Tuesday, January 25, 2011

222 Movies, 346 Days

I watched 232 movies in the 365 Days of 2010. Here is the 222nd movie I watched:

Black Swan
2010. USA. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Watchdate: 12/14/2010
It's as least as good as everyone says. It gripped my attention completely for its entire running time, and didn't let go for quite awhile after the credits had rolled. Aronofsky's direction is way over the top, to the point where even his subtleties are over the top. But that's okay because it's about ballet. With a subject matter as dramatic and theatrical as that, it's almost an obligation to go over the top as the Archers might tell you (if you haven't seen The Red Shoes, that shit's on Netflix Instant so hop to it). Between this and Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky could fairly be called an expert at visualizing how compulsions torment and distort the mind. Describing any of the scenes I liked would do them a disservice because out of context they would sound fairly idiotic. But I will single out Natalie Portman's tearing and scratching as particularly primal, disturbing and somehow eerily accurate. Portman in general did a crazy good job. Her voice sounded exactly like so many shy girls I have known and yet was absolutely native and specific to her character. Vincent Cassel gave the ambiguity of his role the depth it needed. I was also delighted at the unexpected appearance of Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey, both hit it out of the park with suitably frightening ease. Unfortunately (but fortunately for the movie) Natalie Portman was so skinny that she wasn't very attractive in a number of scenes. Fortunately, Mila Kunis more than made up for any of the hotness lost.

Monday, January 24, 2011

223 Movies, 349 Days

I watched 232 movies in the 365 Days of 2010. Here are the 223rd and 222nd movies I watched:

Waiting for Armageddon
2009. 74 min. USA. Directed by Kate Davis, David Heilbroner and Franco Sacchi. Watchdate: 12/15/2010.
My roommate put this on because he puts on random videos and movies off of Youtube and my Netflix account, and at first I thought he had put on some random proselytizing evangelist nonsense. So I started demanding he switch it off. To his credit, he didn't and as it proceeded I realized it was actually a very interesting documentary about Evangelical Christians and their belief in the rapture. And so then I demanded he plug his computer into the TV so we could watch it on the proper screen for movies and things. The movie's thesis is fairly simple. Essentially, Evangelical Christians believe that the rapture is coming due to their very literal interpretation of the Bible. They read it as prophecy, and so they see conflict and disaster as harbingers of end times. In particular, they see wars and battles in the Middle East in this light. They also see any attempt at making peace in the Middle East as the work of Antichrist.  Because of their significant influence on the U.S. political establishment and their strong friendship with the state of Israel, this is somewhat creepy. As a non-evangelical minister and theological scholar says in the movie, if a military superpower envisions itself at the center of the Book of Revelations or Book of Daniel, these religious stories can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. There's also the issue of the Evangelicals' special love of the Jews. This love is special, Gershom Goremberg explains, because it involves loving a people with the caveat of hoping they will renounce the very core of their identity (their faith) or else burn in hell for all eternity. As interesting as the subject matter was, I was even more impressed by the sensitivity of the filmmakers. Despite how I have described it, they did not demonize any of the Evangelical Christians that they followed around and interviewed throughout the movie. In fact, they did very well in humanizing them. These are people who are willing to be honest and open about their deepest beliefs which is not an easy thing to do (although obviously easier for them in a predominantly white Christian country with constitutional protection of religious conscience like America). They deserve a measure of respect, however much one might disagree with them. I would highlight some of these very human moments if I hadn't already gone on way too long, but in short it's a documentary well worth seeing.

1995. 91 min. USA. Directed by Larry Clark. Watchdate: 12/14/2010.

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that this turned out to be an X-rated after school special with fetishistic tendencies. But I was. It was uninhibited in ways I didn't expect, and conventional in ways I didn't anticipate. Casper was the most interesting character to watch, even though he was somewhat tangential to the main plot. I thought Telly was basically the tragic version of McLovin, but maybe it was just Leo Fitzpatrick's face and voice. I also noticed there was also a very bothersome ratio embedded in the movie. The amount that any particular scene or sequence was fucked up, disgusting, horrible and difficult to watch was proportional to how good and important that particular scene or sequence was. Thus, the beating scene and the various HIV-spreading sex scenes were the most powerful parts of the movie despite being truly awful to behold. Particularly the very last sex (rape) scene, which gives a whole new meaning to the word "unknowing." Sometimes looking at the movie felt like watching so many car crashes.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

226 Movies, 351 Days

I watched 232 movies in the 365 Days of 2010. Here are the 226th, 225th, and 224th movies I watched:

I Love You Phillip Morris
2010. 102 min. USA. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Watchdate: 12/17/2010.
Glenn Ficarra and John Requa seem to specialize in fucked up criminal fairy tales like Bad Santa and this movie, which was really a whole lot of fun. Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor are both at the top of their game, and the movie plays like a dark comedy version of Catch Me If You Can with more complex political and psychosexual undertones. I'm a big fan of the con artist subgenre perhaps best defined by classic 70s movies like The Sting and Paper Moon, and this is really quite an inventive entry into that tradition because it subverts the form nearly as much as it follows its well worn patterns. It's treatment of AIDS in particular really has to be seen to believed. But I think my favorite bit involves a scene in prison where McGregor pays off a large black inmate, Cleavon, to play a romantic song so that McGregor and Carrey can dance together. After Cleavon is insulted when McGregor tries to make him promise to actually play the song all the way through, as Cleavon's "word is [his] muhfuckin' bond," Carrey and McGregor dance sweetly to the song. While the camera continues to linger on Carrey and McGregor's romance, the prison guards call lights out and ask Cleavon to turn off the music. Because Cleavon's "word is [his] muhfuckin' bond," he refuses and as Carrey and McGregor continue to dance and gaze into one another's eyes, the background sound becomes a cacophony of Cleavon shouting and battling the guards with hilarious gusto. The scene is pitch perfect, as is much of the movie.

White Material
2009. 109 min. France. Directed by Claire Denis. Watchdate: 12/16/2010. 
I had heard a fair number of superlative things about White Material, and so I felt it was my duty to go and see it when it came to my local cinema. I caught it on the very last day it played, and I'm glad I did. First, I need to say that I'm not sure that I'm mature enough to fully appreciate what the movie had to offer. I got a similar feeling after watching my first Tarkovsky, although since then on reflection Stalker has already lodged itself pretty firmly on my favorites list. ANYWAY, I was compelled by Isabelle Huppert's fanatical dedication to conserving her home and traditional life. This goes beyond the normal if slightly irrational human tendency towards loss aversion. It was more like loss perversion. It was riveting to see her son reciprocate this aberrance even more rawly, and then her ricochet his madness back onto her own father-in-law. Did she do it out of derangement, vengeance, pity? This is the question that echoed in my mind as I left the theater. To have this rich domestic drama play out against the backdrop of post-colonialist strife was almost too much to take in at times, especially at the subtly discordant rhythms that Denis used in pacing the story. It was horrifying, yet almost beside the point, to see the quiet slitting of the throats of the child soldiers while they slept off their drug and snack food induced stupor in what was for me the most memorable sequence of the movie. I don't know, I'll have to see it again to know at all.

Bye Bye Brazil
1979. 100 min. Brazil. Directed by Carlos Diegues. Watchdate: 12/16/2010.
"One more thing: I give the orders. In love we can improvise, but not in the whore business. The whore business must be very well administrated." - Jose Wilker as Lorde Cigano in Bye Bye Brazil
I had a few problems with Quilombo, the previous Diegues picture I saw. After seeing this movie, I have realized that he simply did not quite pull off the hugely ambitious project he undertook in Quilombo. A historical epic with that kind of scope, one that includes centuries of ethnic and political conflict, has rarely if ever been achieved. In Bye Bye Brazil, Diegues attempts something less ambitious but pulls it off beautifully. The story isn't as huge, but the execution is nearly perfect. The movie is about a ragtag carnival troop that travels around Brazil in an open air caravan. But the travels are an artful metaphor for the profound changes that swept the world in the 20th century. Jose Wilker was absolutely hilarious and brilliant  and movie features a multitude of wondrous moments. In these sorts of ways it reminded me of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. But the movie really gets good when it begins to portray the tragic farce of the age old institution of whoring. I'm feeling somewhat inarticulate about it at the moment so I might have more to say once I watch it again, but I really can't recommend it highly enough. It's a real gem.

PS - If you have Netflix, Bye Bye Brazil is on Instant Watch. I'm just sayin'

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Tom Cruise, Before All the Crazy

I watched 232 movies in the 365 Days of 2010. Here is the 227th movie I watched. It was a doozy:

The Firm 
1993. 154 min. USA. Directed by Sydney Pollack. Watchdate: 12/19/2010

Being home over the Holidays meant watching a lot of TV because TV still exists there unlike in Berkeley where it has been subsumed into the cauldron of the Internet. The Firm was on HBO or somesuch channel, and I decided not to turn it off. I'm happy I didn't because boy, it is something else, I'll tell you. It's the sort of rumbling potboiler that almost seems like a parody of itself because it relies so much on convention while at the same time establishing conventions that have since been endlessly copied. It's also the quintessential Tom Cruise vehicle because it's a thriller where Cruise gets to swing between being the good guy and the bad boy as a function of the plot as well as of his own persona. And it's based on a book John Grisham so it has his fingerprints on it as well, particularly his interest in the American South as a setting. Apparently the South is an absolutely ridiculous land peopled by catfish farmers, Elvis impersonators, and half-crazed private investigators. The wild eyed Gary Busey portrays the latter role to great effect:

Aside from Busey, Cruise, Jeanne Tripplehorn as Cruise's wife and the always excellent Holly Hunter as Busey's bereaved squeeze, the entire movie plays like some sort of bizarrely dreamed conspiracy of the gray eminences of Hollywood: Gene Hackman, Hal Holbrook, Steven Hill, and Paul Sorvino. Most frighteningly, the bewhiskered visage of Wilford Brimley emerges to menace our hero in a fashion as flamboyant as can be imagined:

There are also several early versions of roles we all eventually come to know and love. Joe Viterelli shows up as his trademark smirking mafioso:

Likewise, Ed Harris appears for the first time as the paranoid hallucinogenic apparition that he would later reprise in A Beautiful Mind:

Of course in spite of all the danger, Sydney Pollack and Robert Towne have it all figured out for Tom Cruise with a clockwork plot as good as Chinatown's except without all the pathos and psychological complexity. Still, Cruise has ample opportunity to run like a maniac, sweat like a teenager and generally bound around with ingenious precision like a good action star should.

The movie is in many ways a very colorful dress rehearsal for Mission: Impossible which also utilized Robert Towne's writing and a classic 70s director to create a ludicrous exercise in top class Hollywood adventure entertainment. Not only that, but The Firm features a soundtrack that oscillates between bad early 90s pop rock and white bread invocations of Bayou piano jazz (Jelly Roll Morton eat your heart out). Yet although I will jape endlessly about the movie's eccentricities and yes, flaws, like its tendency to sometimes feel like an after school special about "the law" - I still have to admit that I admire it in some way. After all it truly succeeds in being a breathless, diverting meditation on how an individual finds some measure of freedom in a world dominated by the public coercion of a bumbling, overreaching government and the private coercion of corrupt, ruthless business interests. That has to count for something, right? So do yourself a friggin' service and Netflix this shit like now! You shant be disappointed.

PS - They went to great lengths to make David Strathairn look like Tom Cruise's older brother at the end of the movie. This also amused me.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

229 Movies, 355 Days

I watched 232 movies in the 365 Days of 2010. Here are the 228th and 229th movies that I watched.

127 Hours
2010. 94 min. USA/UK. Directed by Danny Boyle. Watchdate: 12/21/2010

So first, a realization. James Franco is almost always as good or better than the movies he appears in. This holds true both in good movies (he's pretty much the best thing in Pineapple Express) and in terrible ones (he's practically the only good thing in Howl). This is definitely true here too, as he is terrific while the movie itself has problems. It's not bad by any means, but it does begin like a television commercial and too often has the feeling of being that sort of slick contraption. There's also one moment near the end that smacked of sentimentalism partly because of the brief and thankfully abortive deployment of one of those Feist/Spektor/Enya type sirens in the musical score. Other than the those two noisome flaws, the movie works fairly well. It does not rely too much at all on flashbacks and hallucinations which must have been awfully tempting given the kind of story that it is. And it's actually very effective and even somewhat brilliant when it focuses on its harrowing central premise. It's a really great story that must have been stratospherically difficult to approach as a cinematic subject and yet one still would have hoped it could have been made into a much better movie than what we actually got. Lastly, I think a better title for the movie would have been James Franco Drinks His Own Piss, Saws Off His Own Arm.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
1975. 109 min. Germany. Directed by Werner Herzog. Watchdate: 12/19/2010

The non sequitur beginning and unbelievably sequitur ending of this movie stand out to me most especially. I don't even know what to say about the beginning except that I almost forgot it happened and it reminded me of Andrei Tarkovsky. The Mirror starts in a somewhat similar, if more coherent way. The ending is really amazing in a completely quiet, understated way. The procession of death on the mountain, which was visually reminiscent of both Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Kurosawa's Dreams, appears so suddenly and briefly that it works exactly as it should. But after that it gets even better when the scientific aristocrats do the autopsy and see that Kaspar Hauser's brain and liver have an abnormal shape. Then the stenographer walks out onto the street, calls the stagecoach over to him, hands the coachman his hat and then tells him to leave because he's going to walk home. And then he starts walking home and he says to himself as he starts walking home "What a wonderful, what a precise report this will make! Deformities discovered in Kaspar Hauser's brain and liver! Finally we have got an explanation for this strange man..." At that point, I laughed really hard. And then the movie ends as the stenographer walks off into the distance. And then I was sad and I wasn't sure why. But I think it's because Herzog made one of those movies, as he tends to do, that starkly reveals humanity's blind spots. It's very funny when you actually see one of those blind spots. However, it also can be quite depressing, or even terrifying. I was pleasantly surprised to see Brigitte Mira, so excellent as the lead in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, pop up here as the maid. Kaspar asks her why women aren't allowed to do anything important. It's a scene that wouldn't have been out of place in either movie.

PS - Hey, I'm actually following up on this project I started! I am highly impressed with myself.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

232 Movies in 365 Days

In 2010, I watched roughly 232 movies. I did this for various reasons, of which I will list a few of the most sensible ones below:
  1. There were a ton of movies I had always meant to watch but never got around to and I decided to just make time to actually watch them.
  2. It seemed to be a more stimulating way to procrastinate and waste time than farting around on the Internet or watching television. (If you don't see much of a difference between movies and television, you're either much less of an intellectual than I am or much more of an intellectual than I am. Don't worry though, the difference is probably at my expense either way.)
  3. I got Netflix towards the end of 2009. It has a massive back catalogue of movies from nearly every decade and country that has produced movies. As you might imagine, once you fall down such a rabbit hole, it can be very difficult to return to your waking life.
Perhaps someday I will reflect seriously on the nature of what might be a metastasizing addiction of a sort, but for now I'm just going to post brief reactions to each movie I watched last year in reverse chronological order. That is, I will begin with the movies I watched at the end of 2010 and end with the movies I watched at the beginning of 2010. To make things more complicated I will spread out the posting of these reactions over the next 101 days or so. My plan is to post 2-3 each day. We'll see how that pans out. But without further adieu, the last movies I watched in 2010:

The Nines
2007. 100 min. USA. Directed by John August. Watchdate: 12/31/2010

There are a few very compelling ideas and themes contained in The Nines. There are even several indications that John August knew how to execute some of these ideas. And while the movie was interesting enough to watch, it ultimately just felt like an overlong television episode, albeit one that deftly switched between imitating the tones of shows as disparate as The Office and The X-Files. August is an accomplished screenwriter, and had he worked with a director like Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry or Rian Johnson, I think this may have had a chance to become a great movie. As I said, he's got some really unique ideas that are heady in that sort of Charlie Kaufman way but without actually being at all derivative of Kaufman. But as it is, it's a lot of promise without much of anything especially worthwhile to show for it.

Mo' Better Blues
1990. 130 min. USA. Directed by Spike Lee. Watchdate: 12/30/2010

Spike Lee utilizes a ravishing color palette (lots of red) for his love/hate letter to jazz music and musicians. Beautiful photography and Denzel Washington near the top of his game are reasons enough on their own to watch this, but there are also a handful of truly brilliant scenes. I especially loved the one where Washington and Wesley Snipes have an argument that reflects various views of art vs. entertainment and what role the audience plays (does the audience follow the creator or the other way round?).
The Fallen Idol
1948. 95 min. UK. Directed by Carol Reed. Watchdate: 12/26/10
This is the kind of movie that sneaks up on you about halfway in. I had been enjoying it enough for what it seemed to be, particularly the performance of the lead child actor. Bobby Henrey played the child, Phillipe, and gives an absolutely superb performance. But then suddenly I found myself totally and completely engaged because Carol Reed (and his collaborator, Graham Greene) put all the pieces in place so carefully without me even noticing to set up a hugely suspenseful drama. The hide and seek scenes were beyond brilliant, as was the sequence in which Phillipe runs off into the streets of London in the middle of the night. They do a really excellent exploration of a side of childhood that isn't often covered, it was sort of reminiscent of J.D. Salinger's writing in that regard. It's a top caliber movie in nearly every way.

PS - Another, less sensible reason I watched 232 movies last year is because I think it would be really cool if I could write movies for a living. Like that would be a pretty kickass job. And I was thinking that if I want to do that job, I will probably need to watch a lot of movies to get a sense of how they work. Also, I will need luck, if there is such a thing.