Monthly Archives: January 2016

29 of 366: Chi-Raq

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Satire and literal commentary on the gang violence in Chicago are themes in Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, with the Greek play Lysistrata as its inspiration.

In the play, women withhold sex from their husbands to end fighting and promote peace in that era, which extends to the film adaptation with an ensemble cast including Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson, Wesley Snipes, Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata and Nick Cannon as the title character.

Chi-Raq is also a nickname for Chicago as the murder rate due to gang  violence has surpassed numbers from this nation’s wars overseas.

The film’s satircal take on the subject comes from the play and the women’s protest and eventual takeover of an armory until peace is had. In the film, the police response to their unarmed peaceful protest is portrayed as more than what happens when there is violence in the street.

Its literal take on the subject happens when children are killed in the crossfire of gang violence and through references to real-life deaths as a result of gun violence — including by the police — that have happened in recent years.

The film has a good blend of the two, but it’s clear that Spike Lee’s purpose is to send a message through his art. Samuel L. Jackson narrates the film with on screen appearances as Dolmedes as the female characters play out their protest to end violence and the rival gangs fight before deciding to give in to peace.

The state of gun violence is well-known in this country and Chi-Raq adds another layer of commentary to it in a way that caused some backlash for Lee. His use of humor rubbed some people the wrong way, which I can understand, but the message of the film seems to go above that and stand out in the end.

It’s worth watching and helps to know Lee’s intentions for the film before going into it. I also recommend the CNN series Chicagoland, which delves into the violence as well as problems with the city’s schools and economy.

 

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officialchiraqthemovie.com
Chi-Raq
officialchiraqthemovie.com
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28 of 366: Labyrinth

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There is so much and so little to say about Labyrinth.  I wanted to revisit the film once I started my 366 movies challenge, and then David Bowie died and then one of my favorite movie theaters here decided to pay tribute to him with a screening of it and The Man Who Fell to Earth, which I have not seen.

Of course watching it now felt bittersweet with Bowie gone and seeing him on screen in  one of the movies I associate as much with nostalgia as with cinematic creativity and history in the world of film.

People in the audience cheered when Bowie’s name showed up in the opening credits and when he first appeared as the Goblin King.

I know I don’t need to describe the film except to say it’s weird and wonderful all at the same time and manages to mix what seems to be, at first, a 1980s coming-of-age story with total fantasy and heart and of course it holds up after all these years.

What did stand out more for me watching it as an adult was the music and score, which Bowie composed and, obviously, performed.

I know fans of Bowie’s whole catalog of music and film had a lot to mourn after he died. I will admit I have only heard and seen a fraction of his work in my life, but Bowie had such a cultural influence it didn’t take much to be affected by his art over time.

Seeing Labyrinth in the theater more than met my expectations and I don’t doubt the film will continue to stand the test of time.

“I’ll be there for you as the world falls down.”

— David Bowie, As the World Falls Down

27 of 366: It’s Such a Beautiful Day

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It’s Such a Beautiful Day felt like a bit of a cheat to watch since it’s only an hour long, but it’s just as much of a cinematic — and emotional — experience as most feature films present in double that amount of time.

The animated film by Don Hertzfeldt centers on several facets of a character named Bill during various experiences and stages of his life.

It’s a combination of three of Hertzfeldt’s short films, explaining the different presentations of Bill, that explores fear, science, dreams, mortality, life, death, relationships and more. Some of it hit a little close to home for me and I imagine that will be the case for most viewers because of the variety of themes in the film.

The animation, and the transition between Bill’s experiences, reminded me of the cartoon flip books I had when I was a kid. Hertzfeldt mixes his stick figure drawings of Bill with moving images of nature and depictions of his and other character’s dreams that shift between the look of paintings and photography.

It’s all over the place, but in a good way, and Hertzfeldt’s narration of Bill’s life adds to it a dry sense of humor, happiness and sadness all at the same time.

His new short film, World of Tomorrow, is nominated for an Oscar and I can’t wait to see it and other projects from his collection.

Landmark Theatres has screenings of the Oscar nominated live action and animated films, including in Minneapolis if that’s your home base, next week.

 

In the meantime, watch It’s Such a Beautiful Day (streaming on Netflix.) It’s an animated stream of consciousness or, as Hertzfeldt says in the film, “an infinite landscape of simultaneous events,” that you won’t be able to forget.

 

26 of 366: His Girl Friday

“It all happened in the ‘dark ages’ of the newspaper game — when to a reporter ‘getting the story’ justified anything short of murder. Incidentally you will see in this picture no resemblance to the men and women of the press of today.”

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nerdist.com

That quote is from the opening frame of His Girl Friday (1940), directed by Howard Hawks and written by Charles Lederer. It’s based on a play, The Front Page, penned by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. (That’s according to imdb.com, but the credits in 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die do not include Lederer’s name.)

The theatrics of a stage production translate to the film version as journalists and ex-husband and wife Walter Burns (Cary Grant) and Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) banter their way through a hot-of-the-presses murder story and her decision to quit the business and get married.

Johnson comes back into Burns’ world on the eve of her wedding to Bruce (Ralph Bellamy) only as the biggest story the paper has covered is starting to unfold. A man is convicted of murder and is going to be hanged, but there is a chance he didn’t do it. 

It’s apparent Burns wants Johnson to come back to work and deep down you can tell she can’t just write one more story and move on. Burns will do and say anything to convince her and push Bruce out of the picture while he’s at it. 

It’s also apparent Hildy and Walter still have feelings for each other, as much as they act like the opposite is true, and she can’t let go of her old career and let someone else finish the big story as the deadline approaches. 

Hildy, with Walter’s backing, is even willing to become part of the story to get it to the press before the other reporters as they all work from a room at the courthouse with phones ringing off the hook.

His Girl Friday is smart, witty and certainly makes me, as a former newspaper reporter, miss that lifestyle. The film, as an early showing of romance and comedy in one, set a precedent in that genre and has to be inspiration for the walk-and-talk moments often seen in movies about the newspaper biz today.

“The dirty secret: journalism has always been horrible to get in; you always have to eat so much crap to find a place to stand. I waited tables for seven years, did writing on the side. If you’re gonna get a job that’s a little bit of a caper, that isn’t really a job, that under ideal circumstances you get to at least leave the building and leave your desktop, go out, find people more interesting than you, learn about something, come back and tell other people about it — that should be hard to get into. That should be hard to do. No wonder everybody’s lined up, trying to get into it. It beats working.”

– David Carr

25 of 366: The Queen of Versailles

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magpictures.com

I’ve been on a bit of a documentary kick with this week, the latest being The Queen of Versailles.

It’s an interesting story, but I’m not exactly sure it’s worthy of a documentary. It’s a genre that allows you to have a glimpse into someone else’s life, learn about history, social issues, art, etc., but The Queen of Versailles just didn’t work for me in that regard.

Director Lauren Greenfield explores the life and beginnings of Jackie and David Siegel, who is the developer of Westgate Hotels. The couple, at the height of their success, was building the largest house in the U.S., and then the stock market crashed.

The 90,000 square-foot house was set to have a ballroom, 10 kitchens, a bowling alley, roller skating rink, you name it; but the family had to put it, and a lot of their assets on the market to stay afloat and keep up with loans on other properties in the works.

David Siegel built his empire from the ground up and he, along with Jackie, came from humble beginnings growing up. To me, that’s the more interesting part of the story rather than the focus on their riches and struggles in the economic recession.

They lost a lot, but so did a lot of people, so I just find it to be kind of an aimless story that doesn’t live up to its potential. Again, Greenfield chose an interesting subject with some layers the general public may not have known about, but she didn’t pick a direction that kept me in tune with the characters or ultimately feeling a sense that their story expanded my vision of the world in any way.

 

24 of 366: Tiny Furniture

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Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture (2010) is different from her show Girls in that the characters are younger and it’s centered on one family as much as it is 20-something problems and relationships, but its plot points also lead into the story of Hannah, Shoshanna, Marnie and Jessa that would be born on HBO years later.

The film, whether you love or hate Dunham’s work, (it seems like it’s usually one or the other for people) shows her talent for expressing human emotion on paper and on screen. Tiny Furniture is semi-autobiographical and it shows through Dunham’s bare-bones approach to depicting a college graduate moving back home to New York City from Ohio who (also post break-up) has no idea what to do with her life.

The character Aura, played by Dunham, is interjected back into the household of her mom Siri (Laurie Simmons) and sister Nadine (played by her actual sister Grace), which only amplifies her aimlessness and need to figure out her next step.

Dunham said, in an interview with Indiewire, that her character in Tiny Furniture does have some connection to Hannah on Girls, but their two-year age gap and distance from college creates enough of a difference.

Some of what Aura is struggling with in the film seems a bit trite and trivial in the scheme of things, but it’s also an honest portrayal of a young woman stuck between holding on to the bubble of her college life and friends and moving on.

I also couldn’t get enough of how minimalist the film appeared even with a busy city, parties, art gallery shows, fashion and all the rest of New York in the background.

Tiny Furniture clearly put Dunham on the map from its premiere at SXSW and beyond and her achievement is certainly admirable looking at what has happened in her career since then. (There is a new trailer for Girls, BTW, and now I am even more excited for season 5.)

Tiny Furniture is streaming on Netflix and worth watching, maybe a few times, to help pass the time until the premiere of Girls on Feb. 21.

I turned to a random page to pick a quote from A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, so here you go:

“I don’t know. These are the stories I tell. Isn’t that what you’re looking for?  These terrible deaths tearing through this pristine community, all the more strange and tragic given the context, the incongruity —”

 

 

 

 

 

23 of 366: The Imposter

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imdb.com

If you need something to watch instead of trying to crack the Steven Avery case by going through Making a Murderer again (although I wouldn’t blame you) the 2012 documentary The Imposter is another glimpse into true crime that presents just as much mystery and sheds light on a little-known story, at least for me.

It’s best to go into watching the documentary knowing nothing about the story, so I won’t spoil it just in case I am not the only person who hasn’t seen it as a result of Making a Murderer withdrawal.

Director Bart Layton effectively tells the story of a missing boy, Nicholas Barclay, in San Antonio, Texas, his family, and what happened when they thought he was found three years after his June 1994 disappearance.

The story spans from a local mystery to an international search and everything in between to show what people will believe and want to believe and who can take advantage of that.

Layton builds a suspenseful, comprehensive story but also leaves the viewer with an unsolved mystery by the time it’s over. I am sure what happened to Barclay could have been turned into 10 episodes of a show like Making a Murderer, but at the same time I admire how Layton kept it concise and told what he could about the Barclay family and what happened stemming from Nicholas’ disappearance, which remains unsolved.

 

 

 

22 of 366: Pretty in Pink

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1986 is a great year for cinema and full of classics in 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You DieTop Gun, The Fly, Hannah and Her Sisters, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off that are all on my list to watch this year.

Pretty in Pink didn’t make the cut in the book, but any child of the 1980s knows it is a cult classic and should have a special place in their heart for the film.

“This is an incredibly romantic moment, and you’re ruining it for me.” — Duckie

It’s certainly my favorite from John Hughes’ library of work, and the scene where Duckie busts into Trax and dances to Otis Redding’s A Little Tenderness is a cinematic wonder.

I clearly can’t say enough good things about Pretty in Pink. Even the bad guy, Steff, (James Spader) in all his smug glory has a certain appeal when you watch him on screen.

It feels like John Hughes and director Howard Deutch knew the film would be a source of nostalgia for its viewers (its 30th anniversary is on Feb. 28 and you can see it on the big screen) and fit in the theme through Annie Potts’ character Iona, who works at Trax with Andie (Ringwald) and often reminisces about her high school years.

They were right and with that, “applause, applause, applause.”

 

 

 

 

 

21 of 366: Love & Mercy

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think the hardest part of this 366 movies challenge is picking what to watch this year. There are classics I have never seen, favorites I want to revisit and of course many films I haven’t even heard about yet. I am also trying to see films of critical acclaim that don’t get as much attention from audiences as they deserve. 

Between that and the retrospective of Paul Dano’s work I am going to try to fit in this year, Love & Mercy was a good place to start.

Indiewire critics say the film, directed by Bill Pohlad and starring Dano, John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks, was overlooked at the Oscars this year and that it has reinvigorated the biopic genre.

Pohlad, who has largely focused on producing in the last several years, shows the life of Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson by splitting his experiences as a young man in the 1960s (Dano) and then those two decades later as he (Cusack) struggles with mental health issues and a meddling, to say the least, doctor.

What stands from this film for me are the performances by Dano and Cusack and how Dano especially loses himself in playing Wilson as he took the Beach Boys in a new direction and created one of the band’s most acclaimed albums, Pet Sounds.

While the split between the life of young and older Wilson was effective to show his ups and downs in his personal relationships and career, the style of the film also felt a bit fragmented at times.

There was so much going on for Wilson as a young man in a groundbreaking band already facing issues with his mental health and an abusive father, personally and professionally, in addition to what he dealt with as he got older and Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) was giving him the wrong care for self-serving reasons.

There is also his relationship with Melinda Ledbetter (Banks) that really brought to light his true self as a man and that Landy’s intentions and care were hurting Wilson. While Wilson was sick, he wasn’t truly a paranoid schizophrenic.

I wish the film would have just focused on one aspect of Wilson’s life, but at the same time understand why Pohlad wanted to tell the whole story.

It also includes a good amount of the past Beach Boys music, which Dano did perform on vocals and piano in parts of the film, and how the Pet Sounds album was made.

I think Indiewire is right that Love & Mercy is overlooked at the Oscars, primarily for its acting, but so many films are and hopefully they can still be appreciated by audiences and, in the case of biopics and other true-to-life projects, the people they are based on.

“It struck me that somebody could make music that made so many people smile yet had so much struggle in his real life. And the fact that I didn’t know his story, and I’m a pretty big music fan and a Beach Boys fan, I thought, ‘Wow there’s really a story to tell here.’” – Paul Dano.

 

 

 

20 of 366: Strictly Ballroom

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Strictly Ballroom is understated for writer and director Baz Luhrmann, and he really doesn’t do understated. His signature bright-colored costumes and makeup were there, but the overall the pace of the film is a bit slower than Luhrmann’s later work such as Moulin Rouge or The Great Gatsby.

The heart of Strictly Ballroom is a solid dance competition film/ugly duckling story based on Scott Hastings’ (Paul Mercurio) ballroom career and his family’s push for him to find the right partner who will keep him in the limelight and as a top contender at the competitive level.

Scott has been dancing since he was a kid and wants to do just that, not be the most popular one with the prettiest partner.

His partner jumps ship after Scott goes rogue with his own moves in an early competition, sending his mother into a frenzy to do whatever it takes for the one and only Tina Sparkle to be his next dance-floor companion.

All the while Scott, who 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die contributor Ernest Hardy, describes as “devastatingly sexy,is practicing with Fran (Tara Morice) in secret.

The rooftop dance scenes between Fran and Scott are right up there with Dirty Dancing (not to mention Center Stage and the classic Step Up) and she inspires Scott to try more new steps on the dance floor.

The line “You really are a gutless wonder!” certainly put Scott in his place early on in his partnership with Fran and I hope one day I have a legitimate reason to say that to someone.

Strictly Ballroom does have some clichés in terms of Fran’s character, such as when she takes off her big plastic glasses to dance and suddenly appears pretty and starts wearing makeup (what would later become known as the She’s All That syndrome) and how Scott’s family and coaches believe he could never date — or even dance with — a woman like Fran.

The clichés are far from weaknesses of the film and don’t take away from how it brings together ballroom dancing cliques and quarrels over the future of Scott Hastings and Tina Sparkle while he is really falling for Fran.

There have been a lot of dance movies since 1992 and Strictly Ballroom holds true to the formula of competition drama, love and music while establishing its own influence of the genre for years to come.

“If you say run, I’ll run with you
If you say hide, we’ll hide
Because my love for you
Would break my heart in two
If you should fall
Into my arms
And tremble like a flower.”

David Bowie