The Week That Was, Issue 12

The Week That Was

January 11, 2016 – January 17, 2016

Monday, January 11, 2016

1) Bugsy Malone (1976)

Why I watched: In Empire’s top 500 films of all time.

While Fat Sam and his chief rival Dandy Dan fight over control of a speakeasy, boxing promoter Bugsy Malone (Scott Baio) begins a relationship with Blousey Brown, but has to fend off the advances of Fat Sam’s girlfriend, Tallulah (Jodie Foster).

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The Week That Was, Issue 11

The Week That Was

January 4, 2016 – January 10, 2016

Monday, January 4, 2016

1) Inside Moves (1980)

Why I watched: Diana Scarwid was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

After a suicide attempt leaves Roary (John Savage) partially paralyzed, he drown his sorrows at a bar frequented by other disabled people where he meets Jerry (David Morse), a talented basketball player who needs an expensive operation to repair a deformed leg. Their burgeoning friendship renews Roary’s desire to live.

Everything goes well until Jerry gets the money for his operation and a tryout with a professional basketball team. As his new career flourishes, he turns his back on his former friends, including Roary.

It’s difficult to believe Richard Donner followed up Superman with this. It features a rare performance from disabled WWII veteran turned Academy Award winning actor Harold Russell, but sadly feels like the template for too many “After School Specials” about the value of true friendship.

3 stars.

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The Week That Was, Issue 10

The Week That Was

December 28, 2015 – January 3, 2016

Monday, December 28, 2015

1) The Room (2003)

Why I watched: Included in a list of the worst films.

Impression: Johnny’s (Tommy Wiseau) fiancée Lisa seduces his best friend, Mark (Greg Sestero), intending to use Johnny for financial support while continuing the affair.

When Johnny’s future prospects deteriorate, Lisa coldly tells him about the affair at his surprise birthday party. He reacts poorly, destroying their apartment before killing himself.

As bad as advertised, the film’s nonsensical inconsistencies are legendary. In one memorable scene, Johnny and several friends play football in tuxedos, for no apparent reason. Mark sports a beard in the first half of the film, only to suddenly appear clean-shaven in the final act. According to Sestero, this was only so Tommy could call him “Babyface.”

In an early, inexplicable scene, Lisa’s mother announces a breast cancer diagnosis. Lisa responds with a non sequitur about her relationship with Johnny and the film never mentions it again.

This uncomfortable vanity project by writer, director, and producer Tommy Wiseau is schlocky and poorly made, like the “film” your adolescent nephew made and forced you to watch. The only saving grace is the film’s earnestness.

2 stars.

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In Back to the Future Part II, why didn’t anyone tell Marty that Bill Cosby was a rapist, Hulk Hogan was a racist, and Donald Trump might be our next President? A look back at 2015

In 2015,

Cuba and the United States resumed diplomatic relations,

New Horizons became the first spacecraft to fly by Pluto,

NASA announced liquid water had been found on Mars,

Volkswagen admitted to widespread cheating of emission testing,

A group associated with ISIS attacked the Bataclan theatre and other sites in Paris,

Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik attacked a holiday party for the employees of the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health,

Katy Perry performed at halftime of Super Bowl XLIX,

“Hello” by Adele became the first song to record over one million digital copies in a week,

Saïd and Chérif Kouachi stormed the offices of the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo,

NBC suspsended news anchor Brian Williams after he admitted to embellishing his activity in the 2003 Iraq War,

Saturday Night Live celebrated its 40th anniversary,

19 Kids and Counting was suspended after allegation surfaced that Josh Duggar had molested his younger siblings years earlier,

Charlie Sheen confirmed he was HIV positive,

Businessman and reality show host Donald Trump emerged as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination in the 2016 US Presidential election,

In Obergefell v. Hodges, the United States Supreme Court held that homosexual couples have a right to marry,

Dylan Roof attacked Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina,

Subway spokesman Jared Fogle pled guilty to possession of child pornography and having sex with a minor,

Comedian Bill Cosby was charged with aggravated indecent assault

Former Olympic decathlete Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn Jenner,

The WWE released Hulk Hogan after tapes of him making racists comments were released,

Princess Charlotte of Cambridge was born,

While Mario Cuomo, Lesley Gore, Leonard Nimoy, Anthony Mason, Terry Pratchett, Percy Sledge, Ben E. King, B.B. King, Christopher Lee, Dusty Rhodes, Ron Moody, James Horner, Dick Van Patten, Roger Rees, Omar Sharif, E.L. Doctorow, Roddy Piper, Yvonne Craig, Wes Craven, Oliver Sacks, Dean Jones, Yogi Berra, Moses Malone, Jackie Collins, Maureen O’Hara, Flip Saunders, Fred Thompson, Scott Wieland, Haskell Wexler, Lemmy, Natalie Cole, and Wayne Rogers died.

These are my top twenty two films released in 2015 (with the caveat that as I see more films, the list is subject to change):

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The Week That Was, Issue 9

The Week That Was

December 21, 2015 – December 27, 2015

Monday, December 21, 2015

1) The Passenger (1975)

Why I watched: In Empire’s list of the top 500 films of all time.

Impression: Wanting a chance to start a new life, British-American journalist David Locke (Jack Nicholson) assumes the identity of the deceased Mr. Robertson, only to discover Robertson was a notorious arms dealer.

Locke’s wife feels guilty and tries to track him down, while he explores life in another man’s shoes and has an affair with an unnamed architectural student (Maria Schneider).

This is one of Michelangelo Antonioni’s most accessible and straightforward films (alongside Blow Up), Nicholson was at his peak (this was released the same year as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and the ending features one of the most well composed tracking shots in Hollywood history.

It’s a fine examination of our innate curiosity of the lives of others and a warning to be careful what you wish for.

3 stars.

2) Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

Why I watched: In Empire’s list of the top 500 films of all time.

Impression: A false report from a private investigator leads world-famous conductor Sir Alfred de Carter (Rex Harrison) to believe his wife is cheating on him.

During his next performance, he fantasizes about various ways to extract revenge. In the first fantasy, he murders his wife and frames her lover, in the next he takes it in stride and wishes her well, and in the final fantasy he engages his rival in an ill-advised game of Russian Roulette.

After the performance, he returns home determined to murder his wife, but it isn’t as easy as he anticipated.

Harrison is hysterical in this darkly comic film from comic genius Preston Sturges. It reminds me of Danny Devito’s work in the late 80s and early 90s (War of the RosesThrow Momma from the Train). Sadly, US audiences in the late 1940s weren’t ready for this strain of black comedy. Despite critical praise, it flopped at the box office and signaled the decline of Sturges’s career.

4 stars.

3)  It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966)

Why I watched: I loved it when I was a kid and wanted to show it to my little boy.

Impression: Fifty years later, it holds up well and includes many of the iconic Peanuts moments which have entered into our collective consciousness. Lucy pulling the football away, Snoopy’s fight against the Red Baron, Charlie Brown’s lovable ineptitude.

Linus’s steadfast faith in spite of the ridicule of everyone he knows is commendable, but, sadly, his belief is misguided; there is no Great Pumpkin.

Charles Schultz created a rich world from the innocence of childhood, but miraculously refrained from becoming pandering or too saccharine. Many have tried, but few have successfully followed in his footsteps.

3 stars.

4) You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown (1972)

Why I watched: It aired immediately after The Great Pumpkin.

Impression: Despite his lack of qualifications, Lines he wins an election to become student body president only to learn it’s a largely honorary position.

Debuting just before Nixon was re-elected, the cynical short presciently predicted the US mood in the coming months, but feels too adult and dark for Peanuts.

2 stars.

5) Hotel Transylvania 2 (2015)

Why I watched: In a list of the top grossing films of all time.

Impression:  Several years after the events of the first film, vampire Mavis (Selena Gomez) and her human husband Johnny (Andy Samberg) live an idyllic life at the hotel raising their young son, Dennis.

According to an old tradition, if a child doesn’t have his fangs by his fifth birthday, he’s not a vampire. As Dennis’s birthday approaches, his grandfather Dracula (Adam Sandler) takes proactive measures to ensure his transformation.

I enjoyed the first film in the series and thought its take on the classic horror monsters was fresh and energetic, but this film is tired and predictable. There were a few laughs, but it took too long to develop and ended too quickly. I’m not sure why Dracula’s father was added, except to wedge Mel Brooks into a hammy part unworthy of his legacy.

Many of the best characters were lost in the bloated cast of Sandler’s friends.

I like the concept, I like the characters, but this is a poorly executed sequel.

1 ½ stars.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

6) Touching the Void (2006)

Why I watched: Included in a list of the 1000 best reviewed films of the 21st century.

Impression: In 1985, British climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates attempted to climb Silua Granda in the Peruvian Andres.

After a series of unexpected snafus, Joe was severely injured. Simon attempted to lower him, but the rope was caught on a rock. Unable to communicate with his partner and fearing for his own well-being, Simon cut the rope.

Miraculously, Joe survived the fall, found refuge in a crevasse, and crawled to the base camp just before Simon left.

Based on Joe’s autobiography, director Kevin Macdonald weaves contemporary interviews of the two climbers with a series of spectacular reenactments to create an impressive tale of survival and tough choices.

3 ½ stars.

7) Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

Why I watched: Included in the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

Impression: The first film in Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy is a purely visual film juxtaposing fantastic rural and natural landscapes against urban backgrounds of huge buildings and massive moving lights of traffic.

Reggio equates the magnificence of modern architecture to a beautiful sunset, reminding us that man-made wonders are still wonders.

2½ stars.

8) Adua and Her Friends (1960)

Why I watched: MUBI’s film of the day.

Impression: After new laws targeting prostitution force a brothel to shut its doors, four former prostitutes start a restaurant on the condition that after two months of legitimate business, it will serve as a front to resume their prostitution.

Simone Signoret (who won an Oscar the previous year) stars as Adua. Emmanuelle Riva is one of her fellow prostitutes, and Marcello Mastroianni is a potential suitor for Adua.

Antonio Pietrangeli’s film contains moments of farce, and moments of genuine pathos, existing somewhere between the Italian neorealist films of the 1950s and the commedia d’altiana films of the 1960s.

3 stars.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

9) The Unbelievable Truth (1989)

Why I watched: Included in the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

Impression: High school senior Audry (Adrienne Shelley) struggles with her parent’s expectations, dissatisfaction with her boyfriend, existential angst, and infatuation with a mysterious ex-convict.

Hal Hartley’s examination of the pressure of adolescence feels like a comedy, has the rhythm of a comedy, but there’s very little funny about it.

3 stars.

10) The Law (1959)

Why I watched: MUBI’s film of the day.

Impression: When an engineer (Marcello Mastroianni) arrives to drain the marshes in a small fishing town, he falls in love with Marietta (Gina Lollobrigida) and helps free the villagers from the control of crooked Matteo Brigante (Yves Montand).

Jules Dassin’s two heist films: Riffifi (1955) and Topkapi (1964) are fun and well-made. This is well-made, but not very fun.

I like Mastroianni, but he’s at his best when he’s rakish, possessing a hint of danger in his performance.

This film never captured my attention and has already slipped through the fog of memory to anonymity.

1 star.

11) Youth (2015)

Why I watched: I love Michael Caine and director Paolo Sorrentino, and Jane Fonda was nominated for a Golden Globe.

Impression: Both in the twilight of their careers, composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and filmmaker Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) vacation together in a luxury resort.

The Queen of England requests Fred perform his most famous piece at her husband’s upcoming birthday, but he turns down the opportunity because the song reminds him of his ill wife. Their long relationship is fractured and messy, but possesses the kind of tender affection which can only come from a lifetime spent together.

Mick works with a group of writers developing one last magnificent film for his frequent star and muse Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda).

Fred’s daughter and assistant, Lena (Rachel Weisz) has a crisis when her husband (Mick’s son) leaves her for a younger pop star, Paloma Faith.

Among the other guests: an overweight former soccer star, Miss Universe, and frustrated actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano). Tree became very famous and made a lot of money playing a robot in a series of action films, but he’s afraid of being remembered for a product he thinks is inferior.

Fonda is excellent as the pragmatist Morel, who, despite years of friendship, is willing to tell Mick the harsh, bitter truth. Fonda’s too brief performance brilliantly plays on her legacy and our long memory of her.

As Ballinger and Boyle navigate the murky waters of their closing years, Paulo Sorrentino’s film becomes a poignant rumination on the fragility of life and the fleeting years of utility.

4 ½ stars.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

12) Brooklyn (2015)

Why I watched: Saorise Ronan was nominated for a Golden Globe.

Impression: In the 1950s, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) emigrates to the US from Ireland. Despite living in Brooklyn’s sizable Irish community, she’s wracked with homesickness and guilt for leaving her sister and mother behind, until she fall in love with an Italian boy.

When her sister dies, she returns home and must decide if she wants to return to her old life or embrace her new one.

Ronan, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, and Domhnall Gleeson are good, but this film based on a novel by Col Tóibín is one long cliché about the plight of immigrants.

3 stars.

13) Everest (2015)

Why I watched: In a list of the top grossing films of all time.

Impression: This account of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster is beautifully shot and its all-star cast (including Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, and Jake Gyllenhaal) are excellent.

But by now we understand climbing the world’s highest peaks is a dangerous business. The more interesting aspect is what motivates these men and women to risk their lives. The film comes close to exploring this in a scene where Brolin’s Beck Weathers explains how meaningless and empty his life feels at home away from the adrenaline of a climb.

Instead of showing us what makes people want to do dangerous things, the film defaults to hero-worship, but fails to explain why standing on an arbitrary spot makes someone a hero.

It’s a beautifully shot, empty movie.

3 stars.

14) Spotlight (2015)

Why I watched: Nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Dramatic Picture.

Impression: In 2001, Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber) was hired as the editor of The Boston Globe. During one of his initial staff meetings, he suggested the paper’s investigative team, Spotlight, look into allegations the Roman Catholic leadership in Boston knew about the activities of pedophile priest John Geoghan and covered them up.

The team’s meticulous research revealed the highest members of church leadership had been actively covering up the activity of nearly one hundred pedophile priests for years. In heavily Catholic Boston, their attempts to expose the truth were met with strong resistance.

The cast, including Schreiber, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci are excellent.

The film is not an indictment of the Catholic Church, although it certainly exposes it as callous and unChristian in its treatment of its most helpless parishioners.

Rather the film is an important reminder that institutions (even religious ones) have one purpose: to stay alive. No institution is moral or immoral; their only guiding principle is self-preservation. To drive this point home, the film goes out of its way to demonstrate The Boston Globe’s own self-protective instincts. One of the chief investigators on the Spotlight team, Robby Robinson (Keaton) received a tip about thirty pedophile priests twenty years earlier, but failed to follow-up.

Last year, Tom McCarthy directed the Adam Sandler vehicle The Cobbler, a film labeled by many among the worst of the year. To follow it up with such a resounding success, is an amazing achievement.

4 ½ stars.

Friday, December 25, 2015

15) The Hateful Eight (2015)

Why I watched: Nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Film.

Impression: Bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) escorts outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock where she’ll be hanged.

Joining them on their stagecoach is Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a black bounty hunter, former major in the Union Army, and possible pen pal of Abraham Lincoln.

Soon the coach picks up one last passenger, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a Confederate sympathizer and the incoming sheriff of Red Rock.

When the coach arrives at Minnie’s Haberdashery, the quartet take shelter from the upcoming blizzard and meet the rest of the titular octet, Bob (Demian Bichir), Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and former confederate general Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern).

None of the group trusts each other, with good reason. As they feel each other out, there’s lots of snappy dialogue, and plenty of racial epithets hurled at Warren, including a particularly nasty exchange with Smithers.

As everyone’s back story and hidden agenda are slowly revealed, there are fights, bloodshed, and death.

Ironically for a film where most of the action takes place in a small cabin, Tarantino filmed in expansive 70 mm, which somehow makes the film feel huge and claustrophobic at the same time.

I love Goggins and this is his best work since The Shield. Leigh’s performance is her best in a decade. Jackson is the film’s emotional centerpiece and carries the weight well. Russell trades in on his iconic and beloved performances of the 1980s, but doesn’t do anything new. Bruce Dern was disappointingly pedestrian.

I enjoyed most of the film, but the Tatum ex Machina felt contrived (even by Tarantino standards). Perhaps the original ending would have been more satisfying, but after the first draft of the script leaked online, Quentin defiantly refused to film that version.

The characters and dialogue will stick with me, but my memory will be clouded by my dislike of the ending.

3 ½ stars.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

16) A Town Called Panic (2009)

Why I watched: MUBI’s film of the day.

Impression: Based on a French language TV series of the same name, this stop-motion animated film follows the adventures of three plastic toys: Cowboy, Indian and Horse.

Cowboy and Indian forgot it was Horse’s birthday and their last-minute attempt to build a barbeque for him goes awry. They order fifty bricks, but a typographical error sends them fifty thousand. This mix-up inexplicably leads them on an adventure to the center of the earth and a parallel underwater universe.

It’s bizarre and funny and feels like it belongs on Adult Swim. It won’t be for everyone, but I loved it.

4 ½ stars.

17) Carol (2015)

Why I watched: Nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Drama Film.

Impression: In 1950s New York, closeted lesbian Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) meets a temporary shopgirl, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). Carol (purposefully?) leaves her gloves at the counter, and Therese mails them to her. When Carol receives them, she calls the department store to thank Therese and invites her to lunch. And so begins a torrid love affair.

I understand non-heterosexuality was a clandestine business in the 1950s, but the central relationship feels too convenient. The film argues Carol’s reluctance to embrace her sexuality is out of a desire to maintain a relationship with her daughter, Rindy. Her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), threatens to use a morality clause to gain full custody.

If the film wanted me to believe this was a real threat, it would have shown more of the relationship between Carol and her daughter. I didn’t believe she was a good mother because I never saw her with her daughter. This makes Carol’s motivation for ending her affair and returning to New York seem hollow.

Its message is timely, which explains why it’s so beloved, but it’s a slight story. Todd Haynes has made a few wonderful films, SafeFar from Heaven, and I’m Not There; this is not one of them.

1 ½ stars.

18) Joy (2015)

Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence) is a divorced mother of two with a lifelong penchant for making things.

After she cuts her hand wringing a mop, Joy designs the Miracle Mop and convinces her father (Robert DeNiro) and his girlfriend (Isabella Rosselinni) to bankroll a company to make it.

After a series of blunders and roadblocks, Joy meets with an executive at fledgling QVC, Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), who agrees to sell her product. Once Joy becomes the mop’s on air pitchman, sales spike and she becomes a wildly successful businesswoman.

The latest collaboration of David O. Russell and his super trio (Lawrence, DeNiro, and Cooper) isn’t as dynamic as their previous films.

The script is all over the place. The relationship between Joy and her half-sister seems forced and unnecessary. Her ex-husband is her biggest early supporter, but disappears after his vindication in a key business decision. Cooper’s role is a glorified cameo, and Deniro’s part shows promise, but gets lost half-way through the film. Joy’s transition from hopeful, downtrodden businesswoman to Oprah level force of nature is too abrupt.

There’s a good story, but it’s buried under too much style. It feels like Russell desperately wanted to get the band back together and created roles for his friends instead of letting the film develop naturally. It’s entertaining enough because Lawrence is immensely charismatic, but it left me a little frustrated.

3 stars.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

19) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (2015)

Why I watched: One of the highest grossing films of all time.

Impression: Now that the Hunger Games are over, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself in the middle of a war between the Capitol and the rebels and begins to understand her role in the larger political game played in Panem.

After a brainwashed Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) unsuccessfully attempts to murder Katniss, her obsession with killing President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) grows. But she’s also increasingly suspicious of the motives of rebel leader, President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore).

Fans almost universally agree the third book is the weakest, but the movie version was a vast improvement. Katniss’s final decision made more sense the way it was presented here. It felt organic and real, while in the book it felt forced.

After the lackluster previous film, I liked this a lot more than I thought I would.

3½ stars.

20) Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Why I watched: MUBI’s film of the day.

Impression: Gay reporter Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is writing an article about the current whereabouts of bisexual glam rock star Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) whose career ended after he faked his murder as a publicity stunt. As Stuart interviews those associated with the former rocker, flashbacks show Slade’s marriage to Mandy (Toni Collette) and his long affair with fellow rocker Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor).

Loosely based on the life of David Bowie, Todd Haynes echoes the framework of Citizen Kane, but without the central phenomenal performance of Welles, the film feels light and small, although I liked the beginning vignette tying the development of glam rock to Oscar Wilde.

It captures the aesthetic of the rock lifestyle of the 1970s well, in spite of occasionally feeling like it was trying to mimic Pink Floyd’s The Wall. However, in the end, it bounced around too much.

Haynes would revisit many of the same techniques in his biography of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There. Forgoing the unnecessary homage, the latter film was more successful at capturing the essence of an iconic enigma.

2½ stars.

One hundred trips around the sun: A look back at 1915

In 1915:

The First World War raged in Europe,

Harry Houdini was escaping from straitjackets to the amazement of audiences,

The first transcontinental telephone call took place,

The Rocky Mountain National Park was established,

The US Congress declared that the US Coast Guard was a military branch,

Typhoid Mary was placed in a quarantine which would last until her death in 1938,

Pluto was photographed for the first time,

The Vancouver Millionaires defeated the Ottawa Senators to win the Stanley Cup,

The Armenian Genocide began,

Babe Ruth hit his first career home run,

William Jennings Bryan resigned as US Secretary of State,

Leo Frank was lynched for the alleged murder of a 13 year old girl,

The Raggedy Ann doll was patented,

Frank Kafka’s novel The Metamorphosis was published,

William Joseph Simmons founded the 2nd Ku Klux Klan in Stone Mountain Georgia,

Einstein published his theory of general relativity,

The Ford Motor Company produced its one millionth car,

US President Woodrow Wilson married his second wife, Edith Wilson,

The first stop sign appeared on US roads,

Zero Mostel, Billie Holiday, Anthony Quinn, Orson Welles, Les Paul, Ring Lardner Jr., Arthur Miller, Bob Kane, Sargent Shriver, Augusto Pinochet, Roland Barthes, Eli Wallach, Frank Sinatra, and Edith Piaf were born,

While outlaw Frank James and Booker T. Washington died.

These are my ten favorite films released in 1915:

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