January 31st: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

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Release Date: 1975
Director: Jim Sharman
Why I picked this: Its cult classic status

Boy oh boy, was I lucky to go to a midnight screening of this. If you haven’t seen “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at midnight, in a theater, with people, preferably in costume and with an extensive knowledge of the film, then you really haven’t seen it at all. Still in limited release in some theaters, this is one of the longest standing transitions in movie watching history. “Shadow casts” with people acting out the musical numbers as they play, calling and responding to the characters in the movie, singing along, and overall audience participation are integral elements to this. I found myself enjoying the audience’s comical remarks about the movie as entertaining as the movie. It is basically a snarkfest, a friendly competition to say the wittiest comments. Often, their remarks would point out what the character is about to say, in a comical fashion (Audience member: “Describe your birth!” Character: “An accident!”) The movie itself is a fun one. It’s campy, creepy, and at sometimes, non-sensical, but it is an enjoyable ride. A newly engaged couple find themselves in the castle of Frank-n-Furter, a “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania,” who creates a buff, almost completely naked creation named Rocky. Tim Curry as Frank-n-Furter is electric; his energy is what gives the movie life. His character decisions make little sense, but it’s hard to not enjoy his performance. The music is catchy and addicting, and the numbers themselves are very campy and energetic. The audience was basically required to do the “Time Warp” with the movie. The film’s director also directed the stage musical, but the transition from stage-to-film works. The sets are great, the camera is never static, and there are some neat images to look at. I have to say, I was very confused by the last fifteen minutes or so (Frank-n-Furter: “What happened to…” Audience member: “THE PLOT!”), but the entire ride is worth it.

This is an experience that every movie-lover must go through. The movie is weird, but the music is catchy and the story is bizzare fun. Just make sure you’re with a great audience too.

January 30th: Casablanca

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Release Date: 1942
Director: Michael Curtiz
Why I picked this: Because “Casablanca”

As you can probably tell by my selection of movies, I’m a little biased towards more recent ones. I’ve seen a good amount of them, favorites including “The Maltese Falcon,” “Citizen Kane,” and “Double Indemnity,” but while I’ve always admired them, I never particularly enjoyed them. Maybe I just have a sharper eye and perspective now, but I really liked “Casablanca.” It’s a layered tale filled with romance, drama, politics, and World War II undertones. My favorite scenes usually involved the crowded cafe where most of the important scenes take place. The inhabitants are diverse and fill the screen with life, with the camera moving from conversation to conversation. Too few movies today are as alive as this one. At the forefront of the movie are Humphrey Bogart, probably the most famous leading man in America, and Ingrid Bergman as the two leads. Bogart, usually playing hardened characters, plays a similar type of character, with the biggest difference being that this is a more romantic role, and he is entirely believable. It is evident why he was so prominent in his time from this movie, as he is charismatic, and delivers some of the more memorable lines not only in the movie, but in movie history.  The cast overall is great, with some recognizable film icons from the era, such as Claude Rains, Sydney Overstreet, and Peter Lorre. Paul Henreid plays the husband of Ingrid Berman’s character, and while he is meant to be a strong, even heroic figure, he may have been the most boring main character in the film. There are some very striking images in this movie; I especially loved the use of shadows and silhouettes in this movie, and whenever the camera would solely focus on Ingrid Berman’s character, the image would look very soft. These are some visual elements that I think are more effective with black-and-white cinematography. The romantic aspect of the movie is a bit cliche, but still very classic and simple. The two characters are likable enough for the audience to care. There is a good use of music, with “As Time Goes By” being embedded into your memory before the movie ends, and there are visual effects used, mostly for depicting airplanes and the larger city. They aren’t particularly bad, but they are fairly obvious.

Great camerawork,  great composition, memorable images and quotes, a lifelike feel, and the acting from its leads make this movie a classic.

January 29th: Mission: Impossible III

Mission_Impossible_III

Release Date: 2006
Director: J.J. Abrams
Why I picked this: My love of “Ghost Protocol,” and to see J.J. Abrams’ first feature film

Yeah, yeah, so what if Tom Cruise has a weird and prolific personal life? He’s a more than decent action star. The first film by soon-to-be Star Wars director J.J. Abrams, the third “Mission: Impossible” movie (and the second that I personally have seen) is intensely directed and features a great hero/villain dynamic between Tom Cruise and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The plot is typical of an action movie: Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is called back to active duty for Impossible Missions Force to save one of his trainees from capture from Hoffman’s character, arms dealer Owen Davian. The mission mostly fails, and Hunt later leads his team to capture Davian. There is a mysterious plot device called the “Rabbit’s Foot,” I never cared about what it actually is. The personal aspect of the plot comes from Hunt’s engagement to Michelle Monaghan’s character, Jules. There are also suspicions about Hunt’s superior, played by Lawrence Fishburne. There is a lot of talk between characters about the risk Hunt is taking to marry a civilian and the potential of putting Jules in danger, but that talk dissipates later when Jules is, you know, in danger. Having never seen the first two films, I still could understand the strong friendship that Hunt and Ving Rhames’ character Luther Stickwell had. Stickwell and Cruise share on-screen chemistry, but I can’t say the same about the rest of his team, including Hunt’s superior Musgrave, played by Billy Crudup. But obviously the action is the main focus of the movie, and there is some good action. Featuring rapid editing, camera shaking, the occasional lens flare, and a whole lot of noise, this is a chaotic movie. And yet for the most part, the action is coherent. There is a sense of geography and you can actually tell what is happening. There are one or two exceptions where it is difficult to tell what was happening, but the action was solid. The opening scene itself is gripping. Hoffman is a great villain, but his role seems a little too small, especially as revelations about certain characters come to fruition, and his ultimate defeat was unsatisfying.

Fast and chaotic, there is good action, good direction, and good acting. But there are better movies (including Brad Bird’s fourth “Mission: Impossible”).

January 28th: Magnolia

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Release Date: 1999
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Why I picked this: It is supposedly P.T Anderson’s best film

Clocking in at a whopping three hours and containing a large ensemble cast, this movie surprisingly never confused or bored me. The movie begins with such energy and momentum, completely drawing me in, and while the movie did slow down during the second half, it made sense why it did in the context of the story. This is a movie about connects us or draws us to seemingly unrelated people. It is about coincidence and chance. It is about the common struggles that human beings struggle through. Most of these problems appeared to revolve around family issues and loneliness. Some minor gripes about the film emerged as I was watching it, but they were mostly alleviated when I realized that they made sense with the themes of the movie. Some of the characters from different plot threads had similar flaws or problems, but that was the movie telling me how we are alike. The movie has a bizarre climax, but I tied it with the movie’s theme of unlikely and coincidences that bring us together in the most unexpected way. It is difficult to further analyze the climax without giving it away. I will say that eagle eyed viewers should find some foreshadowing. As said, the movie has a large ensemble cast, and I didn’t see any weak links. Tom Cruise as misogynistic motivational speaker Frank Mackey gives the strongest performance. He is instantly memorable from his first monologue, and explodes emotionally by the end of the film. His character evolution is the most intriguing to watch. Next is Julianne Moore as the unstable trophy wife of a dying elderly man. She breaks down, complains, and yells, yet the audience feels from her. She has made poor decisions, but she is still human facing unfair situations. Child actor Jeremy Blackman impresses as Stanley, a child prodigy on a fictional game show. He is intelligent and pensive, but you are still reminded that he is still a child. Other cast members include the always great Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the nurse who cares for Moore’s dying husband, Phillip Baker Hall as the host of the game show, William H. Macy as a lonely, occasionally dim-witted former game show champion, and John C. Reilly has a slightly incompetent police officer. Great performances all around, but they weren’t exactly stand-out to me. The plot thread involving Reilly’s police officer character was my least favorite, as I couldn’t exactly grasp what I was supposed to gain from his story. There are some moments where the movie tries to connect all of the characters emotionally, but it sometimes feels forced, especially at one point of the movie where the characters literally sing the same song together. P.T. Anderson’s directing was magnificent, with many great tracking shots and dolly shots. Probably the most reoccurring visual element was the camera slowly approaching a character or some other subject. It is used constantly, especially near the beginning, but the technique is used for different reasons in different situations, and it always makes sense. The editing from plot line to plot line usually works.

It begins with so much energy and slows down, but this three hour epic character study is worth watching for its themes, wonderful visuals, and some great performances.

January 26th: The Big Lebowski

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Release Date: 1998
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Why I picked this: Because the Dude abides

Its dream sequences are appropriately bizarre, its characters are eccentric and over the top (but not too over the top), and the acting is as sharp as its dialogue. It’s a comedy with crime and noir elements, but this movie is really its own animal. Starring Jeff Bridges as slacker and avid bowler Jeff Lebowski, otherwise known as “The Dude,” this movie takes Lebowski through a bizarre string of events when he is confused for a millionaire with the same name. There is no real plot structure for this movie, my only major dislike, but each situation is amusing enough to make the entire experience worthwhile. This movie has some of the most bizarre characters I’ve ever seen in one movie. The events in the movie are plausible, but the characters take them to a whole new level. The best supporting character would probably have to be John Goodman’s character, Walter, a belligerent and temperamental Vietnam veteran who is The Dude’s best friend and bowling teammate. He upstages anyone he shares the screen with him with his crazy anger and conviction, and probably has some of the more memorable lines and scenes in the movie. Steve Buscemi has less screentime as the air-headed and naive Donny, another one of The Dude’s bowling teammates. Other roles include David Huddleston as the titular “Big Lebowski,” Phillip Seymour Hoffman as his assistant and mouthpiece, and Julianne Moore as Maude Lebowski, one of the stranger characters in the movie. She is introduced working on a piece of art whilst swinging over a canvas naked. Also a bizarre character is the minor, almost cameo role of John Turturro’s character of one of The Dude’s and Walter’s bowling rivals named Jesus. He makes such an impression with his brief appearance and you want to see more of him. These characters demonstrate the offbeat sense of humor of the movie, and by extension, the other comedies of the Coen brothers. As I say again and again, it is bizarre, the characters are eccentric, and everything comes across as hyperreal. The weirdness may prove to be too much for casual movie goers, but all of the jokes hit for me. Visually, it looks great, with some creative camera techniques and framing. The movie’s few dream and fantasy sequences are a wonder to watch. It’s great work from one of the best cinematographers today, Roger Deakins. I was left wondering what the point of the movie was, but I didn’t care. It was very funny.

Not sure what to make of the plot, but crazy characters and situations along with great comedic performances and cool visuals make this bizarre comedy worth trying out.

January 25th: End of Watch

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Release Date: 2012
Director: David Ayer
Why I picked this: The trailer looked impressive

While not purely a found footage, the movie certainly contains many elements from the genre. But while most found footage movies are of a more fantastical genre, such as horror (“Paranormal Activity”), monster movie (“Cloverfield”), or superhero (“Chronicle,” my favorite found footage movie), this one is much more grounded and realistic, focusing on two Los Angeles cops on the job. The beginning of the film successfully sets the tone, with a car chase from the perspective of a police camera that ends in violence. After a narration, the violent climax of the sequence has no dialogue, but tells you everything you should expect from the movie: the violence is brutal and jarring, and the two main characters, played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña have a strong bond. Their close friendship and partnership is one of the more believable relationships not only in action-heavy movies, but movies in general. They banter, they joke, they talk about their personal lives in detail, and they are loyal to each other; it all feels very genuine. When it comes to doing their jobs, they are effective and get the job done, though sometimes recklessly and unconventionally. The violence, as mentioned, is shocking, not just for its brutal nature, but for its unexpectedness in the moment. The gritty handheld style of the movie mostly works, but there are sometimes where you don’t feel immersed, but rather feel confused on where you are. While the two main leads are fantastic in their roles, there are no memorable supporting players. In fact, some of the minor actors were just bad. Luckily, the actresses portraying Gyllenhaal’s and Peña’s significant others are believable, which adds more weight to their jobs, knowing that they could die in the line of duty and leave their wives behind. The possibility of danger and death is a theme that progressively rears its head through the movie.

Gritty and emotionally charged, this gritty police drama works  due to its two lead actors and intense action.

January 24th: Heavy Metal

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Release Date: 1981
Director: Gerald Potterton
Why I picked this: Recommendation, and the “South Park” parody of this movie

While showing occasional hints of imagination, this animated anthology film is confusing, ugly, and very misogynistic.

Disliked

January 23rd: Clerks

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Release Date: 1994
Director: Kevin Smith
Why I picked this: Recommendation, and lack of Kevin Smith movie watching

While I certainly enjoyed the movie by the end, I had a rough start with it. Kevin Smith’s first feature length movie, one that would begin a series of movies set in the same universe (featuring the characters of Jay and Silent Bob) features vulgar humor, long stretches of conversational dialogue, relatable life lessons, and a clearly low budget, it may take a while for the movie to draw you in if you aren’t used to this kind of movie. “Clerks” follows Dante Hicks, played by Brian O’Halloran, a store clerk at a convenience store, who is suddenly called to work on his day off. O’Halloran is a decent leading man, and I found myself relating to his character more as the movie progressed. The movie features a series of events in this day of the life of a store clerk, with many unrelated and sometimes bizarre incidents involving customers. The acting isn’t very top notch, and it’s clear that many of the minor characters aren’t played by professionals. Marilyn Ghigliotti as Dante’s girlfriend Veronica looked like she struggled with some lines. Who did impress me however, was Jeff Anderson as Dante’s best friend Randal Graves, who works as a clerk at a video store next door. Randal is thoughtful and perceptive, but also careless and insensitive. A strange combination on paper, but Anderson makes it work, making him the most interesting character to watch. I only sometimes found myself amused by the short interactions with customers, and I mostly focused on the conversations between the primary characters. This is a very well written movie by Kevin Smith. Supposedly pointless dialogue builds these characters, and they touch upon some interesting themes. Dante complains about his apparent bad luck, how he is at the wrong place at the wrong time, how this inconvenience has led to the worst, but Randal keeps him in check. Everything that comes up in this movie eventually comes back, an element of the movie that I appreciated. Themes mentioned early on found their way into the events of the movie, and actions taken have their later consequences. The movie is shot in black and white, a decision that I think was more budgetary than artistic. It adds nothing to the movie. Most of the conversations are static and still, simply being long takes of the characters talking. However, it works well with the dialogue, and the delivery of the dialogue is what makes the frame interesting.

It takes time to sympathize with the characters, and not all of the vulgar humor works, but it is sharply written with a few good performances, and it is surprisingly thought-provoking.

January 22nd: Down with Love

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Release Date: 2003
Director: Peyton Reed
Why I picked this: Friends were in the middle of watching it and I joined in

Having never heard of this movie before watching it, I had no clue what to expect when I jumped into it. However, thanks to the movie’s musical score, colorful sets and costumes, and overall amazing production design, I was instantly sucked into the 1960s, or at least a quirky comedy movie made in the 1960s. The themes of love and feminism are demonstrated by Renée Zellweger’s character Barbara Novak, the author of a book called “Down with Love,” teaching women to enjoy sex without commitment and falling in love. Magazine writer and womanizer Catcher Block, played by Ewan McGregor, seeks to prove Novak to be the same as every other woman by attempting to attract her under the fictional identity of “Zip Martin” (featuring McGregor’s same fake southern from “Big Fish”). David Hyde Pierce portrays Block’s awkward and meek boss, as he attempts to start a relationship with Novak’s editor, played by Sarah Paulson. While Pierce is likable, I cared little about his subplot. As mentioned, the score really gets you into the mood, and the performances from the two leads are energetic and quirky. It might be too much for some moviegoers, but there’s definitely some charm to this caricature of the 1960s. Zellweger probably gives the best performance, and has a large chunk of revealing dialogue at the end that is greatly delivered. The dialogue overall is well crafted, featuring double entendres reminiscent of ones in early sex comedies. However, something happens near the end of the story that at first confused me, and for the rest of the movie, it is difficult to pinpoint the motivations and the thoughts of the characters. Their actions made little sense to me, and I found the last ten minutes or so to be dragging. By the time the movie ended, I was confused on what the movie was trying to say.

The movie’s quirkiness may be too much for some people, but it is unmistakably well made due to its visual elements, music, and dialogue. However, the story falls apart near the end.