Sunday, October 27, 2019

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

I recently finished Mad Max: Fury Road. I had given it a shot when it first came out on DVD, knowing it was a critically-acclaimed fan favorite. But maybe 20 or so minutes in, my wife and I lost interest and we never picked up again.

Then came the Oscars -- 6 wins (largely in technical categories), but it did have the picture and director nomination as well. And I just couldn't get excited enough to pick it up again.

I suppose I'm shocked when I hear of different people who love this film -- some very surprising, but clearly can identify, it's not my style film.

Had it not been one of the imdb.com top 250 films I hadn't watched and so, the other night I started from the beginning to give it a fresh start and finished it this time.

I suppose, much like my recent feelings on Logan, I can't get as excited about this film as some others - maybe it's a personal bias that doesn't connect with these dry desolate violent wastelands. I can appreciate the make-up, the action, the sound, the use of female's as lead action-stars. But the appreciation ends there, with me crossing it off the list and moving on.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Andhadhun (2018)

This is going to be a short post.

The movie Andhadhun is an Indian film, that frankly - might be one of my most favorite films I've watched in the past year.

I watched it because it's on the IMDb.com top 250 list of films I had not seen -- among a number of Indian films - but this one is different then other Indian films I've seen (which to be fair span all types of genres), and by different, there is a level of comedic irreverence in this one that takes some surprising turns...such that I won't give a plot summary beyond the initial premise in that it's the story of a blind pianist who lives alone with his cat. That's all I'm giving you.

Shortly after watching this film with my wife we were away on a trip with friends who I convinced to watch as well - the group collective may not have entirely shared my love, but the film continued to be referenced after watching both references to comedic moments, catchy song lyrics and discussion on some plot points.

It's films like this that continue to encourage utilizing the imdb.com top 250 as a tool to identify some of the best movies -- maybe not the critical Oscar darlings (this wasn't in the spotlight like Roma, but if I'm honest - I enjoyed this one so much more).

Ikiru (1952)

Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is certainly a legend of world cinema - personally I have seen a handful of his classics like Ran (1985), Seven Samurai (1954), and Roshomon (1950).

Ikiru has been on my list, but only recently have I gotten my hands on it, wanting to cross this film off my list of IMDB top 250 films I had not yet watched.

The film (just a little long, and a little artful in moments) in a first view instantly makes an impression. In a sentence this film tells the story of a dedicated and frugal bureaucrat who discovers his days to live are numbered and finds himself searching for the best use of his last days. 

I personally found the story arch itself expertly crafted - particularly the way different "chapters" of the story end of playing into each other. An example of this is the way the introduction of the primary character Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) bureaucratic nature is demonstrated in the collection of mother's wanting to improve the cesspool in their community, and how this moment of the film seems perfect as a stand alone moment, and yet it comes up again in the story in a sincere and well constructed way. Other similar moments recycle perfectly, such as when Mr. Watanabe experiences the joy of the city with a famous author, and later shares some of those same moments with a female subordinate. 

I find it interesting to watch this film over a half century after it's initial release because there are some items that capture the human experience that is as relevant today as ever. If there's any part that seems it could have been progressive at the time is the side-story of a young civil servant (Miki Odagiri as Toyo) who after a year and a half working for the government finds herself bored and seeking professional fulfillment.

There are some lovely quotes and concepts presented in this film as well - such as sorrow Watanabe experiences when he intentionally indulges in high cost sake, or the simple quote "I can't afford to hate people. I don't have that kind of time."

Without revealing the power of this film's finale, I must say, the final "chapter" here in the way the final days of Watanabe's life is told, is really in mind mind the trademark of the creativity I've seen in Akira Kurasawa's inventive and powerful storytelling - it's these moments that you realize you are watching a master. This film is a gift in it's style, craft, acting, and namely in it's effort to take a powerful theme in what it means to live.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Heat (1995)

Michael Mann's movie Heat is an intellegent and action packed crime thriller that has script that and story that has enough depth that the characters and there stories are able to breathe.I can see why this film in time remains one of the top films by viewers, sitting comfortably in the middle of the imdb.com top 250 (as a film I had not yet, until recently seen). Like many crime dramas the characters and their connections seem to be fairly typical -- a professional thief, his less disciplined crew, and a mission. But the balance between action, story, and character study in this film is highly compelling.

Apparently, the original plan was that this would be a television show, and the pilot got boiled down to a standalone TV film called L.A. Takedown - but it's clear to me watching the film that Mann had a whole series in him and that these chracters, namely the police detective Vincent Hanna (here played by Al Pacino) and thief Neil McCauley (here played by Robert DeNiro) have the storyline and police/criminal dance to sustain at least a season of television. In the current era of television, a show like this would have been a hit. As a nearly 3 hour movie, the story fits, but you can sense that these characters have a depth in the mind of Mann that extend beyond this tale. Like other shows of this time, the depth of the cast is fun to see in their roles - beyond Pacino and DeNiro you have Val Kilmer, Ashley Judd, Amy Brenneman, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Natalie Portman, Dennis Haysbert and Mykelti Williamson.

I suppose in this exercise, of watching the imdb.com top 250 films you ask "is this one of the best best of all time." I know it wouldn't hit nearly as high on my own list as it hits here - but in the crime genre, I can appreciate the high crimes drama, the characters, the way the city of Los Angeles is in many ways presented as a character itself, and some classic performances by some of the great of the era.

Reading to my kids: Holes

As a kid, I was a big fan of Louis Sachar and was a little too old in the year 2000 when Sachar's Holes first hit the scene. That didn't stop me from eventually reading it (read it because I was helping someone a student later write a character study paper for school), but didn't get a chance to capture the magic. Somehow along the line I also saw the movie.

But, grabbed a copy to read to my kids, specifically thing my third grade son would like the story, but we brought the sixth grade sister and 2nd grade brother along the ride as well.

This book with it's unique characters, witty style, and surprise turns kept all three kids not only highly engaged, but eager to read a little more and consistently interested in seeing what would happen next. As a parent, I loved reading it - there were a couple more complex themes that show up in this story, including some concepts on juvenile crime, race, and authority that were nice to be able to discuss together. But even more so, there is a unique level of surprising complexity with the story containing literary devises of a backstory (Stanley Yelnats family history plays a critical role).

For me, reading this aloud to elementary age kids really captured the magic that I feel like I had missed out on in my earliest engagement here - in many ways, I think this story has the ability to really hold up over time as a modern classic that I really hope has the ability to hold up over time and continue to capture future generations. A true pleasure to read to kids, and one I know that from the title/cover art didn't grab them, but that they quickly became endeared too after only a couple pages.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino is not my favorite director - I don't dislike him, in fact I appreciate that he creates unique concepts and has his own film telling style. Yet, there's always a part of me when watching his films that pictures a young 20-something in film school with an extremely high film budget who's mostly just messing around.

There's always much to be said about things such as film violence. This weekend, for example, Todd Phillip's Joker has come out, with the expected press coverage about the appropriateness of film studios to create violent films depicting realistic violence. These stories are old - I think about Lawrence Kasdan's film Grand Canyon from the early 1990s that explored these exact same things as Steve Martin's character osolates between his moral obligations in the depiction of violence compared with his commercial opportunities to deliver the films people want.

All that to say, Tarantino's depictions of violence are different - the violence is certainly there in blood washed scenes that sort of look like fake blood that might be made in the drama department art set, except - the filming is dramatic, the editing is dramatic, the music is dramatic, and the actors are clearly having a good time.

Rarely do I say "I want to see one of these films by Tarantino, and I suppose in that vein I delayed watching this one, but was forced by the love of others who have positioned this film on the imdb top 250 list in a position that tells me that it's probably not leaving anytime soon (currently positioned at 60, up a couple spots from January of this year when I set out to knock out more of this list).

The film a revisionist a western (the western also being a less than favorite genre) is about Django (Jamie Foxx) trying to reunite with his wife Broomhilda von Shaft, a slave - who incidently also speaks German (played by Kerry Washington). Early on, Django also connects with Dr. King Shultz a German dentist who is also a bounty hunter - played by Christoph Waltz. If that type of premise doesn't get you excited, then what will?

Honestly, I applaud Tarantino for different -- that is meaningful in a world where most of our top grossing films are sequels, remakes, based on comic books, and sometimes all of the above. Which I suppose this to is also a remake - but the spaghetti western from 1966 Django, is certainly a different film - Tarantino frankly is again flouting his film student tone/style.

With frequent cult status, any time a Taranetino film comes out, I expect it to find some love, I just also typically expect that I'll be delayed to come to the table and see it -- but when I do, I will likely find a level of enjoyment (isn't that one of the main goals of film), but the love is usually missing.

Reading to my kids: The Giver

I used to read bed time stories to my kids all the time and even push the reading level to expose the kids to books that were above their own personal level of reading, or books that they often won't chose.

My, now sixth grader, has long been an avid reader and can tear through a pile of books like no other (although is not easily assuaged if the book is chosen for her -- I get it).

Over a year ago, we carved out time for me to read to her When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (prior blog post here), and not only did we love it we also enjoyed the time together.

Prior to the school year starting, I decided we'd read a book together, and read her The Giver by Lois Lowry, I book I deeply remember enjoy as a child, and couldn't actually remember all the details apart from a general dystopian theme (I assume it was the first of many dystopian books I would read and love especially in my teen years).

What was so enjoyable about reading this book to my daughter is that she was along for the ride with no expectations, exploring the world the Lowry has created, where a few chapters in my daughter would ask a question like "do they all ride bikes, they keep on talking about bikes but never about cars?" or other such questions, as the author reels the reader into this world, that in the first could chapters you realize is slightly different but then as you progress realize is far more different than could be imagined.

The chapters are written in a way to create plenty of cliff hangers leading to the "read one more chapter please moment" and pleasantly are often short enough to lead you to oblige and there was a unique level of complexity to the story that reading it to an 11-year old seemed just right as the protagonist Jonah begins the book at 11 and into a transition into 12 when their community is assigned their chosen career path and released from childhood.

 As a kid I loved this book, and as an adult maybe some of the final messages and complexities felt a little more wrapped up then I had remembered (having now been exposed to Aldous Huxley, Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell and countless others).

A joy to read aloud and a reminder that just because they can read to themselves doesn't mean you shouldn't miss reading aloud, this opportunity has thus inspired some further fall reading to my kids.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Wild Tales (2014)

I had no expectations when I picked up Wild Tales, other than I knew it was foreign contemporary film that hadn't hit my radar, but was hanging out on the imdb.com top 250 list and I hadn't seen it.

This Argentinian film Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales) came with some generic description about being a film that was an analysis of human behavior and so I put it in the DVD player and went on the ride.

How this film became a top 250 film, or an Oscar nominee, I'm not really sure - not because it's bad - it's actually very enjoyable, but it's so atypical, in the sense it's an anthology film, with a loosely connected theme. It is in reality six short films strung together.

In watch this, it reminded me of Black Mirror, a favorite television anthology series, but instead of dealing with technology, it dealt with people on the edge of a nervous breakdown pushed to there limits and expressing then in there own animal like ways.

One of the joys of this series is that you really don't know what you're going to get, and even unlike an anthology television show you don't know how long the six stories will be and there is a variety of lengths and it's own set of variations and surprises. It's a pity I watched this alone, I could imagine the enjoyment of discussing this film and the individual stories with others.

My personal favorite is "Bombita" the story of a professional working man who finds himself at his wit end by the system after his car get's towed picking up a cake for his daughters birthday.

Many of these alone are great stand alone stories worthy of a discussion and reflection. This was a surprising joy to watch.

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 (2014)

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 (2013)

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