/5

I had the privilege of watching this on the big screen last month. I've rated it half-a-star higher than I did after my first viewing (which I was too young to appreciate, anyway).

It's still not among the greatest films I have ever seen, and my main problem is that I don't think it required all of its 133 minutes. Nonetheless, it is a powerful piece of cinema which makes us genuinely care about the fates of its characters. Its main strength is its screenplay. The film can go from funny to affecting in a matter of seconds in a way that many screenwriters would envy. Not everyone would love this film, but I imagine very few would hate it. It is timeless.

Wadjda (Haifaa al-Mansour, 2012) = 4/5

It's a sweet, quiet film that excels through simple direction. A triumph for Saudi Arabia that should not be ignored, considering it's the first ever feature film shot entirely in that country, and the first feature film made by a female Saudi director.

Clerks. (Kevin Smith, 1994) = 4/5

The mundane becomes so watchable. We hang on every word spoken by these characters whose existential crises are very relatable. With a budget of only $27,575, it's a testament to how you don't need extravagant production values to connect with audiences or to hold a viewer's interest. 

Thank You for Smoking (Jason Reitman, 2005) = 4/5

A sharp, biting satire featuring a smarmy though likeable protagonist (Aaron Eckhart). Structurally flawed, but still very worthwhile.

In Summary - The Must-See Films (4.5 or 5 Stars)
* United 93