Saturday, August 17, 2019

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

At the first Academy Award ceremony the silent film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans won three Oscars -- best Actress for Janet Gaynor (along with her roles in 7th Heaven and Street Angel), best Cinematography and Best Unique and Artistic Picture (Wings won Outstanding Picture, and this category was discontinued in later award ceremonies).

This silent film surprised me in many ways, including it's complex non-heroic main character played by George O'Brien. As the film begins he's abandoning his wife (Janet Gaynor) and child in the country to pursue a romantic relationship with "the woman from the city (Margaret Livingston), who wants him to drown his wife -- and with an opening few minutes that begin like that I found myself shocked that this was a silent film from nearly a century ago embraced by any part of the film community at that time.

The film contains some uniquely sophisticated special effects, an elaborate "city set" that shocked me to learn it was specially made for this film. Further, I thought this film was a unique presentation of what silent films could be, even in the sense that there was a mix of tones (sentimental, dramatic, jovial) and as the film progressed the drama and connection to the characters progresses without the need for title cards to tell the story.

I'm glad this lauded film is a part of the imdb.com top 250 list and that it's presence here inspired me to cross it off the list of the imdb.com top 250 films I have not yet watched.

Logan (2017)

Feeling a little superhero fatigued (or abused by the franchises looking for sure-dough), I wasn't rushing to the theater to see James Mangold's 2017 film Logan. This film is the tenth - yes, the tenth film in the X-Men film series, and third in the Wolverine trilogy (X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine). Yet, strangely (so it would seem to me) it's hung out a top rated film since release including holding a smug spot in the imdb.com top 250 film list a(#210 at the time of this post) and was hanging out in the population I had not yet watched. So, I bit the bullet.

Well, I am sure there are fans that could help argue otherwise, but it seems to me that the novelty of this film is truly the R-rating, which allows the film to have add profanity and dramatic violence. I'm not suggesting there's no plot here, but the story line never one really grabbed me, and the X-23/Laura character which was well played by young Dafne Keen was just frankly too much for me.

In the world of Super-heroes I love a good origin story (Spider-Man into the Spider-verse was a favorite of mine and suppose I got a gift of so many origin stories here), but I can respect stories that relay the end of a Superheroes story arch, but frankly whether it's here or even something like Incredibles 2 there's an empty longing in these characters, whether it's misunderstanding, the deaths and losses of those in their past, or the disjointed story of their previous anthologies that frankly just make there end chunky, and I suppose I felt that here with the alcoholic superhero, Logan.

Who knows how this film plays over time but it simply did not grab me in the way it seemed to grab others, but alas, another imdb top 250 film crossed off the list.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Whiplash

In the realm of watching recent acclaimed films that I'd missed previously, I finally made the time time to watch Whiplash. The dust has long settled on this film, and the freshman effort by Damien Chazelle seems to have increasingly gained respect.

But the stress - I could anticipate it just with the early clips and award season clips that they would show of J.K. Simmons as the abusive jazz instructor named Fletcher. Did I need to see this played out? I decided it was time to cross the imdb.com top 250 film off my list and sit down for the whiplashing.

As expected, in watching it J.K. Simmons was amazing, as was Miles Teller. I suppose in all the clips I wasn't entirely sure how his character would be played out and Chazelle wrote an interesting character who wasn't as cookie cutter as I expected. His response to Fletcher played out as I would have generally expected, but his own personal drive and way he pursued his goal and challenged the system made him far more dimensional than I suppose I expected.

In many ways the film is a challenging one in the sense that the struggle presented is real -- culturally we speak out of both sides of our mouths suggesting that a self congratulating culture where everyone is a winner is bad. Yet, we talk about developing skills and talents in safe spaces in nurturing and caring ways, ignoring the fact that in the same moments we also admire those that rise from adversity. We consistently fail to give credit to the adversity itself for what it breeds.

And if there's anything genius in the story telling, it's that Chazelle doesn't go preachy and instead drives in the gray zone where his audience is forced, even beyond the last scene whether a line has been crossed and if so, at which point was that line crossed. Some viewers are apt to say that line was crossed early on, where others might see Simmons character as a bizarre anti-hero.

Without a doubt, this is certainly a film that lends itself to discussion, matched with an undeniably compelling performance that deservedly won J.K. Simmons the Oscar for best support actor. 


The Wolf of Wallstreet

I've been kind of lukewarm in my interest to watch The Wolf of Wallstreet, particularly when it first premiered, aware of the general storyline filled with vices (drugs, sex, power, greed) and it's character's related downfall.

My interest has stayed alive as a pending film for me to watch on the imdb.com top 250 films but was especially revived when the film made news again recently when one of the producers Riza Aziz made his own press coverage in 1MDB scandal (which is so strikingly similar to imdb, but alas, just a coincidence).

All things, considered the film is well crafted and Leonardo DiCaprio is quiet compelling as the real-life Jordan Belfort. For my taste the films tone and language were a little much for me -- the crass language alone is enough to make me underwhelmed, although I can understand how this plays to the culture and presentation in the film.

By far, what I think makes this move work is the energy that is captured in the filming and style of the film, mixed with the narration -- a device that often falls flat, but is well crafted and surprising.

Also working for this film is the fact that it's almost like the American morality tale of our time - the meteoric rise to success after initial failure, the long suffering wife who is left in the dust for an upgraded model, the almost-got-caught moments that culminate in an eventual fall...of yes, and the upgraded wife, she's not so long-suffering.

Will American audiences tire of this type of story line anytime soon -- probably not, especially when the stories are true and told with the style of an artist like Martin Scorsese.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Congratulations, Who Are You Again

I have failed to post much and enjoyed the past two years posting about the books I was reading, and recently (in the sense that recent is this calendar year) finished (and very rapidly at that), the book Congratulations, Who Are You Again? by Harrison Scott Key.

It was one of those books on the "new non-fiction books" section at the Library that beckoned me, but unlike the many I've picked up and put back down again, I was drawn in by the description which outlined that the book was a memoir that some how connected this random guys quest to fulfill his dream  -- the intro mentioned Mark Twain and a verse in the King James Bible about a pelican. It was worth a pick-up.

Once I picked it up off my night stand I was captivated. I don't think there's ever (and I avoid superlatives) been a book that has caused me to laugh out loud so much.

While I did not grow up in Mississippi or have the southern life that Key has had, I felt some strange connection to his dream, my dreams (I don't call them that -- but...maybe out of fear), and the joy in simple life being a comedic journey. I like Key have long wanted to write and more than as a career create something that at least someone would buy and put on their shelf and read from cover-to-cover, and yet part of my fear is not just the labor of the writing (I've done that), or the editing (I hate that), it's the next steps. In this book Key talks about his dream of being an author, and writing his first book (that one is now sitting on my shelf), and the process, not just the writing process but the impact to life process (like the having jobs that make real money process) and the book tour - oh, the book tour.

I am so glad this book caught my eye, it's a rare treat to laugh and find something you can't put down, but an absolutely unique experience to read something by someone who you strangely connect with -- this was pure delight.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)


Sometime in the past year or so I finally watched The Terminator (1984; currently ranked 226 on the imdb top 250) and I thought it was on the good side of okay. The story was interesting, Arnold's character was interesting and knowing that this series would spawn sequels and TV shows was an interesting thought. Yet, having watched the higher ranked Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), it's clear to me how this film is ranked higher.

Watching an action film from a pre-CGI error has risk -- you'll either be amazed realizing non of it's computer generated or disappointed when it seems (by modern standards) very amateur.

In this case, save for a couple scenes (I think that hot metal at the end is water with red lights shining on it), the effects are stunning (Robert Patrick's T-1000 metal bending self). But even more than the effects it's the stunts the motorcycle/truck chase for example really brings an intensity to it that pulls you in (couldn't help but think of Mad Max, just less weird).

But, in many ways James Cameron's story, which deserves a great deal of credit, has an emotional heart that is found in this film that wasn't nearly as clear in the initial film. The turn in developing a Terminator character who was a good guy worth rooting for was genus. Not to mention was the creation of an action film that asked the questions "Could a machine be a friend? And does the answer change if the machine, although it has AI abilities, follows your commands?"

Currently quite high on the imdb.com top 250 films, I'm glad that I snagged myself a library copy of this film and finally cross it off the list of imdb.com top 250 films I haven't watched

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Kid (1921)

Charlie Chaplin films are unique gems in so many ways, but part of the charm is that there are memorable standalone scenes that can be enjoyed outside of the context of the entire film. For me, it seems like there are a handful of Chaplin films I know I've seen scenes from but haven't seen start to finish. But, I can cross one of those off my list, having watched The Kid (1921). This film has been on the list for a bit, in part because it's was one of the imdb.com top 250 films I haven't seen yet.

In reading reviews and commentary of this film it's clear that the charm the key words are "pathos" and "comedy" and the way Charlie Chaplin creates a comedy with a string of emotional punches. The film is the story of the tramp who through a comedy of errors finds himself raising (and lovingly caring for) an abandoned orphan. That abandoned orphan character is 5 years old for the bulk of the film and played by Jackie Coogan, who's extensive acting career extended all of his life, and is such a wonderful foil this film matching him in comedy and drama.

I was able to rope my 8 and 10 year old into watching with me, and felt that it held their attention (especially the 10 year old), and if there is any critique it's the dream sequence at the end which seems like fluffy, insincere, and unnecessary -- there's probably a little bit of "wow" factor for some cinemagic of flight in this scene, but for such an otherwise touching comedy, this was unnecessary fluff that seemed like an attempt to extend the reel of a generally simple (but enjoyable story).

But, I'll try to forget that, and instead remember the kid boxing scene, the sneaking the kid into the flophouse, the pancake scene, or the scene with the make shift ways the tramp cares for the baby.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Your Name. (2016)

In the quest to knock out some of the imdb.com top 250 films I haven't seen, I got a hold of  Your Name. (directed by Makoto Shinkai) and immersed myself in this film with my 10 year old daughter (who's younger siblings joined in, which has made for some awkward moments of 6 year old acting like he's grabbing his breast like the character does in the film).

In the film the initial set up is an odd occurrence of two people swapping bodies (a teen boy from Tokyo into a girl from small town Japan and vice versa). The story actually seems like an artful freaky Friday at first, but it gets more...well meta-physical (think Interstellar and String Theory).

I'm not surprised that this very popular and commercially successful Japanese film would be slated for a live-action American produced re-make, and imagine that it will be very successful. The American version is currently slated to be directed by Mark Webb, of 500 Days of Summer and Amazing Spider-Man fame with a screenplay re-write by Oscar-nominated Eric Heisserer (Arrival).

Is this one of the best films of all time, currently in top 100, I don't think it'd make my list, but it was certainly enjoyable, and am excited after my viewing to see what happens with this film when re-introduced to audiences in a live action format.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

One of my favorite film experiences was years back seeing Buster Keaton's The General accompanied by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. Despite enjoying this 1926 (ranked on imdb.com as the the 159th best movie of all times), it wasn't until now that I've caught Sherlock Jr. (current 172 on imdb.com, and on my list I had not yet seen).

Sherlock Jr. is a joy. Nearly a century old, the cinematic gags surrounding a projectionist who wants to be a detective who falls into a surreal dream like state to solve a mystery is pure delight.

There are special effects, stunts, and camera tricks that are simply enjoyable nearly a century later -- it's exciting in 2019, I can only imagine how exciting this might have been to original viewers.

Not to mention, this film's contemporary edit is around 45 minutes (Hollywood, how about that! It's the perfect length for a simple story chock full of effects).Glad I caught this, and you can too, tracked it down on YouTube.


Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Dangal (2016)

There's a handful of Aamir Khan films in the IMDb top 250 I haven't watched, but this recent one, Dangal, is one had been on my radar that I gravitated towards watching first. This based-on-a-true story of a father who's aspirations for his unborn children (a gold medal in the Commonwealth Games in wrestling) are dashed when his family is filled with daughters instead of boys is an incredibly compelling film. In the spirit of great sports movies, the film does it all right.

My wife and I split the film experience into three sessions (at over two and half hours long), but in watching it I regretted earlier on we hadn't included our 10 year old daughter in the watching experience, but have since shared it with her as well. Our younger boys haven't watched it, because of subtitles, but otherwise would expect they'd enjoy as well. Although the heart of the film, resonates with some parental experiences, but also champions some powerful concepts. Powerful scenes include the turning point for Geeta and Babita talking to their friend who was married off at a young age, some fantastic scenes of perseverance and training (my daughter likened it to Rocky) and so many other powerful scenes from start to finish.

Glad I watched it and can cross it off the list of IMDb top 250 films I haven't seen.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

IMDb Top 250 - Revisited 2019

A little over 5 years ago, I thought I could make a dent in the IMDb.com top 250 film list; in October 2013 I had seen 188 of the 250 films and worked on making a dent in the list, including enjoying some great films along the way (like the 2010 film Incendies then 242 and now ranked 124).

But alas, for all that effort, instead of seeing 188 out of 250, as of today I've seen 184 of the 250.

In 2013 I talked about genre films having a little extra boost in the ratings, but in the past 5 years the current list seems to capture more contemporary world cinema that can put you behind the eight ball on this list. Not to mention, the list shifts all the time.

As of today here are the 66 films (26.4% of the list) that I have not seen...and we'll see if in 2019 I can make a deeper dent. For those interested the full list (always changing) can be found here.

36. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
43. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
44. Whiplash (2014)
55. The Great Dictator (1940)
59. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
60. Paths of Glory (1957)
62. Django Unchained (2012)
64. Princess Mononoke (1997)
70. Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
79. Your Name. (2016)
80. M (1931)
82. Dangal (2016)
84. Like Stars on Earth (2007)
85. 3 Idiots (2009)
99. The Kid (1921)
117. Yojimbo (1961)
123. Heat (1995)
125. Ikiru (1952)
127. Andhadhun (2018)
128. The Great Escape (1963)
129. Children of Heaven (1997)
131. My Father and My Son (2005)
134. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
135. Howl's Moving Castle (2004)
139. The Gold Rush (1925)
143. Casino (1995)
144. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri(2017)
147. Inside Out (2015)
149. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
151. V for Vendetta (2005)
155. Dial M for Murder (1954)
158. Green Book (2018)
167. Come and See (1985)
171. Sherlock Jr. (1924)
173. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
174. Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
177. Tokyo Story (1953)
178. Mary and Max (2009)
183. Sunrise (1927)
184. Wild Tales (2014)
190. Stalker (1979)
194. The Bandit (1996)
196. Memories of Murder (2003)
197. Persona (1966)
201. Andrei Rublev (1966)
204. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
207. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
213. Logan (2017)
214. Rang De Basanti (2006)
217. NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
218. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2(2011)
221. Barry Lyndon (1975)
223. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
229. Diabolique (1955)
230. La Haine (1995)
234. The Nights of Cabiria (1957)
237. The Handmaiden (2016)
239. Tangerines (2013)
240. Castle in the Sky (1986)
241. Paris, Texas (1984)
242. Gangs of Wasseypur (2012)
243. Drishyam (2015)
244. Paper Moon (1973)
246. PK (2014)
247. Sanjuro (1962)
248. Fanny and Alexander (1982)

Friday, October 05, 2018

Bluebird, Bluebird

Recently I completed reading the book Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke.

The book, is a contemporary crime novel focused on a Texas Ranger, Darren Matthews, who with his own personal demons in the typical flawed hero fashion who finds himself involved solving a crime in a small East Texas town.

Yet, this book is not just a crime novel, it's a social reflection. The author, Locke, an African-American has chosen to make her main character a Black Texas Ranger -- something she calls out as unique. This man, is being indicted in court at the start of the book for involvement in another crime and being accused of protecting a black man (a friend) who is accused with limited evidence of killing a racist white man who had given his friend (and the ranger) grief on previous occasion. With his Texas Ranger status suspended he rolls into a situation where he's investigating a crime of a white woman and a black man (potentially connected) in a small town with a black diner and bar that may be part of a Aryan hate group. Oh, yes, and the small town's police force is, you guessed it, white and resistant to the rangers investigation.

I've chosen the phrase "social reflection" instead of "social commentary" though here to describe this book. Locke was clearly working through fiction to create characters and situations that interacted with the public discourse on the state and perceptions of African American rights and relationship with police and the justice system. Yet at the same time she chose some archetype characters put didn't just want to tell a one-dimensional tale with a cut and dry message. Instead she layered in a deep complexity of roles, power, and the impact of time and culture. In many ways shaping a story that in many ways seemed to say "this is complicated."

In many ways, one of the compelling parts of this story is that it takes place in small town Texas, and you can tell that Locke has done well to craft this landscape in a real and compelling way, that makes this story unique (and perhaps at time easier to contain) than a story that would take in an urban environment.

In that regard, as a story, there were times when I felt like Locke was more concerned with weaving this reflection and layering of characters than in creating a compelling plot. There was certainly moments here that were engaging, but there was also a point when I found myself ready for some action but instead got backstory and reflection -- something I typically enjoy, but with a series of flawed characters and complexities I found myself start to at times find myself to emotionally detach from the characters themselves and find out how it all fit together.

If there is one more critic here, it was that in many ways, there was something about this book that felt more like a film or television series. It may be unfair to assume that Locke's experience as a writer for the Televisions series show Empire would have influenced her writing here, but in a story like this I expected to see some more character arch in the central character, but instead Darren seemed like the star of a TV show with those around him coming in and out as support characters. In this way, it was not surprising to me to find out after reading it that FX had made purchased rights to Locke's work (this book to be the first of three) to be produced under the name Highway 57. I could see this doing well in this medium, and frankly in many ways I sensed it being written with this end game at least partially in mind.

All in all thought, I appreciated this book and think that it's good to see these conversations as part of our social dialogue and appreciate what seemed to be an attempt to present a multi-faceted story that didn't try to hard to generalize the race/justice conversation into a single narrative.

This book is part of my 12 books in 2018 challenge, see the other books/post here

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Ordinary Grace

I've been reading the book Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger for awhile and have recently finished it.

Why it has taken me so long to read (months perhaps?) has perplexed me. The book was an enjoyable read. I would sit down and read the bite sized chapter and enjoy the coming of age style story of Frank Drum growing up in a small Minnesota town in 1961.

I could imagine the town, the characters and the details of the relationship between the young Frank and his younger brother, older sister and conflicted parents.

Frank's father, a minister was a respectful characterization of a pastoral character. I am always intrigued by pastoral characters who often are portrayed in the extremes fluffy-bunny softies or secretly sadistic maniacs and appreciated this tale that made him very much someone who was between these extreme. I man who acting on his vocational desires but dealing with his own past, a family in their own unique places in their lives and spiritual journeys, and dealing with a congregation with their own spectrum of interest. This by far was the greatest joy to me in the story.

So coming back to my original perplexity here is "why did it take me so long to read?" I joked with my mid-west wife that reading this book made me feel like I was hanging out in a mid-west town or with mid-west people. There was a lot of life details and the pace was a little bit in the ordinary space, even, when the events were far from typical. And then in the same way I wasn't bored. I could easily have enjoyed this type of book in the spirit of a television miniseries or serial TV show (Broadchurch or Bloodline) as the characters and the stories unraveling are in many ways more intriguing then the finale.

A delightful read towards my 2018 reading challenge, but one that slowed me down somehow just a bit.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers

Oh my, this was a good one.

The Monk of Mokha by is a new biography by Dave Eggers about an unlikely entrepenuer Mokhtar Alhanshali. (Although a biography, Amazon currently has this book at "#1 Best Seller in the Persian Gulf Travel Guides Category" which is a less than accurate category, but...well algorithms and such).

Mohktar is a twenty-something second generation American of Yemeni descent growing up in  rough neighborhood of San Francisco trying to find his way in a world. He's not sure of his passion, college is not quite obtainable, and in many ways is at a millennial crisis with his values, his culture and the American dream.

And yet - the story does not just hem and haw through this journey. Instead the talented Dave Eggers writes a wonderful story that in many ways, takes it's readers by the suprises that I'm sure were equally surprising for Mohktar as he saw his story unfold. T

Mohktar realizes the central role Yemen had to the initial discovery and cultivation of coffee in the 16th century, and Mohktar in this discovery takes great pride in this lesser known fact in a world where Yemen had a small fraction of the coffee trade and was not known for quality coffee. He decides that he wants to bring he book in many ways is as much an education in coffee cultivation and the global trade of coffee (which Eggers takes some great care to outline in conjunction with the period of time that Mohktar was also learning the scale and scope of his new found dream).

So as the story introduces Mohktar and educates the readers about coffee, the book then takes the amazing turn as Mohktar heads to Yemen and begins to begin his entrepenueral dreams with limited experience, capital, and a war torn country where he finds himself caught in the middle of Saudi led airstrikes in Yemen and a divided country between Houtis forced and a complex set of allies and political and rebel coalitions within the political hotbed.

What starts as an endearing person story, turns into the history of coffee and by the end becomes  quite the page turner.

The story's a pleasure and one that I was glad was part of my 2018 reading list for 12 books in 2018.