Saturday, January 10, 2015

Winter Break 2014

Time off of work usually means I watch movies and play video games, and that is just what went on, though that is not to say that’s exclusively what I did.  Kim and I went down to the Phillips to see the Neo-Impressionism Exhibit (very nice), and one night, we had the boys over.  Ping, Jarrette, Kim and I attempted to teach Dom and Dee how to play poker.  Dom seemed to take it pretty seriously, while Dee was more interested in the girls on his phone.

There was also the obligatory bacchanalia of gifts, which caused much excitement.

Mom and Michael stopped by for an evening on their way down to Fla, which was nice.  But mostly, movies and video games.  Actually, video game (singular).  I played the hell out of one game called This War of Mine.

 I remembered seeing something about it during E3 coverage and being highly intrigued.  The game is amazing but is also probably the most depressing thing I’ve ever played.  The premise is that you try to keep several people alive in the middle of an armed conflict.  You have limited resources and characters who have consciences, so if they steal from someone or kill someone, they get sad or depressed.  They often get wounded or sick.  The object is to keep them alive for 45 days, when the insurrection ends.  As much as I’ve played the game, the best I’ve managed is 34 days.  What is so brutal is that once everyone’s health starts to go downhill, or you lose a member to being murdered during scavenging, you watch your people slowly die before you, and you can’t do anything about it.  It’s heartbreaking.  I believe that everyone who enjoys playing games like Call of Duty or Battlefield or any game where you are a super-weaponized soldier running around, blowing everything in sight away should play this game at least once to see how civilians try to cope with being in a war zone.  It’s a brilliant game, but after playing it for a few days straight, Kim told me to stop playing, because it was really messing with my mood.

I’m going to run down what I’ve watched since Thanksgiving, with the stars I gave them on Netflix.  Actually, I’m going to start before that, because I want to start with a movie that I truly loved (so, I’m starting on November 18th):

Russian Ark (2002) ***** - This movie is astounding.  Ever since film standardized and the norm was a 10-minute, finite film cartridge to load in and out of cameras, the unbroken shot has been the plaything of directors such as Altman, Tarantino, Hitchcock, Welles, and Scorsese.  It was a way to show prowess, to flex filmmaking muscles.  It definitely was something to catch attention, so it was artificial yet exciting.  I remember seeing The Protector (2005) with a friend in the theater, with the restaurant fight scene that Tony Jaa got right on the third take, and whispering to Eric about half-way through “they haven’t cut yet.”  I was almost holding my breath.  Now, with digital cameras which can shoot an entire film on a single memory card, the magic of the prolonged 10-minute shot has been replaced.  But where films like Birdman (2014, see below) use it toward pretentious, “hey, look at me” ends, Russian Ark is simply dumbfounding.  This movie is sooo beautiful.  The Russian government closed down the Hermitage for a day to let Alexander Sokurov film, and like Jaa, they got it right on the third try.  If you are the sort of person who needs to have a plot or characters to enjoy a film, you won’t be able to tolerate this, but I still recommend it.

Altman (2014) ** - This was supposed to be a documentary of the life and work of Robert Altman, but it was incredibly uninformative.

How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) *** - Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall attempt to find men with money, because who needs love to be happy, right?  But the dumb women just end up falling for men they love anyway.  The way this movie paints women is pretty sickening.  That Lauren Bacall gets both love and money in the end is an odd concession for the film to make.

Saints and Soldiers (2003) *** - This one surprised me and almost got 4 stars.  It’s a well-told, well-shot WWII movie with a good story and engaging characters.  From what I’ve read, it was shot on a shoestring budget, but it certainly doesn’t look like it.  Impressive work by Ryan Little, as this was his first full length film (according to IMDb).

La Bare (2014) *** - I haven’t seen Magic Mike yet, but this is a documentary about the male strip club the movie was based on, shot by one of the actors from the movie, Joe Manganiello.  It was actually kind of interesting learning a little about why men get into stripping as a profession.

Saints and Soldiers:  Airborne Creed (2012) *** - Based on how much I liked the first one (there are actually 3 S&S films, the last of which came out last year), I had high hopes for the second.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t as good as the first.  A curious move was made to bring back Corbin Allred.  He played the protagonist in the first film, and his character (almost everyone) is killed (sorry, spoilers), and in the second film, he plays a different character.  I guess they thought that giving him a mohawk in the second film would mentally distance us from the character in the first film?  And, it was almost a decade between the two films.  He is not in the third S&S film.

Mel Brooks:  Make a Noise (2013) *** - This, like the Altman doc, is meant to give us insight into the creative genius of a filmmaker.  This doc was much more successful in doing so, and that may be helped by the fact that Brooks is still alive and is extensively interviewed for this documentary.  However, while I find Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein two of the funniest movies of all time, I realized that outside of those two films, none of his other works are all that good (in my opinion).

In a World … (2013) * - Um, I didn’t make it through this film.  It’s all about this girl who wants to do voice overs work, but the industry (still) is too male-dominated, so it’s all “no one wants to hear women do voice overs when they hear trailers.”  And she’s all “boo-hoo.”  She mooches off her sister and father until she gets a “break,” and at that point  I’m watching Rob Corddry about to commit infidelity with the next door neighbor (for no real reason) and I thought “I care about no one in this film or how it turns out,” so I shut it off.

Killing Them Softly (2012) **** - This would actually be more like 3 ½ stars, but the mood created in this film was excellent.  And Brad Pitt rarely makes a misstep in the films he picks.  He’s got the right amount of menace for this.

High Anxiety (1977)** - Because of watching the Brooks doc, Kim said she wanted to watch this, and it had been years since I’d seen it.  I didn’t remember much about it, other than I didn’t remember enjoying it.  We didn’t get through the whole thing, even though Madeline Kahn is in it.  It is my opinion that people like Brooks and Woody Allen shouldn’t appear in their own films, because they are not as funny as they think they are.  Stay behind the camera.

Bones Brigade:  An Autobiography (2012) *** - There are two weird stories behind me watching this, and I’ll start with the most recent.  I had a student in my Film and Literature class write her final paper on this movie.  Now, for the last paper, the students had two choices:  either write about a film that the author is involved in the adaptation of their own work in some capacity or write about the life of an author depicted in a film and do biographical research to see how accurate the portrayal of that life is.  This film documents a group of skateboarders called the Bones Brigade.  There is no author associated with this film, nor is there literature involved.  The student got an F, but at least I found out this film existed because (weird story #2) back when I was young in Florida, I was interested in skateboarding culture.  I wasn’t a skateboarder (that required grace and strength, and there weren’t many girls who skateboarded), but I did like to watch skateboarding.  I even had a pair of Airwalks.  I was what you called a “poser.”  But, I saw The Search for Animal Chin (1987), which introduced me to the Bones Brigade.  This documentary goes over the history of the formation of the Bones Brigade (actually, even earlier to Stacy Peralta’s participation in professional skating in the late 1970s) all the way through to where the guys are today.  And it was really well-done and informative.  I’m fairly sure no one who reads this blog will give a care about the subject matter of this film, but I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Children of Heaven (1997) ** - I didn’t make it all the way through this film, because it is poverty porn, and I hate that.  Yes, the children actors do a great job here, but … oh my god.  So, ok, the story is that on the way home from getting his sister’s shoes repaired, the little boy accidentally loses them.  Instead of telling their father, who will beat the shit out of them, they decide to share a pair of shoes.  This is difficult, as the boy and girl go to different schools at different times of the day.  Once they do find who has the shoes, they find that the little girl wearing the shoes is in a worse situation than them, as her father is blind and collects trash.  Then, the father takes the boy to the city to do gardening, and just when they make a nice bit of money, the breaks go out on their bike, which has them crash into a tree, injuring the boy so that he has to be taken to the hospital, so all the money they earned has to go to the boy’s treatment.  That’s where I threw in the towel.  I’ll be the first to say that not everything I watch is entertaining, and some of it can be pretty wrenching, but forget this.

Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) **** - If you really like movies, this documentary should interest you, because not only does it go into the history of Los Angeles in the movie industry, it goes into a lot of American film history.  It is highly informative, well-shot, with insightful commentary, written by the film’s director, Thom Anderson, and narrated by Encke King.  It is almost 3 hours long, but it is worth the time investment.

The Hunt (2012) **** - While I gave this 4 stars on Netflix, I got so enraged watching it that I had to turn it off.  Mads Mikkelsen is an excellent actor.  This lost to The Great Beauty for Best Foreign Language film last year, and it is haunting.  It gets into a lot of the things that I fundamentally can’t handle about human beings.

Outrage (2010) *** - Needing to clear my palate after The Hunt, I switched gears for a yakuza film starring and directed by Beat Takeshi.  It’s pretty standard fare as far as yakuza films – mostly about various factions vying for more power and control, lots of backstabbing (which is weird given the code of honor they pretend to adhere to).

Beyond Outrage (2014) *** - The sequel to Outrage, we find that Takeshi’s character was not dead at the end of the last film, so the corrupt police official tries to get him, along with a character that Otomo fought with and scarred for life, to take on the big boss who wiped almost everyone out at the end of the first film.

White Christmas (1954) *** - I gave this three stars because of its iconography, but really, this is such a weird movie, from a plot perspective.  It seems so utterly contrived and designed only to get to set musical pieces.  But Bing’s voice is velvet, and Danny Kaye is a bundle of charisma.  I didn’t know much about Rosemary Clooney, but I guess she had a pretty sad life.  It’s weird to think that less than a decade earlier, Michael Curtiz made Casablanca. 

Five Steps to Danger (1957) *** - Two words: Sterling Hayden.  On the DVD extras to The Killing is a set of interviews done with Hayden, and that guy is hilarious.  So, I’m totally a Sterling Hayden fan now.  He’s not a great actor or anything (he’s pretty much just Sterling Hayden in whatever he does, but since that is awesome in and of itself, who cares?), but I did want to find out what would happen to him.  Curiously enough, this is a film noir that is not centered on a man, which is a rarity.  The main character is Ann Nicholson (Ruth Roman).

Wolf of Wall Street (2013) **** - Rewatched this with Kim, as she hadn’t seen it (she’s not a fan of Scorsese or DiCaprio).  The Quaalude sequence is still priceless.

Let ‘Em Have It (1935) *** - In a time where all the glory was being given to the mobsters, this is a film that celebrates special agents.  A gang of bad guys is out robbing people, and the special agents are out there trying to keep us all safe.  It is an interesting film to see how forensic science was treated back in the 1930s.

Firestorm (2013) *** - So, Andy Lau is a cop trying to nab a gang of violent criminals.  Typical Hong Kong crime film, but you can always count on that “never seen that before” moment in these movies.  The gang robs an armored vehicle.  As it is driving by a construction site, one of the gang is operating a crane.  They swing the head of the crane into the front windshield of the armored car, hoist it up and repeatedly drop it until the back end caves in and all the guards fall out, like a piƱata.  Then, they drop the vehicle, go in, and pull the money out.  One thing that bothered me though about this film was how very pathos pandering it was.  The film starts with two guys getting out of prison.  One is one of our main bad guys, and the other is a mole for Lau’s character.  The mole has a daughter with autism that Lau’s character often takes care of.  The mole is desperate for money and volunteers to infiltrate the group Lau is after, but it is highly dangerous (can you see where this is going?).  Once the mole is discovered, Lau races to try to save him.  However, not only does the mole get killed, but before he is strangled to death, they dangle his autistic daughter out of the window and drop her several stories.  Severely injured, Lau attempts to get the girl to the hospital, but she dies en route.  Lau and the other cop with him then drive to where the evil boss is and show him the girl’s lifeless body, yelling and crying “why?”  Um, is this necessary?  Did you not think the audience was already with the cops on crime being bad or that even killing the mole was terrible?  Did you have to kill a handicapped child too?

Kundo:  Age of the Rampant (2014) *** - So, needing to switch gears again, I watched a Korean period piece that was kinda like Robin Hood, but not quite.  The main character, Dolmuchi, is a butcher.  Apparently, because the film told me this, butchers were the lowest of the low castes in society at the time.  Snidely Whiplash (I mean Jo Yoon), who is a bastard son of a warlord and who is looking to snap up the realm for his own, hires Dolmuchi to kill his sister-in-law, pregnant with a child from the recently deceased heir to the realm.  With her and the kid out of the way, everything goes to Snidely.  But, Dolmuchi can’t bring himself to do it, so Snidely sends his underlings to kill Dolmuchi and his family.  Dolmuchi survives and joins up with a bunch of thieves that constantly rob Snidely’s dad’s people and all government officials and give all the rice to the people.  The rest of the film is Snidely trying to kill Dolmuchi and the thieves and the thieves trying to kill all the corrupt officials and feed the poor.  Dolmuchi is portrayed as intensely stupid and a killing machine who uses (what else?) meat cleavers.

We Were Soldiers (2002) *** - I’ve had several students write about this movie in my American Film class, so I wanted to check it out.  It tells of the Battle of Ia Drang in 1965.  It stars a beefed-up Mel Gibson and Sam Elliot (sans mustache).  It seems like they were more interested in giving a historical account than anything, but you get the occasional home front scenes, and it gets a little didactic at the end.  Yet interestingly enough, they actually show the Vietcong side a few times, which I haven’t really seen before in Vietnam movies.

In the Bedroom (2001) *** - While I gave it three stars, I didn’t make it far into this one, though I was impressed with the cast:  Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, and Marisa Tomei.  It is an adaptation of a short story of the same title by Andre Dubus, which I used to have my students read.  Nick Stahl irritated me too much, and I didn’t really want to see Wilkinson and Spacek lament when their son gets killed.  The film fleshed characters out more, but that mostly went towards showing how dumb the son character is.

The Wind Rises (2013) **** - I have mixed feelings about this film.  There’s so much here that would appeal to me.  This is Hayao Miyazaki’s last film, in a career of films that I’ve loved.  Instead of being based on fantasy, it is the story of Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane used in WWII by the Imperial Japanese.  The character is voiced by none other than Hideaki Anno.  And the film itself is absolutely beautiful.  Given how Studio Ghibli is contracted to Disney for North American distribution, it must have been difficult for John Lasseter, who I’m sure loves this movie, to figure out how to market this film.  For Miyazaki to go out on a film that focuses on flight is totally fitting, but I had a hard time connecting with the characters.  The fourth star is really for the film’s significance.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) **** - Outside of Russian Ark, the best thing I saw all break.  I’m not a Wes Anderson fan, because his films always seem to be too quirky and trying to show you how quirky they are all the time.  While this film had plenty of quirks, it was so delightful and entertaining, with a killer cast (Fiennes deserves a nomination for his work here, but he won’t get one).  If you are, like me, not an Anderson fan, don’t let that keep you from this film.  It’s a lot of fun to watch.

Birdman (2014) ** - Sorry, folks, but I did NOT like this.  It was pretentious, playing at being one shot when it wasn’t.  Drawing attention to itself deliberately.  And didn’t Norton play the same character in Rounders and a few other films where he’s just an asshole?  I get that this is supposed to be a big comeback movie for Michael Keaton (like The Wrestler was for Mickey Rourke, I guess), but the only person I gave a care about was the daughter (played very well by Emma Stone – easily the best performance in this film).  Plot and character-wise, I found this to be another version of Tree of Life, which was also pretentious and “look at me” with its beating you over the head, just in a different way.  Both films boil down to the same thing:  older, white male at a loss of where he is in life yet still trying to assure himself that he is important.  Whether it takes a recap of the formation of the universe or actually having superpowers, these films failed to connect with me.  The best thing about Birdman was its music.  That’s about it. And the whole Raymond Carver thing can be its own post, so maybe I’ll save it for my Oscar post, because this film will inevitably be up for something.

The Theory of Everything (2014) ** - Yes, Eddie Redmayne did an exceptional acting job portraying Steven Hawking.  However, this film is boring.  It is two hours and three minutes long, and when I was watching it in the theater, I checked my watch (not a good sign) only to find that I’d only been watching for an hour.  I audibly groaned.  I realize most of what Hawkings does is way above my head, but some attempt at telling me what he does would have helped.  All I really know is that no matter what he had, he still got plenty of sex.

The Imitation Game (2014) *** - Where Theory was wrong and I learned little about Hawking, I learned a lot about Alan Turing and a little about what they did with codebreaking and the Enigma machine (which I was personally interested in, given what I know about how U-boats used them).  And Benedict Cumberbatch acts his ass off.  Redmayne will probably win best actor (if they don’t give it to Keaton for like a lifetime acknowledgement), but Cumberbatch is significantly tortured, which comes across well.

Foxcatcher (2014) *** - This is more like 3 ½ stars.  The acting in this is very solid.  Steve Carell is completely creepy.  I didn’t know much about the story, even though I had seen the interview with the cast and director on Charlie Rose, so when the murder did occur, it scared the shit out of me.  This Oscar season is going to be interesting.

Port of Flowers (1943) *** - This was the directorial debut of Keisuke Kinoshita, a great Japanese director.  This film was about two con men who go to an island, pretending to be sons of a man who wanted to build ships there before the Great Depression hit.  The town, looking to improve its collective fortune, pledges monetary support to build ships, but the con men want to take the money and run.  Eventually, they have a change of heart and turn themselves in after a boat is built.  It was interesting to watch what must have been a common Japanese reaction to the announcement of Pearl Harbor.

The Living Magoroku (1943) *** - This was another film from Kinoshita.  While it maintained traditional Japanese values, I couldn’t help but think it was very Shakespearean in its plot and character construction.  300 years ago, a great battle was fought on Onagi fields.  Fast forward to today, the Onagi family still seem to be trying to run the area as in days past.  This is to the detriment to the war effort, as superstitions of the family will not allow their acreage to be farmed when farmland and crops are desperately needed for the war effort.  The son is a nervous wreck and can’t make any decisions, while the rest of the town wants to get married, go to war, and contribute to the nation, all seemingly waiting for the Onagi family to do something.  In the end, everything is wrapped up neatly, the son emerges from his funk, those who wish to be married are, and the brave lieutenant goes off to fight in the war with a sharp sword.

I’ve also taken to randomly watching movies that come on a variety of channels that my rabbit ears pick up (I don’t have cable).  I have these three channels that constantly show old movies and TV shows (GetTV, GRIT and MeTV, and there’s another one further down the spectrum just called Movies, but I never seem to make it there).  So I drop in to random movies like To Hell and Back (1955) or Let’s Do It Again (1953) which I will zone out to.  I didn’t put it down in the list, because I was watching it in the middle of the night and drifted in and out, but The Last Detail (1973) seemed quite interesting – a movie about soldiers that had nothing to do with war but was a character study.