Spielberg, Shyamalan, Schumacher: March ’16 in Film

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There isn’t too much else going on in my life with which I haven’t already updated y’all in my previous monthly recap. As I intended, I focused less on watching movies this past month, placing more priority with reading books and comics and listening to more albums. I started using Rate Your Music again, although there’s no telling just how long this will keep up for. In the meantime, I will continue to keep track of every new album I listen to on my 2016 Music Log, just for the sake of keeping it all in one place. As is evident, I mostly listened through Björk’s studio album discography in March – a really great choice, if I do say so myself.

While there was no real viewing trend going on throughout March, I did continue to slowly make my way through the filmographies of various auteurs. I caught up with cinematic classics from Louis Malle, Terry Gilliam, Steven Spielberg, David Fincher, Rolan Emmerich, John Ford, and Terrence Malick, among others. Sadly, I did falter on #52FilmsByWomen this month, having only watched one film directed by a woman. Nevertheless, at the rate I’m going now, there’s no reason to doubt that I’d be able to catch up when given some time.

Amore exciting update is that I’ve started to write mini-reviews again! My mindset in the past had been to write only about those films which spark my writing brain in special ways with which I could write over a thousand words. Yet in this frame of mind, given how busy and run down I’ve been recently, the last long review I’ve written was for The Babadook, over a year ago. Now, my mindset has changed so that I write about every film I watch, even if it feels like I don’t have anything new or substantial to say about it. I’ve learned that it should be the act of writing itself that keeps my brain a-working and not the other way around. This will also give me more of an incentive to write more about women-directed films, since I’ll already be writing more about these films already. My mini-reviews will be posted on my Letterboxd as I compose ’em, and then probably copy-pasted here unless I have something more to say about the film itself or simply don’t like my own writing about it.

Anyway, without further ado, here is the full list of what I watched in March ’16. As always, asterisks indicate rewatches.

  1. The Voices (Satrapi, 2014)
  2. Smiley Face (Araki, 2007)*
  3. Days of Thunder (Scott, 1990)
  4. Philomena (Frears, 2013)
  5. I’m Still Here (Affleck, 2010)
  6. My Dinner With André (Malle, 1981)
  7. Zootopia (Howard et al, 2016)
  8. The Collector (Dunstan, 2009)
  9. Jersey Boys (Eastwood, 2014)
  10. Catch Me If You Can (Spielberg, 2002)
  11. The Fisher King (Gilliam, 1991)
  12. The Day After Tomorrow (Emmerich, 2004)
  13. The Big Snooze (Clampett, 1946)
  14. Broom-Stick Bunny (Jones, 1956)
  15. Bugs Bunny Rides Again (Freleng, 1948)
  16. Monkeybone (Selick, 2001)
  17. Superman (Donner, 1978)
  18. The Game (Fincher, 1997)
  19. After Earth (Shyamalan, 2013)
  20. Falling Down (Schumacher, 1993)
  21. Cyrus (Duplass & Duplass, 2010)
  22. Pom Poko (Takahata, 1994)
  23. The Rock (Bay, 1996)
  24. They Came Together (Wain, 2014)
  25. Sans Soleil (Marker, 1983)
  26. The Final Girls (Strauss-Schulson, 2015)
  27. Spotlight (McCarthy, 2015)
  28. Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (Hallström, 2009)
  29. The Quiet Man (Ford, 1952)
  30. The Witch (Eggers, 2016)
  31. 101 Dalmatians (Herek, 1996)
  32. Hook (Spielberg, 1991)
  33. Hung fan kui (Rumble in the Bronx) (Tong, 1995)
  34. The Tree of Life (Malick, 2011)
  35. Kaze tachinu (The Wind Rises) (Miyazaki, 2013)
  36. Snake Eyes (De Palma, 1998)

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The sole woman-directed film I watched last month was Marjane Satrapi’s The Voices. Having seen and loved her lovely, personal Persepolis, I was shocked to uncover this film, which is far, far less nuanced. Essentially, it’s a pitch black comedy-horror about a man with schizophrenia who goes on a murder spree after he follows the imagined advice of his own pets. If it sounds trashy, it really is. Yet despite all of this, I did enjoy it quite a bit. Yes, it’s definitely not the best representation of schizophrenia and it may even be harmful in that respect; yes, it’s a painful reminder that, just like with Mary Harron’s American Psycho, filmmaking by women still results in some awful misogyny. Still, I was pretty impressed by its vivid visual style, as well as its really wild, risky tone. It’s one of the few dark comedies that actually had me laughing out loud at points, which I think earns it at least some respect.

Joaquin Phoenix is probably one of my very favorite actors working today – at the very least, his presence in any film excites me no matter the content. Such is the case with I’m Not There, a very strange mockmentary detailing his staged public breakdown and ascent into a (terrible) rap career. I’ve become very impatient with films that are overtly critical of the public’s intake of media and its icons, mainly because there really isn’t anything new or exciting to be said of the subject any longer. But I’m Not There is a little bit different – or at least it gives of a valid impression that it is. Like its subject, it seems to be trapped in its own little world, knowingly inflated with so much artificial ego, it’s sickening. This doesn’t make it a great film – it hardly even makes it a good one – but it’s pretty fascinating nonetheless. If anything, it should be checked out for yet another fantastic performance from Phoenix, particularly in the final third where he bares his soul in ways rarely seen from his fellow spotlight figureheads.

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I don’t think I can emphasize enough how upset I am that I didn’t enjoy Zootopia more than I did. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for films that upkeep a social message that unsettles the status quo, especially if done in a manner meant to educate children in ways with which they could see eye-to-eye. Yet its approach to the topic is muddled, to say the least. It’s similar to how I feel that District 9 failed in being an anti-racist film. One could say that marginalized people (or in this case, minority species) deserve equal treatment as privileged folks and to feel safe from micro-aggressions, stereotypes, and all that jazz. Yet it doesn’t help at all if, by professing these ideas, these stereotypes are continued relentlessly. It seems to me that its message is summed up as: “Predators and prey should be on equal standing, but it’s also important to not forget that predators are still predators and, thus, have a real, historical backing of being savage and more, well, animal-like in nature, certainly much more than the prey, who are much better off and don’t at all have these skeletons to worry about”.

Sorry if it seems like I’m bitter, but this is the truth. It also contains some of the least memorable characters and humor I’ve seen in a recent Disney film, a studio probably best known for their characters and humor. Do better.

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And in the latest surprise of the century: I’ve just now barely watched The Day After Tomorrow and really enjoyed it. Yes, in the traditional sense this is not a great film at all – in fact, it doesn’t make very much sense at all and is probably really terrible. But I’ll be damned if I wasn’t on the edge of my seat during practically every scene of massive environmental destruction. It also helps that I watched it in the middle of a rainstorm, which also upped the overall effect of these scenes. This is surprising to me, since I really hated Independence Day – yet I also quite liked White House Down, so maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Emmerich quite so quickly yet.

In my strained efforts to get through the entirety of M. Night Shyamalan’s filmography, I finally got around to the legendary bad film After Earth this past month. As expected, it was pretty terrible, although I’d definitely prefer the somewhat interesting sci-fi environment of this film over the painfully listless world of The Last Airbender any day. I definitely think that this film could be exponentially improved if there were more straight, direct interactions between Will and Jaden Smith, coupled with, of course, dialogue that is actually good. There isn’t any reason why the father-son acting duo wouldn’t have excellent on-screen chemistry, yet most of their time is spent apart and the material they are given is completely sucked dry of any vitality. It’s certainly of little fault to the young Jaden that the story is so hard to watch; the best actor in the world couldn’t improve what was handed to them. My verdict overall: it’s a bad film, indeed, yet far from Shyamalan’s worst.

The-Final-Girls-Trailer

Since the success of Cabin in the Woods, meta-horror has been on quite a high these past few years. Let it be known that The Final Girls is one of the finest of the entire subgenre. Its love for 80s horror is apparent from the very start, yet it continues on its own path of warm humor and complex emotional depth that makes it more than just a straight homage. By injecting a educated awareness of classic horror tropes into its pretty basic storyline, it creates its own story with its own twists and turns that are far more exciting than the tired narratives of its predecessors. Most compelling is the storyline between the protagonist and her deceased mother, for more of my own personal connection than anything else. It’s amazing that a film like this could come from the director of A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas, one of my most hated movies ever.

It should also be known that Angela Trimbur, in particular, is absolutely hilarious in this film and should be in many, many more films.

hachi-waiting

From Letterboxd:

I will never cease to be overcome by just how amazing dogs are, certainly much more than humans.

To be clear, this is not a good movie. The acting is Hallmark channel quality at best; the music is cloying and manipulative; the story is sloppy and often focuses on the least interesting bits of the narrative. Even more damning, however, is the fact that this is yet another Hollywood film adaptation of foreign lore that is sterilized for American tastes and sensibilities, with all life being drained from it in the process.

But to be fair, it is a movie about dogs being dogs, so I can’t really say I completely dislike it. Anyone who is even the slightest bit familiar with the tale of Hachikō knows how this tragedy will pan out. Yet even after correctly predicting practically every beat of this story, I was still as unexpectedly touched with the final third as I was with… well, the final minute of “Jurassic Bark”.

Once again, by filmmaking standards, this is not a good one. I would actually be far more interested in the ’87 Japanese film retelling of Hachikō’s life – probably containing a bit more credibility than Lasse Holstrom and Richard Gere can bring. Yet despite its many flaws, it’s hard to deny the truly touching nature of Hachi’s unconditional loyalty, a kind that can surely be reminisced by any dog owner or dog lover. After all, dogs are, once again, certainly better than people.

considering-the-quiet-man-john-wayne-john-ford-maureen-ohara-3-noscale

From Letterboxd:

The Quiet Man might more than likely end up being my favorite of John Ford’s non-westerns (although I do need to give The Grapes of Wrath another watch). Here, grandiose emotions work hand-in-hand with some truly intricate cinematography to craft a spellbinding love letter to Ireland.

And really, “love letter” is the best way to put this. From the rolling hillsides of the country, to the interludes of traditional Irish ballads, to the overlying sense of communal pride, it’s all here. While I’m still not so won over by John Wayne as a leading man, this is some of his best work. Yet it’s Maureen O’Hara who steals the show in practically every scene she’s in, as charming and lovely as ever.

When I mentioned those grand emotions, I meant it. I don’t often expect Ford’s films to demonstrate much of a fiery tone, but The Quiet Man does exactly that. Just watch the scene of a liplock shared between Wayne and O’Hara in the rain and tell me the erotic undertones aren’t there. In a much more flamboyant nature, I certainly wasn’t expecting that drawn-out, comedic climax of a fistfight – it may be the least Ford-like scene in any of his films I’ve watched.

Overall, this is a truly beautiful film, paying its respects to a simpler brand of community, a warmer humanity that seems almost mystical in its Technicolor commitment to a rather specific time and place.

The-Witch

From Letterboxd:

Ever since I caught wind of its trailer last summer, Robert Eggers’ directorial debut The Witch has been one of my most anticipated horror films. After getting around to it at last, I’m pleased to say that it was well worth my wait.

From the start, The Witch illustrates itself as a tense, deeply atmospheric crawl. It Old English representation is some of the best I’ve ever seen and really sets the stage for the forthcoming tale – one that is dismal, dreary, and genuinely creepy. Although slow to start, it’s not difficult for one to be quickly and fully immersed in such an otherworldly environment.

To me, in terms of tone, this felt like some peculiar combination between There Will Be Blood and Von Trier’s Antichrist. Nonetheless, this fascination with pitch-black spirituality, along with its music and breathtaking cinematography, create such a unique horror that could hardly be comparable with much else. Its small cast of characters are certainly compelling and I’m especially impressed with every child actor involved. Although I’d hesitate to call it the feminist masterpiece that everyone else seems apt toward, I do admire this approach, certainly with the concept of these disruptive witches shaking up a strict and rigid world order.

While it’s probably not what the film was going for, I found some of its intentional vagueness unanswered questions to be frustrating. Yet this is but a mild complaint toward a film that, nonetheless, shook me to the bone and left me utterly disarrayed for hours afterward. While this is an impressive debut for Eggers, I’m in greater anticipation over what the young Anya Taylor-Joy is capable of in her surely promising future.

Cruella-De-Vil-1996-19

From Letterboxd:

First and foremost, this adaptation of the Classic Disney animated feature is a truly absurd film. Right away, it centers the story around two of the dullest, whitest Dalmatian owners, who inevitably decide to marry within 24 hours of knowing each other. Some time later – following one hell of an awkward birthing scene – fifteen puppies are thrown in the mix, with the flamboyantly evil Cruella DeVil on the case to take their furs for herself.

After these puppies are kidnapped, two thieves (essentially the less personable doppelgängers of the Home Alone antagonists) steal these pups away from their new home. The rest of the rising action revolves around numerous species of animals agreeing that humans are the worst and banding together to free these puppies. Essentially, it’s not unlike a marathon of dog videos from YouTube, yet some decent editing makes the whole thing at least somewhat coherent.

Although not terrible in concept, the film’s biggest issue is that it’s stubbornly set in its time (mid-90s) and genre (family-friendly comedy). It is far too quick to rely on cheap pratfalls and goofy non-jokes to garner much sense of clever creativity. I would say that Glenn Close steals the show with her game-changing performance of DeVil, except there are far too few notable scenes of her to make a difference. I’d be more interested in watching a movie centered more around DeVil; something in the vein of 2014’s Maleficent. I’ve always been intrigued about her motives for needing to kill puppies to take their fur. Is some senseless void in her needed to be filled with dead puppies? Or is it a warped, twisted sense of ownership attributed from her being tremendously wealthy and privileged? Perhaps it’s both.

At its core, this adaptation is cheap with a sterile sense humor akin to talking animal films – except the animals don’t even talk in this one. This, along with the just-as-dull human performers frequently present throughout this mess, make this one practically devoid of personality, save for Close.

robin-williams-as-peter-banning-in-hook-1991

From Letterboxd:

Hook is a real mess of a film; this is initially evident by the fact that Hook himself is not the protagonist here. Rather, this is a film about Peter Pan’s return to Neverland after reaching adulthood. Interestingly enough, my experience with watching this film for the first time mirrorss that of Robin Williams’ departure into this imaginary world meant for the young and young at heart.

And much like the cold-hearted Peter’s initial ambivalence to Neverland, while I could definitely see how this film means so much to so many my age, I can’t say I was all that impressed with it myself. It’s cute and respectable to its target audience, but doesn’t leave much to the imagination otherwise. Its sense of humor often falls flat, as do its action sequences. Despite the fun material the actors have to work for, no one really elevates past surface-level performance here. It’s a film that promises so much, yet can’t quite fulfill the clout of legacy of its source material.

Yet when it all comes down it, I much prefer Spielberg’s whimsical fantasies over his stuffy historical dramas. Although its sprawling length is slightly bloated, it still treads on familiar grounds and finds its strengths in reimagining that for which its viewers are warmly nostalgic. Moreover, its heart is certainly in the right place – I can see its overarching narrative regarding Peter and his kids certainly resonating with young viewers who may have estranged parents. These forms of escapism are tremendously vital, and despite Hook’s other shortcomings, this may be the most powerful quality it brings to to the classic story.

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From Letterboxd:

I watched enough of these fighting-based action films to know just what I should expect. For example, I can’t tell you the first thing about the plot of Bloodsport or any of the other Jean-Claude Van Damme films I’ve seen, yet still have some of their strongest choreographed scenes embedded in my memory.

Just is the case with Rumble in the Bronx, quite possibly the formal introduction of Jackie Chan to western audiences. Heralded by its silly tone and very, very 90s editing, its strengths lie in its ability to showcase Chan’s penchant for stunts and martial arts. These scenes are all strung together by the typical “stolen jewels” plot that seems replete in every run-of-the-mill crime flick. It’s not a very interesting story, especially losing its steam around the final third when the CIA are inexplicably involved.

If nothing else, this is a film worth watching for Chan himself. He is practically unavoidable during the fun chop-socky action scenes; at the same time, he contains an undeniable charisma as a leading man in general. It’s true that there’s hardly any use critiquing this film on any rational grounds due to how ridiculous it is, but his scenes interacting with the store owner or a young wheelchair-bound friend are pretty charming nonetheless. Such a presence makes it no wonder how this film led to a string of leading roles in mainstream comedies of all types.

Rumble in the Bronx lies on the grounds of pure silliness, rather than the mean-spirited violence that many otherwise similar action flicks tend to take. It’s certainly more of a vehicle for Jackie Chan over anything else, and on these grounds it is pretty successful. If one is in the mood for some truly delightful action and stunt choreography – and not much else – this is an excellent place to start.

the-tree-of-life-61

From Letterboxd:

All the hubbub surrounding the release of The Tree of Life more or less coincided with my own discovery of film as an art form and the start of a then-new obsession (2011 stands as the first year in which I averaged a movie a day, which still stands today). Looking back, I think the fact I’ve procrastinated on this film for so long is a blessing in disguise, having familiarized myself with Terrence Malick at least in a general sense.

The word “pretentious” gets thrown around a lot when discussing experimental output, like anything from Bergman or Tartovsky, but I especially see it thrown freely with discussion of Malick’s image-heavy cinema. If I’m being perfectly honest, I wouldn’t have minded if its penchant for experimental storytelling had made up a larger fraction of the movie’s length in whole. It’s not hard to see how The Tree of Life stunned (and perplexed) so many and continues to do so. As it stands, it’ll probably take me another viewing or two to fully soak in Malick’s dense message.

First and foremost, I view this as a film about life – one that is appreciative of, admirable of, even a bit afraid of the vast scope of meaning that encompasses existence in its basest form. The fact that the narrative itself begins with a death in the family is very telling; as they say, we begin dying from the very minute we are born. The montage of sumptuous naturalistic imagery that occurs thereafter – pulling from both astronomical and biological universes – affirms the complexities of our existence that extend beyond just taking up space. It can’t all just be birth and death, alpha and omega – look at all the beauty that happens between the two!

I could imagine that the primary narrative – one of a son’s growth into a man amidst the shadow of his authoritative father – really means a lot to folks who may have found themselves in similar situations growing up. I can’t say I have, thus the detached, slightly cold nature in which this is captured leaves me with little space for true sympathy. Yet even if these scenes aren’t always up to par, the exceptional, atmospheric greatness of essentially the rest of the film elevate this one to genuine mastery and has it lingering in the back of my mind long after it’s finished.

VD-The-Wind-Rises--2013--Of-620x349

From Letterboxd:

Lately, I have been reading Shigeru Mizuki’s historical manga series Showa: A History of Japan, the first volume of which works excellently as a prerequisite for watching The Wind Rises. Mizuki describes how the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923 devastated Japan and triggered a series of events that would further send the country to shambles. Miyazaki takes this overarching event and applies it to how it sets off the fate of Jirō Horikoshi, a real-life aircraft engineer on whom this film is partially based.

Overall, The Wind Rises is less similar to the whimsical, childlike nature of his more explicitly magical films, opting more for the patriotism and fascination with aviation found in his earlier Porco Rosso. It’s a quieter film, more apt to examine the human condition than spirituality and mysticism. I’m usually the first to condemn animated films that don’t use their animation to greater potential, but this is one exception I’ll give. Through the duration of the film, Jirō chases his dream of engineering, often to the point where his literal dreams reflect his own passions. He’s a charming character in his devotion to his work, making the fact of Japan’s eventual war defeat all the more poignant in the grand scheme of the film.

It’s true that this is vastly different from Studio Ghibli’s most heralded works – patriotism in place of supernaturalism, sentimentality in place of childish wonder – yet its consideration of universal themes amidst loss and humanly peril make this as strong of an effort as ever. Punctuation by absolutely heavenly animation and a beautiful score from Joe Hisaishi, The Wind Risesis in the cards to become my most favorite Miyazaki – at the very least, it is certainly his most personal and most fully realized work of art.

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From Letterboxd:

I’m fairly certain that I’ll enjoy any film with Nicolas Cage at least a little bit, regardless of the quality of the work itself. In the output of directors as varied as Joel Coen, David Lynch, and Michael Bay, he somehow manages to inject his own distinctly wacky personality into the flicks in which he stars. Although it doesn’t always give us the best results (see the abysmal Wicker Man remake), it’s almost always one hell of a ride regardless.

Snake Eyes is a little bit of a letdown in this regard. Prior to watching it, I had heard it described as De Palma’s attempt at theRashomon narrative. Sure, it’s got the basic tale of a crime told from a variety of perspectives, but it lacks the genuine luster and creative spark that such a comparison would suggest. Truthfully, the best scene of the film comes at the very start, where in one single, unbroken shot, we are shown the murder from Cage’s own view. It’s one great introduction for sure, with the added misfortune of the rest of the film not quite living up to such exciting ends.

Snake Eyes is probably best for fellow Cage fans who simply wish to add to the growing collection of his best lines and moments. There are quite a few here, which almost distract from the fact that the narrative itself isn’t all that compelling. If it were up to me, I’d say that De Palma should stick to his Hitchcock remakes and leave slightly more nuanced crime films to those more suited for it (like John Woo, who also utilizes Cage to much more effective means).

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