Hi, all! Well, it’s back to work tomorrow. I’ve had the last week off (since everything officially wrapped on May 16th, but I did do some grading on the 17th and 18th). What have I been up to? I did actually leave the house a couple of times. On Monday, Kim and I spent all day at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, which was quite cool. We happened to luck out and see the largest passenger airplane land and take off, Air France’s A380.
We also saw some amazing aircraft. What was mind-blowing is that often, the description would note that it was the last of its kind on the planet. Almost every other plane was like that. It was rather chilling to stand near the Enola Gay.
On Tuesday, we went downtown to the Smithsonian Gallery of Art to see the exhibits on Andrew Wyeth and Degas / Cassatt. I wasn’t really into either, but I did love the new Van Gogh acquisition, Green Wheat Fields, Auvers (1890).
But mostly, outside of completing Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and drinking a lot of beer, I’ve been watching movies! I’m sure that shocks you. Here, in mostly chronological order, is what I’ve watched, with some commentary and how many stars I tagged them with on the Netflix. I’m probably going to sneak in a few more today, but movie watching will be coming to a pretty quick close soon, and not just because I go back to work tomorrow. No, tomorrow I pick up Watch Dogs. Clear the decks!
Saving Mr. Banks (2013)*** - Emma Thompson was wonderful in this. Not so much Tom Hanks. While he was great in Captain Phillips, his Walt Disney here was more wooden than the real Disney. I know this was based on real people and archival footage (including tape recorded sessions – which gives this film one of the best credit sequences ever), but I can’t understand why P.L. Travers was so neurotic and why she had such a hard time understanding that the characters she created (which were indeed whimsical) would work so well in a children’s film. Something about this just didn’t ring true to me. I don’t see how those flashbacks of her childhood, while I’m sure based in some truth, result in such a damaged, morose person.
Unhung Hero (2013)* - This is a documentary by a guy named Patrick Moote who, when he proposed marriage to his girlfriend, was turned down because he had a small penis. So the documentary investigates whether penis size matters or not, and how to deal with it. This was listed as “Popular on Netflix,” and I’m sure it does interest about half (or more) of the population, but I turned it off after 23 minutes.
Company of Heroes (2013)* - Wow. WOW! It has been a LONG time since I’ve seen a movie this bad. I mean, it failed on literally every level. I almost made a post on this film alone. It trotted out every tired cliché, every overused line, every WWII-era trope. But it is based on a series of video games that are really good. I haven’t had a chance to play the second series, but the first was awesome. But this movie? Acting – bad. Cinematography – bad (when you are a few minutes in and have seen that many lens flares, you start to think that they are not being used for artistic effect). Script – awful. I read a review that pointed out that there’s a medic that gives a soldier CPR, but CPR wasn’t invented until 1962. So, historical accuracy – out the window. The premise of the film is that the Nazis are developing a nuclear weapon, which was true, but some reviewers noted inaccuracies with weapons used in the film, their sounds, etc. It just sucked so badly. And my poor Jürgen Prochnow was in it for a hot few minutes. I wonder how weird it must be for German actors to play Nazis in films. Hope he made some money off it, but that looks unlikely. This was never released in theaters. I can’t even find budget info. Scary.
Beware of Mr. Baker (2012)*** - This question comes up in several of the pieces I watched. Or not so much a question but an issue. Why do some amazingly talented people have to be such assholes? I mean, it is readily apparent that Ginger Baker was an awesome drummer. But what a jerk. I guess if you really liked Cream or other things that Baker did, you would find this documentary illuminating. If not, pass on by.
Vivre Sa Vie (1962)*** - This almost got four stars, but I didn’t care much for the protagonist. But the camerawork in this movie is jaw-droppingly good (one example – the record store, which is done all in one take). I think I can safely say I like Godard better than Truffaut.
F for Fake (1973)*** - Orson Welles made this documentary about one of his favorite subjects – obfuscation. He was always a magician, and filmmakers obviously deal with illusion. The documentary centers on a famous art forger, Elmyr de Hory, and his biographer, Clifford Irving. Irving then supposedly wrote a biography of the world’s most elusive man, Howard Hughes. It turns out Irving never met Hughes, and the biography was a forgery. It is clear that Welles is having a great time making this film about something that genuinely fascinates him. However, I as an audience member was not as interested. I am neither an art collector nor have ever read Irving’s books, nor do I ascribe to the notion that when I read something or see something, it is the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In fact, I assume most of what I’m being told on a daily basis are lies and half-truths, so Welles “pulling back of the curtain” to reveal Oz as a normal man doesn’t startle me, and I think that’s what he was going after. Maybe to a 1970s audience, this would have been a revelation.
Yi dai zong shi (aka The Grandmaster) (2012)** - Oh, it hurt to give this two stars. It is directed by one of my favorite Asian directors, Kar Wai Wong, and stars one of my favorite Asian actors, Tony Leung. And this movie was stunningly gorgeous to look at. It was up for two Academy Awards last year, for Costume Design and Cinematography, but this movie was so boring. And there’s a big problem about the subject matter. There is a serious glut of movies about Ip Man (the man who taught Bruce Lee Wing Chun). Donnie Yen did it in 2008 and 2010 (and has another one slated for 2015). There are two Ip Man movies by Herman Yau (2010 & 2013), and then this one. People, that is six movies in eight years about the same guy. A touch overkill? And half of this movie isn’t even about Ip Man. They shoe-horn a long story about Gong Er (played by Zhang Ziyi) and her revenge against the guy that tried to steal her father’s legacy of kung fu.
Camille Claudel 1915 (2013)* - Oh, dear. If you can’t tell by the star ratings on the first few movies, I was feeling like I was striking out hard this vacation. Full disclosure, I think Juliet Binoche is beautiful. But this movie is terrible. It’s not really a movie, per se. The first part is a day in the life of a female mental patient confined to an insane asylum run by nuns. She just kind of wanders around, and the camera watches her do this. She has interactions with various people (other patients, nuns) and enters and exits rooms. At one point, I thought the movie was daring me to watch it. Know what is compelling? What actually happened to Claudel. She might not have been the most balanced person on the planet (hell, who is?), but her family had her committed against her will in 1913. Even though doctors told the family she wasn’t insane, they insisted she still be held. She died 30 years later, still in an asylum. Thirty years of her life was taken away from her, and there was nothing wrong with her. I cannot imagine the horror. Does that make this movie better? No. I spent so much time fast forwarding to get to where her brother was going to visit her that I eventually tapped out at the 75 minute mark.
Muscle Shoals (2013)*** - Kim really likes music, and we can’t always watch stuff I want to watch (good night, I would wish that on no one), so this was a documentary on Muscle Shoals, a place in Alabama, where there is a music recording industry that has produced albums for a variety of different artists (Jimmy Cliff, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, the Rolling Stones, and many more). It supposedly elicits a different kind of sound out of musicians than any other place on the world, and they make their case by concentrating on the story of Rick Hall, the man who started FAME Studios. The guy’s life is the epitome of the sad country song, but he worked hard and was successful.
Better This World (2011)*** - This is a documentary about David McKay and Bradley Crowder, who were charged with being terrorists for their participation in the 2008 Republican National Convention protests. They had made some bombs and did or did not plan to use them. The bigger question (which is also raised in a few other things I watched) is what has happened to the concept of freedom of speech in this country? I’m thoroughly convinced that the government has overstepped its power orders of magnitude after 9/11, and we will never be a free society again. This makes me sad, because it reduces me to thinking and saying things like, “Well, at least we’re not Afghanistan” or “Nigeria” or “China.” We have relative freedom. That was probably true of pre-9/11, but with the leaps forward in technology and the increasing encroachment of government on citizens in the name of safety, I have so very little trust of the government’s benevolence towards the governed.
Ron White: A Little Unprofessional (2012)*** - After Better This World, I needed to laugh. I think Ron White is funny, but Kim can’t stand him.
Morgan Murphy: Irish Goodbye (2014)* - Still wanted to laugh, but Murphy was not funny. Only made it 3 minutes in.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)*** - Jimmy Stewart. Directed by Otto Preminger. Credit sequence by Saul Bass (pre-Psycho). This was a pretty interesting movie. While it clocked in at 2 hours 40 minutes, through the whole thing, even after it finished, I still wasn’t sure if Lt. Manion and his wife Laura were telling the truth or not. The scene towards the end, after the cell mate testified against Manion, that Manion said he had fooled everyone, and Stewart’s character Paul Biegler calling Manion back to the stand to ask Manion if what the cell mate said was true, was brilliant. Stewart is whispering, practically begging Manion to say it ain’t so. Good acting is just good acting, folks. But one thing really bothered me about this (and another) film I watched – there was some shifting tones that seemed to be jarring. The second film this happened in was far more jolting, but in this film, there were these times when the film tried to be funny and light-hearted, which was not in keeping with the rest of the film. I understand that tension needs to be broken every once in a while (I’ve read enough Aristotle), but it just didn’t come across as genuine. It was almost like I had switched the channel over to Leave it to Beaver for a moment, then switched back. That’s what kept it from getting four stars from me.
My Gun Is Quick (1957)*** - This is a movie adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer character. This was just fun to watch. I like a hard-boiled film noir, even if it isn’t that well-made. It’s just straight-up entertaining.
Down Three Dark Streets (1954)*** - More film noir. A family-man FBI agent, Zack Stewart, investigating three cases gets whacked, and his supervisor takes over the cases to not only solve them but find Stewart’s killer. Again, much like My Gun Is Quick, this was fun to watch. And I like 1950s procedurals.
Ddongpari (aka Breathless) (2008)**** - THIS IS THE BEST MOVIE I SAW ON BREAK. It came dangerously close to getting five stars. However, this movie is NOT for everyone. Here’s the description from Netflix: “Writer-director Ik-Joon Yang also stars in this dark drama as Sang-Hoon, a deeply troubled lowlife gangster who vents his rage at the world by cursing out and brutally beating anyone who gives him the slightest provocation.” That’s only part of this story. The acting in this film is so raw and the characters so damaged that any sort of kindness they show to each other is deeply meaningful. Unfortunately, this is the only film of Ik-Joon Yang available on Netflix. I hope they acquire more soon.
Be-reul-lin (aka The Berlin File) (2013)*** - A Korean spy film set in Berlin. This was fun to watch. It’s all cloak-and-dagger, like a Cold War Bond film. What is interesting is that this is the first Korean film I’ve seen that references North Korea’s new government and how it is essentially purging the Kim Jong-Il’s people. It was really weird to see Old Regime NK agents as the good guys in this film. The relationship between North and South Korea and how it continues to evolve is a mind-bender.
My Week with Marilyn (2011)** - So yeah, Marilyn Monroe is a cult icon. I’m not interested in her per se, but I do find her a rather tragic person. This film was based off a book by Colin Clark in which he retells working on The Prince and the Showgirl (1957). You get all the method acting vs natural acting (as touted by Olivier, played quite well by Kenneth Branagh). Another highlight is Judi Dench in this. But the film is boring, and I don’t care about Clark or the “cult of personality” approach to Monroe.
The Thief of Bagdad (1924)**** - Douglas Fairbanks! He’s just fun to watch in this. While it is 2 ½ hours long, you don’t feel it. The sets are gorgeous in a way that was something only silent film could do. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to watch this, as a kid in a theater in 1924. Great storytelling.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (2000)*** - This came close to getting four stars. It is a Jim Jarmusch film starring Forest Whitaker. Whitaker’s character is Ghost Dog, an assassin who reads the Hagakure (quotes from the book are often shown with Ghost Dog reading them in voice-over). He styles himself as a samurai. He completes a job where a target who is supposed to be alone isn’t, and for reasons not completely clear, this means he must be eliminated, even though there is no way him knowing the witness would surface. What then unfolds is what would normally be a Toho-samurai or gangster film from the 1960s or 70s set in contemporary Jersey. It was an interesting study of how well you can supplant a genre from one culture into another. And Jarmusch is so good at creating atmosphere through characterization. Ghost Dog’s best friend is a Haitian ice cream salesman who only speaks French. Ghost Dog doesn’t know French, but that doesn’t stand in the way of the relationship. That sounds fake when you read it, but it isn’t in the film. There are all kinds of nice touches in the film regarding race relations. The chief gangster (who is Italian) loves rap, Ghost Dog is steeped in Japanese culture. The Italian gangsters meet in a Chinese restaurant as a front. The Italians berate a Native American, who then calls the Italians “stupid white men,” something the Italians would not classify themselves as. The Italian hit men killing big African American men who keep pigeons not because “they all look alike” but that they don’t know what the guy looks like. Jarmusch is an intriguing filmmaker. I really liked Dead Man (1995), which challenged conventions associated with the Western genre. He bends several genres together in this film. The more I think about it, the more I think I need to go back and give this another star.
Days of Heaven (1978)** - I just hate Terrence Malick and his overblown pretentious approach to filmmaking. Visually, this film is gorgeous. Really beautiful. But this story is so boring and stupid, and I could care less about the characters.
Boys from Brazil (1978)* - I found out that there is a rule in my house, and it pertains to Gregory Peck. My better half says he’s awesome and handsome and since he was Atticus Finch, he cannot be a Nazi, so this got turned off 15 minutes in and will not be revisited.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012)*** - While I was pretty bummed about my country after watching Better This World, after this I was like “AT LEAST I’M NOT IN GODDAMNED CHINA!!!” I’m not sure if this film was arguing that Weiwei is more activist than artist or vice-versa. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything by him in person. But I do feel sorry for him. I feel sorry for all Chinese people. The Cultural Revolution’s impact on one of the most storied and ancient societies is going to continue to pulverize that nation’s identity for generations. We should take this as a warning.
Much Ado About Nothing (2012)*** - This is Joss Whedon’s version of the play, shot in his house while he was making The Avengers, a massive blockbuster. You can play a drinking game with this movie. Drink when you don’t see anyone drinking in this movie. You’ll be relatively safe, because that is few scenes. I also learned that Whedon has a nice house. Something else that I’m trying to come to grips with is that this play is extremely stupid. The title is quite apt. Maybe this was Shakespeare playing a joke on us. It’s fun to watch this movie with Kim, because she can point out what other works of Whedon these actors were in (“So-and-so was in Season Two of Buffy … That guy was in Angel for a few episodes.”).
Terms and Conditions May Apply (2013)*** - Remember when you first read 1984 or saw Brazil and were like “Our TVs are the government and they’re watching us scares the shit outta me. Hope that doesn’t happen.” Well, it has. There’s no more privacy. There’s no more legitimacy. If you ever try to stand up for yourself against the government, they will have reams of backlogged data to discredit you for something. Welcome to the new world. I wish you the best of luck.
Pain and Gain (2013)*** - This wins my Vacation Jury Prize for being the most interesting thing I watched. Michael Bay is normally the punchline for jokes about movies, even though he is swimming in money given how successful his films are. This isn’t Bad Boys or Transformers. This is the true story of three bodybuilders in Miami who kidnap a rich businessman and attempt to extort all his assets from him. The stuff they do is ridiculously stupid, but they get away with it for a time before they get greedy and try to pull another job with horrendous results. This, like Anatomy of a Murder, has shifts in tone, but the shifts in this film are like gut punches. Initially, I thought this film was pretty fun (way funnier than I expected). Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock from WWE) and Anthony Mackie do a great job playing roided meatheads, and the writing, by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who worked on The Chronicles of Narnia series as well as the Captain America and Thor films, is more clever than those mainstream films. It’s like everyone is doing better than they normally would. But when the story takes a turn from obliviously funny to darkly gory (for me, this started when they decide to kill Victor Kershaw) made me more than externally wince. I was disturbed. The more demented things got, the more the film underscored that it is still based on what really happened. This is where we have to start questioning humanity and what filthy animals we are. I liked this film, but I felt like I really shouldn’t have. But I do have to tip my cap to Bay. I didn’t expect something like this from him.
Kong Zi (aka Confucius) (2010)** - Again, another sad experience for me. I love Chow Yun-Fat. He’s my favorite Asian actor. He’s handsome, charming, and has a real range when he works. But ever since he left Hong Kong to escape the impending turning over of the protectorate to China by Great Britain in 1999, either he or his agent have mucked up his career. While he was in some good films, most have not been that great. However, I did learn about Confucius’ life. But something that has been happening a lot in recent Chinese cinema is the compunction to make historical films and identify all the people in it. Now, when there’s a lot of characters (as there often are), there’s no way I’m going to remember all these people, what their stations were, or anything. I feel like there’s going to be a test at the end. Chow Yun-Fat was good in this film (which he consistently is), but the film itself, while being pretty, was not good.
Chico i Rita (aka Chico and Rita) (2010)*** - This movie has great music from an era I like (1940s-50s jazz). The art style was interesting (except the people – the people look weird). But the plot was an exercise in clichés of two talented people who can’t quite get together because they are too busy banging other people or chasing a career. I didn’t care about any of the characters or what happened to them. That makes it hard to watch a movie.
Roman Holiday (1953)** - So, I’ve already covered Gregory Peck’s place in the household, and there’s a lot of nice shots of Rome, but this was like a Disney movie even more sanitized than what Disney produces. An invented princess from an invented country is given something to make her sleep, but she escapes to fall into Peck’s lap, and then you have the plot of Aladdin for a big part of the picture. They eat gelato, play in fountains, dance on barges, and are inventedly in love. He’s doing this to get a “scoop” for his paper, but he’s too chivalrous at the end, since he loves her, and she returns to her world of invented serious statehood, and they will never see each other again. ::invented sigh::
So, there you have it. I still have time to shoehorn in a few more.