Starry Eyes (2014)

Starry Eyes (2014) movie poster

directors Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer
viewed: 05/06/2015

Millennials, amirite?

Just kidding.

This horror film about a young starlet in Los Angeles who lands a gig that is a less than metaphorical deal with the devil is unusual and perverse, more interesting than average.  I don’t think it quite grasps at greatness, but it’s different, surprising, and more intriguing than a lot of other modern up-and-coming horror films than I’ve seen in a while.

Birdman (2014)

Birdman (2014) movie poster

director Alejandro G. Iñárritu
viewed: 05/03/2015

Birdman, man.  I dunno.  It won Best Picture at the Oscars earlier this year.  It’s a pretty good movie.  Uniquely cinematic, though its subject matter is the theater, the theater that a washed-up one-time superhero film actor played by Michael Keaton tries to enter into big time, writing, directing, and starring in his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver story.

It’s cinematic in its style, told in an oddly omniscient faux single long take style, with breaks and bumps from any sense of full reality, to the banging jazz drum beats of the soundtrack.  It’s interesting.  And original.  And different.

And sure, Keaton is good.  So is Edward Norton.  Both of them in tighty-whities.

Actually, I liked Emma Stone in it, slightly more of a character than she usually plays.  She’s got real charm and lots of types of talent.  I’d like to see her do something more unusual.

Overall, though,…I have to say…decent movie, good movie, but Best Picture?  Really?

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) movie poster

director Joss Whedon
viewed: 05/03/2015 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

The summer of movies 2015 began with arguably the biggest movie that summer 2015 has to offer the movie-going public, The Avengers (2012) sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron.  At this point, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a well-established thing, with wave after wave pounding the shores of pop culture media, inflated and expanded by its connection to Disney, it is at present the corporate entertainment machine par excellence.  And I mean that in wowed amazement at the cornering of the market, the pumping of the products, intensive saturation, and amazing ambition.

Then there are the actual movies.

Helmed by Joss Whedon, who led the first The Avengers film into financial and relative critical success, the questions poured out about this sequel.  Could it be bigger and still be good, much less better?  The hype machine at Disney/Marvel envisioned this as one of its major deliverables, but with two more sequels set for 2017 and 2018, this film is no simple endgame in and of itself.

Honestly, I kind of enjoyed it.  It’s neither great nor terrible and while it has its merits and detractions, I was more or less entertained and satisfied.  Felix said it was “okay”.  Clara liked it.  Considering all the things that it had to do, that level of success is admirable, even if it’s nothing to get excited about.   Whedon has said this is his last venture with the franchise.

Just look at the poster, you’ll get a good idea of what is going on here.  There are 10 superheroes vying for screentime.  You can barely squeeze them onto a single poster.  It’s not an easy thing to wrangle.

Local critic Mick LaSalle wrote that the film was the embodiment of the end of cinema, a digital-effects blast of noise and action with no humanity nor heart, a parallel of the film’s actual narrative about evil artificial intelligence and robots attacking all humanity.  And in the film’s opening segment, featuring a slick image of a bunch of the characters flying through the air in slow motion, I could see that.  But I would say that has been the enormous shortcoming of Marvel superhero movies since they came of age in the CGi times.

Marvel’s best characters are indeed so fantastical that they really haven’t been renderable with traditional FX.  Thus the dearth of them in the days before computers took over the movies.  The huge shortcoming, though, to finally being able to render a big huge Hulk or a robot like Ultron is that they are animated and they do fantastically outrageous things that could never happen in real life and yet they have to be rendered with utter realism.  As good as FX technologies have gotten and as talented as FX people are, there is an ultimate rub here.  It’s hard to look at the screen and not know and be aware that it’s all computer-generated.

I’m at odds with myself to an extent on Marvel at this point and time.  We have seen pretty much all the movies and enjoyed many of them.  But it is hard not to look at the monolithic slate of product and not balk at the corporatization and endless rehashing of content and want to continue to feed that beast.  I guess that is my dilemma for now.

At least until Ant-Man (2015) comes out and we go see that one.

Mary and Max (2009)

Mary and Max (2009) movie poster

director Adam Elliot
viewed: 05/02/2015

This wasn’t so much a planned excursion to watch Mary and Max, which I had viewed a few years back on my own.  But the DVD for the film that we had planned to watch arrived damaged and when the kids were queried on their preference for an alternative, they replied that they both wanted to watch something “animated”.  As Mary and Max is available on Netflix, I’ve had it queued on my streaming list, and so I suggested it.

It’s kind of funny, not exactly the type of movie that I felt the need to revisit as yet, but you know, I really do think it’s quite charming and enjoyable.  The kids thought it was strange, but they liked it, both of them.

I don’t have much to add to my prior writing on the film, so I’ll shut up and just link to it in case you would like more detailed information.

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013)

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013)  movie poster

director Mami Sunada
viewed: 04/25/2015

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is a Japanese documentary about Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli, producer Toshio Suzuki, and to a lesser extent director Isao Takahata as well.  Director Mami Sunada was given great access to the master animator and his studio during the process of making his film The Wind Rises (2013), which is said to be his final film as director.  At the end of production of that film, in the midst of this one, Miyazaki announces his official retirement.

To be honest, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is a bit of a slog.  At nearly two hours, the film takes its gentle observational flitting about Miyazaki’s world, capturing a master in action, but proving out that the reality of daily animation production isn’t a particularly exciting one.

Sunada does observe a note that Miyazaki has posted to his associates regarding their work at Studio Ghibli, to allow him to “watch” them work.  And that is the approach employed in the film.  The film does delve into his past, his history, and his story as well, but not in a terribly compelling way.

For a hardcore Miyazaki fan, it’s certainly still worthwhile.  But for anyone less so I can’t imagine them enjoying it.

Mac and Me (1988)

Mac and Me (1988) movie poster

director Stewart Raffill
viewed: 04/24/2015

Probably the greatest, most terrible E.T. (1982) knock-off ever made, Mac and Me is notoriously considered to be one of the worst films ever made and perhaps even more notorious for its prevalent product placements.

All that said, I would still file this under “needs to be seen to be believed.”

Among the many tropes of our film-watching, I’ve been also introducing my kids to the “so bad it’s good” world of awful movies.  Let’s face it.  True movie enjoyment is a broad spectrum.  And I have to say that we all got some enjoyment out of this ludicrous, cheap-o 1980’s disaster of a movie.

The aliens are wonderfully awful, so creepy looking that they aren’t the least cute, more like moronic sea monkeys from outer space.  How they get sucked into an Earth-based vacuum space ship and sent to Southern California is one of the aspects of goofy anti-logic that runs rampant in the film.

The film’s greatest scene is when the kids disguise “Mac” in a teddy bear costume and take him to a wild dance-filled birthday party at McDonald’s, hosted by none other than Ronald McDonald.  Clara had a hard time getting over the dancing.  This entire segment is a joy of awfulness in the extreme.

That the film’s human star is a wheelchair-bound young man is a bit of an oddity in casting, it also sets up a number of really, truly hilarious moments such as plummeting from his backyard cliff into a small lake, outracing cars and running secret agents from the government, and other wheelchair stunts galore.  You really are waiting for them to shoot through the air across the moon a la E.T. (though that doesn’t end up happening.)

Wow.  Seriously.  Wow.  This movie is amazing.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) movie poster

director Ana Lily Amirpour
viewed: 04/23/2015

One of the most interesting new films I’ve seen in a while, Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is an American independent film of a truly unusual stripe.  For one, though the film was shot in the small town of Taft, CA in a lustrous black-and-white, the film is entirely in Farsi.  The world of Amirpour’s film, though, is a dreamland of a place called Bad City, a neither Iranian nor purely American world nor just some mashup of a place either.

Sheila Vand plays the girl, a vampire, wearing a “chador—an ankle-lngth, open-faced head-covering”, hunting a young man and a world of drug dealers, addicts, prostitutes and loners.

In parts, the film evokes early Jim Jarmusch, though perhaps it would make a prime double feature with his more recent vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive (2013).  That would be a good double bill for any art house worth its salt.

I don’t know what else to say other than I found this film really intriguing and interesting.  I’m excited to see more from Amirpour and Sheila Vand as well.

Life Itself (2014)

Life Itself (2014) movie poster

director Steve James
viewed: 04/21/2015

Roger Ebert, RIP.

Like a lot of people, I watched Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel on their long-running commentary show back on PBS.  That show introduced me to all kinds of things, probably too many to recount.  I always preferred Ebert to Siskel, especially when I learned more about him and his career (very notably screen-writing Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)).  And late in his days, he became one of my favorite people to follow on Twitter up until his death in 2013.

Life Itself is a good biographical film, filling in his story as a classic sort of all-American kid who stumbled into a career that helped define a life and expand upon its culture.  He was a cool guy, smart, funny, and had very good taste in movies on the whole.

The film was shot in his late years, after his jaw had been removed in treatment for thyroid cancer.  If anything, on top of all else his life reflects upon, the film exposes a man of great humor and life.  With his jaw removed, the flesh from his lower face including his chin, hangs limply down over a hole over his throat, allowing him a highly altered but still very expressive and human face.  Still, it’s strange and not a little freaky to look at.  He stopped appearing on television largely by that time, though the image of him in this state also appeared on magazine covers.

His mind was vigorously alive during this phase, and luckily for Roger, he had the wonderful love and support of his wife Chaz, who still updates his Twitter account from time to time.  The film recounts their relationship and the wonder and spectrum of his life and fulfillment therein.

A good documentary, well worthwhile.

The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971)

The Cat o' Nine Tails (1971) movie poster

director Dario Argento
viewed: 04/19/2015

I’d decided to start working my way through the films of Dario Argento after watching his first film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) but I was having a hard time deciding on a strategy, sort of wanting to go chronologically.  His second feature, The Cat o’Nine Tails wasn’t available on any of the services I had and I had toyed with watching Deep Red (1975), the earliest of his films that was available.  But then TCM had featured The Cat o’Nine Tails on its TCM Underground and so Bam! there it was.

Starring James Franciscus (man that is a hard name to type) and Karl Malden, it’s Giallo as a big expansive Hitchcock thriller.  There is a convoluted plot that I won’t try to unravel or reiterate save to say that it involves a serial killer and a genetics clinic and that the “cat o’nine tails” is merely a metaphor for the number of clues that the bumbling duo hashes out as they try to solve the mystery that the police don’t seem to take too seriously.

Argento is very active as a director, playing with cuts and framings, setting up some really nice and interesting shots.  But this thing is a bit of a drag as a story and ends with a plot twist that I found weird and unsatisfying.  It’s not nearly as good as his first feature, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and I’ve got a feeling it might be one of his lesser early films.  Apparently it’s the second of his “so called ‘Animal Trilogy'” (thanks, wikipedia!), his first three films all had animals in their titles.

The NeverEnding Story (1984)

The NeverEnding Story (1984) movie poster

director Wolfgang Peterson
viewed: 04/18/2015

A sort of spur of the moment movie choice, Clara and a friend of hers and I hunkered down and watched The NeverEnding Story, which neither was sure if they had seen before or not.  I had watched it back about 8 years ago, but apparently sans children for whatever reason.  Could be that I’d rented it but then it had turned out that Felix had already seen it or something.  Clara might have been too young.

I had never seen it back in the day, but was surprised at liking it when I did watch it.

Apparently, it’s only the North American version that features the Limahl-crooned version of its theme song (which was penned by Giorgio Moroder).  It’s quite funny to discus cheesy 80’s music with contemporary tweens.

The girls enjoyed the film.  As did I.

Directed by Wolfgang Peterson, having just come off Das Boot (1981), the story of a boy who stumbles on a book that eventually sucks him into its fantasy (literally at the end) is really all about the amazing animatronics and other traditional FX and designs.  Some of them are cooler than others.  And some, like the signature luck dragon Falkor verge on the creepy clown side of cool, it’s still rich, wondrous fantasy rendered without the aids of computers but rather by more classical crafts and cinema magic.