Friday, August 29, 2014

A Prophet (2008)

Director: Jacque Audiard

Now this is a little more of what I was hoping for from Gomorrah a few weeks ago.

A Prophet tells the story of a young Arab, Tarik, who gets a 6-year prison sentence in France for refusing to rat out a few other criminals. During those six years, he goes from terrified and abused kid to savvy, educated master criminal.

A young Malik, preparing himself to take a life in order
to save his own. This is just the first of many steps he
takes along an ever-darker road towards first his survival,
and then his dominance.
The story of Malik is completely gripping and uniquely tragic. One could look at it as a much more masterful, thoughtful, realistic, and far less sensational version of Brain de Palma's Scarface. Malik goes into prison as a man on his own: no friends or family to speak of, and no connections to anyone in the criminal world. He is a quiet, reserved young man who merely wants to serve his time and avoid trouble. Of course, prison rarely affords people such luxury. Once the powerful Corsican mob see Malik as a pawn they can use to further their own ends, a cycle begins that completely transforms him in every way.

The movie offers all of the tension that you might expect or hope for from such a story. Malik fights for his life at several turns, avoiding death at the hands of the Muslim and Corsican inmates, none of whom ever fully accepts him into their tightly-cloistered groups. He has to rely on his own observations, cunning, and intellect. This in itself is engaging enough, given how precariously close to death he teeters at several junctures. Some of the life-or-death tension is built slowly and insidiously, as when Malik resignedly marches towards having to assassinate another inmate or be killed himself. Others stem from the constant derision poured on him by the Corsican mobsters who hold Malik's fate in their petty hands.

Malik, after several years in prison, talking with the
Corsican mobster who he initially must obey, but
gradually seeks to overcome. 
As severe as all of this sounds, the movie is not without humor. Granted, it's nothing quite so overt as the interactions you see in The Shawshank Redemption, with the ever-comforting Morgan Freeman there to lighten the mood when necessary, but A Prophet provides earthier, quieter moments of levity. Whether it's Malik getting a hold of porno movies, or his playful talks with the lone friend he makes in prison, there is just enough to lighten up an otherwise extremely intense story.

I can't recommend this movie highly enough to anyone who likes crime and/or prison movies. It may be a little grittier than the most popular examples of the genre, but it's a brilliant story told by expert filmmakers. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Before I Die #517: Muriel's Wedding (1994)

This is the 517th film that I've watched out of the 1,149 on the "Before You Die" lists.

Director: P. J. Hogan

You look at the title and movie poster and think "rom com," right? Well, you'd be dead wrong. Muriel's Wedding is immensely more creative and bold than any rom com would or probably could be.

Muriel (acting chameleon Toni Collette in a breakout role) is a sad sack 20-something who embodies the stereotypical "loser," as branded by the youthful social elite of the 1980s and '90s. She is frumpy, socially awkward, and desperately clings to the "cool girls" that she knew from high school. Her home life is dominated by an overbearing, bullying, career-obsessed politician father, and a mother and siblings who have been beaten into apathy about their own lives. Muriel's only solace comes from listening to ABBA songs and dreaming of one day having a monumental wedding ceremony.

Yes, that is, indeed, Toni Collette in the middle, as Muriel.
This is her in the early stages of the film, at her tackiest
and most pathetic, book-ended by her tormentors.
Things start to go along a different path when Muriel decides to abscond with $12,000 of her father's money and treat herself to an island vacation, where she meets a former high school classmate (Juliet Lewis look-alike, Rachel Griffiths). The two decide to cut loose and move to Syndey on the sly, completely reinventing themselves and aiming to have a grand old time. What follows includes literal paralysis, a marriage of convenience to an aspiring Olympic swimmer, friends lost, regained, and then lost again, and a general whirlwind of both admirable and detestable actions and emotions.

The movie never goes quite where you expect it to, though it always remains either humorous, touching, tragic, or a unique combination of the three. I suppose one could lump this into the "chick flick" category easily enough, but it is one that clearly stands out from the rest for its willingness to go to some very dark places in the human mind and soul. Several of the main characters end up showing unexpected complexity and depth, while others induce unforeseen sympathy. These stand out all the more for being in the midst of some of the most garish, tackiest costumes and location sets that one could imagine.

Muriel's Wedding is one-of-a-kind, to be sure. I wouldn't expect everyone to like it, but anyone with a slightly dark or twisted sense of humor should find more than a few things to enjoy in this singular movie. I did.

So that's 517 down. Only 632 more films from the list to see before I die...

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Before I Die #516: A Room with a View (1985)

This is the 516th of 1,149 films on the "Before You Die" lists that I've watched. 

Director: James Ivory

Not exactly my kind of movie, but it does what it sets out to do very well.

Based on the 1908 novel by E.M. Forester, A Room With a View is a well-done adaptation that hits all its marks. It tells the story of Lucy Middlechurch (Helena Bonham Carter), a young, English middle-class woman who becomes embroiled in a classic "which man should I marry?" quandry. The opposing forces are what any fan of such period English tales would expect: marry for love or to meet social expectations and find financial security? For Lucy, these two sides are represented by the free-spirited and exuberant George Emerson (Julian Sands) and the priggish, upper-class Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis).

Just from the artful composition of this scene, I don't even
need to tell you which is the uptight Cecil and which is the
self-assured George.
The pieces are set into place over the course of an initial trip to Florence, where Lucy meets George. When she returns to England, she starts to weigh her feelings for George against the pressure of marrying Cecil. What follows is the typical tap dance through social propriety and class-conscious protocols with which any reader of Jane Austen is familiar. Lucy is pulled one way and then another by various friends and family members, culminating in the rejection of one hopeful suitor in favor of the other.

Again, it's not exactly my cup of tea, but the film does a good job of telling the story. The acting is superb. In addition to the talents listed above, the film also includes Judy Dench, Maggie Smith, Denholm Eliot, and basically any English actor worth his or her salt who was alive in 1985. They all nail it.

Though I may have found the themes of class consciousness a bit dull, there is enough humor to pull through a more cynical viewer like myself. I may have found Maggie Smith's "poor cousin Charlotte" character annoying, but that's easily balanced by the more biting humor of other characters like George and his father. Even Lucy herself has grit, which is nice to see.

It's easy to recommend this to those who love this kind of movie, and in fact, I'm sure that any fan of Pride and Prejudice and its ilk has probably already seen this one several times. If you haven't, then I'm confident that you'll love it (my wife does, and she's a tremendous appreciator of such films). If you're more like me, don't be surprised if you enjoy it a little more than you expect. You can think of it as a sophisticated "date movie," if  it helps.

So, 516 films seen. Only 633 to go before I die...

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Idiot Boxing: American Horror Story Season 2 & Dexter Season 1

Yes, I do actually watch some TV in between the movies...

Yes, this show is every bit as disturbing
as this poster would suggest...
American Horror Story: Asylum (2012)

This show is about as dark and twisted as you could possibly find on network TV. And it's phenomenally well done.

I enjoyed the first season, known as "Murder House," well enough, even if I didn't think it was exactly a masterpiece. Though some aspects of the 12-episode tale didn't completely draw me in, I couldn't help but admire the construction and execution of the complex plot, as well as the outstanding performances by the cast.

This intense demon exorcism was one of the tamest scenes
during the
Asylum storyline.
Season 2, "Asylum," resulted in a similar feeling. I must admit, though, that the direction and acting grew even stronger with this season. It's an interesting series in that it brings back many of the same actors from the first season, but has them all playing completely different characters, in a different time, place, and story. While all are marvelous, the standouts are Angela Lange and

Like Season 1, Asylum is not for those who blanch at dark horror. Asylum places these actors in a horribly gothic asylum in Massachusetts in the 1960s, where various twisted administrators abuse and torture the committed patients. There are rapes, brutal murders, and ghastly experiments enough to go around. As if that weren't enough, the supernatural elements include demonic possessions and alien abductions. So there's plenty of the stuff of horror films to satisfy nearly any fan.

All of these elements might have led to a massive mess of a tale. Admittedly, things do get a tad convoluted in places. Still, the narrative is handled well, and it remains mysterious and compelling enough right to the end.

Some are likely to be disappointed or confounded by the resolutions of some characters' stories. I must admit that not all of them were satisfying to me. The show was still well done, though, and I'll likely watch Season 3 - Coven.

Dexter, Season 1 (2006)

This was a re-watch for me. I watched Seasons 1, 2, and 3 back when they were released between '06 and '08, and I liked the show well enough. But I didn't keep up with it after that, and never really felt any great sense of loss. All the same, when a key character from the first season showed up in Europa Report, I felt the urge to go back to the initial run.

It's still a pretty good season, though I was also reminded of why the show never completely won me over. The main draw is, as you would expect, the title character. Dexter is a serial killer who has mastered the art of "blending in" as well as possible. He's a blood spatter analyst for the Miami Police Department, and he uses his background in criminology to track down, stalk, and ritually kill other serial killers. This method allows him to feed his ever-present urge to kill while not arousing suspicions.

This season did very well with introducing the character and using pitch dark humor to get into the mind of a homicidal sociopath, and even make him amusing and a little charming. As the season unfolds, we learn about the making of this very unusual murderer, and how his adopted father - a police officer - recognizes what Dexter is and helps him avoid detection. Sure, it's far-fetched, but the show makes it just plausible enough, and it is a morbidly fascinating tale.

And on the right, Deb, likely on the verge of one of her
countless mental meltdowns. I rate Deb as possibly
the most
annoying character in a TV series I've ever seen.
Unfortunately, Dexter is far and away the strongest character. Aside from Doakes - a tough and highly suspicious cop who works with Dexter - all of the other characters are nuisances who, to me, simply waste screen time. The greatest offender happens to be Dexter's adopted sister, Deb. Deb is one of the worst-conceived and most annoyingly-portrayed characters I've ever seen. She's an insecure, emotional basket-case who is exceedingly sensitive and constantly on the verge of crying or breaking down in some way. And what's her job? A cop!! There is no way such an unstable personality would have passed the psych profiles to become a police officer, and yet there she is. I always found her character horribly forced. She is supposed to be some counterpoint to Dexter's unfeeling sociopath. That's fine, but to make her a cop is ridiculous. On top of that, as if to somehow justify this irrational decision in storytelling, they try to make her "tough" by having her constantly spew profanity. It's all very contrived, and she's a large enough part of the show that her presence would test my patience far too often.

I have no idea how the more recent seasons of Dexter have shaped up (it's in its ninth season, currently), but this first one was entertaining enough. I feel no great need to re-watch the second season any time soon, though the building confrontation between Doakes and Dexter was certainly intriguing. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Chef (2014)

Director: Jon Favreau

Chef is in no way a bad film, but let's call it what it is - a puff movie for foodies.

It's good because it does what it sets out to do very well. It uses film to illustrate a character - in this case Carl Casper's (Jon Favreau) passion for cooking, and how he uses this passion to overcome various obstacles in his life. He wants to be culinarily creative, but has to overcome his conservative and restricting boss. He wants to be a better father, but has to overcome his obsession with his profession. He wants to one-up a vicious food critic, but must overcome his other frustrations to do so.

And so food is the center around which the vortex of Carl's life spins. With food at the heart of nearly everything in this movie, you can predict one of the cinematic strengths - food porn. There are countless shots of mouth-watering ingredients purchased, chopped, prepped, cooked, and presented from the start to the finish of the film. Unabashed foodies will probably experience multiple orgasms over this endless parade of edible art. As for me, I certainly appreciated it to a point, but it ultimately turned the movie a little less into a film story and more of a high-quality photo love letter to expertly constructed meals.

Carl (middle) laughs it up with his staff. This still shot
conveys the tone of much of the picture.
The story itself does very little that is risky or edgy, aside from the occasionally blue language. True to the real restaurant world, many of those in the business are free and easy with their profanity. For mature viewers, this is where most of the humor lies. Truthfully, though, most of the jokes are very tame and uninspired. I got a chuckle here and there from Favreau and John Leguizamo's interactions, and Robert Downey Jr. has a memorable appearance (that guy simply doesn't miss these days), but I kept waiting for things to get funnier. After about 45 minutes, I gave up and just accepted that they wouldn't induce more than the occasional wry smile.

The film is basically all hunky dory: Carl's ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) is an inexplicably rich and endlessly understanding supporter; his son Percy is a slightly moody but phenomenally reasonable young boy; and his friends have undying loyalty and snappy dialogue to spare. Even the one ugly episode in the film - the confrontation between Carl and his caustic critic - has a resolution that is so rosy that's it is nearly gag-inducing.

This was one of those movies that both my wife and I came out of and quickly deemed "average." It never misses a step, but then again, it never dares to step off of a safe path. It's certainly not a waste of time, but neither is it a film that demands a second viewing. Actually, far stronger food-based humor can be found in nearly any episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations or Parts Unknown.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

*For those interested, I did a big run-down of all of the Avengers movies to date. Here's the post.

Director: James Gunn

Spoiler-Free Reaction

If you haven't seen the movie yet and are asking yourself, "Would I enjoy it?", here's a simple test: Have you seen any of the previews that show the talking raccoon and the sentient tree creature? If you have and you did not roll your eyes at the ridiculousness of it, then you need to go see the movie.

This movie is plenty of fun, though it fell just a hair short of my expectations. Now I must admit that my expectations were extremely high, given the strength of several of Marvel's Cinematic Universe movies of late, so this is not to say that Guardians has any major issues. Minor ones, certainly, but they really don't detract from making it a great return to the unfiltered fun of sci-fi adventure films of a few decades ago.

There's nothing exactly novel about the basic story: immensely powerful and destructive object is coveted by megalomanical bad guy - in this case, a genocidal zealot named Ronan - and a band of reluctant rogues must join forces to stop him. This movie, though, turns a lot of the details on their ears, making the rogues a bit odder than your typical big budget action flick. In fact, it's probably the most bizarre grouping of heroes to be featured in such a well-funded movie. And it works, for the most part.

Don't laugh too hard - this fuzzy little guy carries large
sections of the movie. Who thought that a successful update
to the Han Solo character could be so bizarre?

While the plot itself tries to be a touch too intricate, the story does what it needs to - gives the five main characters a reason to fight through various obstacles and enemies, bond with one another, and fire off plenty of great banter. No, not every joke is a home run, but there are certainly enough to carry the film.

The basic characters are intriguing and full of potential. Some of that potential is met, most notably with Rocket and Groot, but it falls short with others. This was probably my single biggest disappointment in the  movie. I feel that more could have been done to define, solidify, and showcase all five of the 'Guardians' abilities and personalities.

The cast is, my eyes, nearly perfect. Nearly. Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista nail their parts as Star Lord and Drax, respectively. The voice acting by Bradley Cooper is an absolute highlight, and yes, I suppose I can say that Vin Diesel does fine with the many intonations of the phrase "I am Groot." However, I have to say that I found Zoe Saldana far too relaxed in her portrayal of Gamora. This characters is supposed to be a jaded, stone-cold assassin, but this doesn't always come through. Some of this is the dialogue, which wasn't always consistent in tone, but I felt that Saldana might have played it a bit icier.

The visuals are what you would expect, especially if you've seen Thor: The Dark World. There are plenty of vibrant landscapes and epic, fast-paced space battles. The CGI is top-notch, but there's a bit too much of it for my taste. Call me old school, but I still yearn for the lower-tech days that called for more use of models for the spacecraft fights. Segments of the movie blur into a massive multiplayer online video game, best fit for excitable pre-teens.

I know this all may seem like a lot of criticism, but really, all of it is fairly minor. Thanks to some humorous dialogue, the casts' ability to sell it, and a relentless attitude of irreverence towards overly serious sci-fi action movies, it's hard to imagine many people simply not liking Guardians of the Galaxy.

Spoiler-Laden, Detailed Thoughts (mostly little gripes, really):

The opening of the movie is a tad sappy, though it doesn't dwell too long on the source of Quill's emotional baggage. Think of it as a blessedly shorter version of the tear-jerking opening of Pixar's Up.

I was also a bit disappointed by the fact that the majority of the aliens were basically painted humans, with perhaps a prosthetic set of ears or headgear. I expect that from Star Trek TV shows, which had budget constraints and had to pump out 24 episodes every season. I don't expect it from a one-shot movie that has Marvel's exploding nine-digit budget to play with. I mean, if Lucas could do it in 1977 in Star Wars, and del Toro could do it in 2004 with Hellboy, couldn't we have gussied up a few more six-armed or three-headed weirdos? If not, at least give me a brief, plausible explanation as to why the Xandarians all look exactly like humans.

Drax and Gamora - they're cool characters, but ones who
I feel were never given their true moments to entertain
through administering more serious beat-downs.
Am I the only one who was a tiny bit underwhelmed by Gamora and Drax? The former is billed as a galaxy-class assassin, while the latter is spoken of as a terrifying juggernaut of rage. This had me hoping for a true demonstration of their supernatural abilities in the forms of hordes of enemies falling under the blades and fists of these supposed death machines. Yet this never quite happens. Sure, they each knock out their share of opponents, but we never get the grander scale arse-whooping by the protagonists that we get in nearly every Avengers film. Think Iron Man vs. terrorists in the first film. Thor against the frost giants. Captain America montage versus Nazis and Hydra. Hulk versus the entire Centaurian army. That kind of arse-whooping. Quill gets some of this, and even Groot and Rocket have their moments of badassitude. So why not the two members who are presented as possibly the most fearsome of the crew? It was disappointing.

There also seemed to be a slightly lax attitude towards certain details in the story. None of them destroys the plot, but they certainly could have used a little more thought. One such is how Quill, Gamora, Rocket and Groot are initially captured on Xandar. The latter three are all hauled in by the Xandarian police force for starting a shoot-out in an attempt to capture Quill for the reward on his head. However, we later learn just how intelligent and resourceful Rocket truly is, and how much Gamora is supposed to be. Yet this cunning assassin and bounty hunter never once realized that starting a shootout in a public square would result in their apprehension? It's a bit sloppy, both on the characters' parts and the writer's part. This is one of several minor oversights that, while not ruining anything, prevents the tale from being as tight as it could be.

To be clear, I did really enjoy the movie. In fact, I'll likely go see it in the theaters again, and this is the true test of whether a popcorn movie has done its job. This movie does its job.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Before I Die #515: Gomorrah (2008)

This is the 515th film that I've seen of the 1,149 "Before You Die" lists.

Director: Matteo Garrone

A good movie, though not one that quite lived up to my lofty expectations.

Gomorrah tells three loosely connected stories of different men involved in the Camorra, the organized crime syndicate that has been thoroughly entrenched in Sicilian society for centuries. This movie received rave reviews and numerous award nominations when it was released in 2008, and it has since been placed on many a "Top Gangster Movies" list. Hence my excitement when I finally fired it up.

The movie is solid, no doubt. The gritty realism of how organized crime affects common people is reminiscent of the modern classic City of God. The primary stories follow a 14-year old boy who is just starting to flirt with involvement with the Camorra, a pair of rogue friends who try to stake their own criminal claim within the Camorra's turf, and a contractor who uses illicit methods and deals to dump illegal chemicals around the Sicilian countryside.

Two of the mavericks who seek to carve out their own niche
in the local crime scene. Their immaturity and macho joy
during these scenes is as eerie as it is telling.
What Gomorrah is missing, though, is a sense of human connection. Yes, the actions displayed are tragic enough. Any sense of empathy with the characters, though, is choked off by a lack of time to truly get into their heads. It doesn't take too long to figure out the characters' motivations: survival or power. But there are very few moments or internal conflict for any of the main characters. When there is, it is not given enough time to take hold of us viewers. And without this, the movie can often come off as a mere dramatization of what could have been a gripping documentary.

There are certainly a few tense moments that make for good cinema, and the acting and cinematography are very good. But there are other mob movies that, while perhaps not as unique in their particular foci, are simply better done.

So, 515 seen. Only 634 to go...