One of the benefits I’d hoped to reap from this Movie-A-Day project was to open myself up to films I normally would have had no intention of watching. Even though I generally appreciate all genres of stories, I do have a tendency to prioritize action and geek fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, superhero, etc). I know what I like, but it can sometimes get in the way of a good movie experience. Today, that movie experience would have been Silver Linings Playbook, a romantic comedy-drama by David O. Russell, a huge contrast to the last film I watched of his, 2010’s The Fighter. But I did go watch it, and I am glad I did. Russell has such a knack for portraying flawed characters with such grace and humanity, revealing their vulnerabilities and weaknesses in a way that makes you understand and sometimes even identify with their pains. With a remarkable cast at his disposal, not a single actor goes underutilized this fairy tale love story about two lost souls. From the wonderful leads of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence to Robert DeNiro, everyone has their moment to shine. Even Chris Tucker (who literally hasn’t done anything but Rush Hour movies in about 15 years) was able to bring some humanity to what could have been just a bit part.

I don’t usually go for romances in general, and the kind of nice and neat happily ever after endings are usually an instant DQ from my list. But Russell knows his craft, and manages to make it all work without ever making it seem cheap, cliche, or childish. I walked into Silver Linings Playbook expecting a formulaic chick flick, but walked out with a new take on life, mental health, and what it means to find the one.

MAD 07: Les Miserables

Posted: January 8, 2013 in Movie-A-Day
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I never watched any stage production of Les Miserables, but I am familiar with the original novel by Victor Hugo, and it’s unfortunate that the film adaptation cannot compare to the nuance and depth of the source material. This is hardly surprising, of course, since this is almost always the case with adaptations from literature. But whereas other adaptations like The Hobbit still make a determined effort to convey the original story, Les Miserables felt incredibly rushed to the point of confusion. Had I not read the book, I believe I would have an incredibly difficult time trying to understand what was happening, or who these people were that I was supposed to relate to. With only a few notable exceptions, the characters all felt incredibly flat and cartoonish; limited only to a single defining emotion or motivation. Again, I can’t speak for the staged musical, but as far as films go this was a waste of the high caliber talent in the cast.

Speaking of the cast, I do admit that the musical performances themselves were simply phenomenal. The decision to record the soundtrack live was perfect, and gave Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks in particular fantastic moments to act while singing and vice versa. Contributing to at least some of the impact of their solos was the use of a long single take to film their respective numbers. It looked as though they filmed a great deal of the performances with long takes, but multiple performers required editing to get everyone on the screen. That is about the extent of their successes with experimental camerawork, however. So much of the movie is shot far too tight on the actors, often with a very wide lens, distorting the image in rather strange ways. I’m not entirely sure why they chose to shoot it so differently from other movie musicals, especially when there is such a strong history of them in Hollywood. I missed the large dance numbers and I missed the creative use of location and sets. Doing the solos in long takes was a nice touch, but other than that the film was just not pleasant to look at. Les Miserables is definitely worth getting the soundtrack to, but watching it in a theater might only be worth it for the most musically inclined.

MAD 06: Rush Hour

Posted: January 6, 2013 in Movie-A-Day
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It’s strange how much nostalgia can affect our perceptions of films. I guess not really that strange, but strange enough to lead to disappointing re-watching of older movies. I only ever watched the first Rush Hour when I was a kid, and haven’t seen it since then. After watching it today, I feel a bit cheated. I didn’t remember all the terrible jokes, the poor writing, or how annoying Chris Tucker can really be. I didn’t even remember the action being so boring. There were perhaps two fight scenes that still seemed pretty good, but even those didn’t seem nearly as glamorous as I pictured them before I started. I suppose it did well enough in theaters, and more or less gave Brett Ratner his entire career. Rush Hour 2, thankfully, has been replayed on television a number of times since its release in 2001, and remains not only easily the best in the trilogy, but also one of my favorite Jackie Chan films.

It’s been many years since I last saw a Lord of the Rings film, and many more years since I read JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. In an effort I hope doesn’t lead him down the path of Lucas, Peter Jackson presents the first part in a trilogy based on the classic fantasy novel, An Unexpected Journey. The main story beats are certainly there, and performances are all impressive from the cast, bringing the story to life in ways I was pleasantly surprised by. Tolkien is a great writer, one of the most recognized names in literature, but for me, reading something in text can never measure up to seeing a story performed by real people, with real nuances and emotions. For just that, this endeavor by Jackson is already worth the price of admission. Even if we don’t spend all that much time with every member of the admittedly large cast, the stars like Martin Freeman, Sir Ian McKellen, and Richard Armitage deliver in spades.

Unfortunately, the power of the core narrative feels weighed down by the expanded universe Jackson draws from to flesh out a trilogy of feature length films. A simpler and more streamlined script would have suited the adaptation better, and perhaps could have shortened production from three movies and two hours apiece to two films of 90 minutes apiece. And then comes the somewhat sticky nature of trying to stay true to the childish tone of the novel and yet tie in the more adult presence of the previous Lord of the Rings trilogy. Again, a more cohesive film could have been made had Jackson chosen one over the other. Still, the film is fun, and the central story is still very much a shining feature. The action feels a bit video game-y for my tastes, but I had similar complaints with Jackson’s earlier films. As the old saying goes, it’s less about the destination than it is about the journey itself.

While my favorite film by Hayao Miyazaki will likely always be Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is absolutely a worthy addition to my library. Beautifully drawn and animated, the only thing holding it back is the monumental amount of source material that they tried to put into the film. For better or worse, I was introduced to Nausicaa through the original comic, which is five volumes long and astounding in scope. To try and fit such an epic tale into a two hour movie, even a three hour movie, sounds impossible. Regardless, the key moments are there, and everything still works just fine, even if I wished they had the chance to spend more time with minor characters. It certainly feels like a predecessor to Princess Mononoke, touching on similar themes of the complicated morality of war and the need to protect the natural environment. While many of the Studio Ghibli films also use explore these themes, Mononoke and Nausicaa stick out to me because of their similarities. Both feature a hero of royalty caught in the middle of a war they want no part of, but will intervene at great risk to themselves to try and stop anyway. But where Mononoke deals more with a war against nature itself, Nausicaa is much more interested in the wars between people, even in the aftermath of a war devastating enough to remake the world. Seeing the characters and cultures that survive in this post-apocalypse is definitely one of my favorite parts of the mythos, so I highly encourage you to find the original comic if you can. The film is still beautiful on its own, but the comic presents such a deeper and more involved narrative with the characters, it’s hard not to gravitate towards the source material.

MAD 03: Insomnia

Posted: January 1, 2013 in Movie-A-Day
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Definitely one of Christopher Nolan’s best, Insomnia is simple, elegant, and beautifully layered; pretty much everything that his recent films have not been. It seems like every new Nolan film has been about making things bigger and bigger, more epic in scope and grand in design. But the truly wonderful thing about Insomnia is its deep intimacy with the characters. Thanks in no small part to the talented actors, the film is brimming with the complexities of ethics as an officer of the law. No need for giant set pieces or explosive action scenes; the tension and danger are delivered with nothing more than the power of the camera and the cast. My only gripe is that I would have liked to see Al Pacino really cut loose in his pivotal scenes, as he came off a bit more reserved than I’m used to seeing him. However, if it is to be believed that Pacino did, in fact, not sleep during his time on the production, it’s understandable that his performance might have been a bit inhibited. Regardless, this is truly a stand out film in Nolan’s history, and worth tracking down.

MAD 02: Django Unchained

Posted: December 29, 2012 in Movie-A-Day
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This is Quentin Tarantino pulling out all the stops. Django Unchained is brutal, grisly, gory, and unbelievably entertaining. Horrifying violence is nothing new to the director, but this is definitely a new standard in schlocky self-aware ridiculousness. Everything is completely over the top, from the gun fights to the explosions to the humor to the larger-than-life characters. Jamie Foxx as a slave-turned-gunslinger is impressive, but he and the rest of the cast are totally overshadowed by Christoph Waltz as Django’s bounty hunter mentor King Schultz. A cross between Waltz’s performance as Hans Landa in Tarantino’s previous Inglourious Basterds and Tombstone’s Wyatt Earp, the overeducated Schultz is a marvel in the movie’s version of the pre-Civil War American South. Half the fun of the film is simply watching how out of place Waltz’s character is with the rest of his surroundings, and how everything seems to miraculously fits together regardless. Speaking of bizarre juxtapositions, Tarantino deserves once again to be commended for his brilliant choice of movie music, a wonderful eclectic mix of everything from Johnny Cash to Rick Ross to Ennio Morricone. Assuming the subject matter and its portrayal doesn’t rub you too much the wrong way, Django Unchained is one of the most fun films of the past year, and worth every dollar to go watch in theaters.