Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Synopsis: Rey develops her newly discovered abilities with the guidance of Luke Skywalker, who is unsettled by the strength of her powers. Meanwhile, the Resistance prepares to do battle with the First Order.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Both of us

Why we chose it: Obvious reasons.

Brent’s Review:

And now we come upon a movie we’ve been waiting two years to see: “Star Wars Episode VIII – The Last Jedi”. Before jumping into the main review, let me just get a few spoiler-free praises out of the way. 1) This film has Mark Hamill’s best performance as Luke, 2) it has the most beautiful shot since “Star Wars” when Luke stared into the double sunset on Tattooine, and 3) it has the most satisfying climax of any Star Wars film. However, it’s hard to discuss this film without moving quickly into heavy spoilers. If you’re remotely interested I would encourage you to see it now and read this later.

Fans are split on this film. This split seems to be in two camps: Star Wars purists who object to Rian Johnson’s treatment of the material and those who don’t much care about the integrity of the Star Wars universe. For myself, I don’t necessarily care about the integrity of the Star Wars universe, but I have some opinions about what should and shouldn’t be in a Star Wars film. I’m critical of some things “The Last Jedi” included, but nothing I can’t forgive in a well-made film.

“The Force Awakens” ended with a myriad of questions, but the two notable questions that seemed to be on everyone’s mind were 1) what will Luke do with the lightsaber and 2) who are Rey’s parents? “The Last Jedi” answers these two questions with plot foils and even plays one for laughs. I’ve read a dozen reviews that all skewer Johnson for his choice to have Luke discard the lightsaber, but I thought that was both brilliant and makes sense for his character. The latter spoiler – that Rey’s parents aren’t even significant enough to have names – was a great foil to the criticisms that Star Wars was retreading familiar territory with another lineage reveal.

And it is here where we find the point of this film. Luke refuses (initially) to teach Rey in the ways of the Force because “it is time for the Jedi to end.” “The Last Jedi” promises to be the last traditional Star Wars film. Midway through the movie, Master Yoda (in his ghostly visage) burns down the Jedi tree. After this, the film embarks on an expectations-subverting third act in which Emperor Snoke is quickly killed, Rey’s parents are confirmed to be nobodies, and the climax is only a diversion for the rebels to escape.

I thought each of these choices were brilliant because of the way they promise to lead us into new territory. Critics of “Force Awakens” chirped that Starkiller Base was just another Death Star (they were right), but the response to “The Last Jedi” makes me wonder if those same fans are upset with the way expectations were challenged in this film. Either way, I never thought killing the past of Star Wars would be so satisfying. I couldn’t be happier with what Rian Johnson has done with this franchise in this chapter.

Leah’s Review:

“The Last Jedi”, the eighth installment in the Star Wars franchise, had a lot to live up to. Its predecessor, “The Force Awakens”, met many fans’ expectations by presenting an exciting new story with plenty of nostalgic references. But “The Last Jedi” had the pressure of not only being just as satisfying, but also raising the bar.

The film has been met with more varied reactions than any other Star Wars film. Many viewers praised it, but it’s also received criticism from die-hard fans. For my review, I will focus on what I loved about this film. Warning: Spoilers ahead!

It has substance. I love the other Star Wars films (prequels not included), but they are pure adventure movies with clean-cut messages about good and evil. “The Last Jedi” actually introduces some complicated concepts that give the story more depth. Maybe good and evil isn’t so black-and-white after all.

The women are badasses. The treatment of women’s’ characters in the Star Wars franchise has been disappointing. Leia was definitely a strong character in the originals, but she didn’t get much screen time or character development and basically became eye candy (gold bikini anyone?). And I won’t even get started on Padmé. We get to see a stronger female character in Rey in “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi”, more screen time from Leia (who is not only strong in the Force, but a damn good general), and new characters Rose Tico and Admiral Holdo. Each of these women are strong-willed, intelligent, and play vital parts in keeping the Resistance alive.

Mark Hamill. I’ll admit- I never thought Hamill was great actor. Some of his scenes in the original Star Wars films are downright cringe-worthy. But it’s clear that he’s grown as an actor. In “The Last Jedi”, Hamill gives the best performance of his career and is easily one of highlights of the film.

Rey’s parents are nobodies. At first, this revelation was as much of a letdown for me as it was for the fans who criticized this plot twist. Many speculated that Rey was the daughter of Han Solo or even Luke. We want Rey’s parents to be someone– but they’re not. What’s brilliant about this? It defies our expectations (Much like we were shocked to discover that Luke’s father was Darth Vader). It also introduces the idea that the Force can be inside anyone- regardless of where they came from.

This is not your mom’s Star Wars movie.“The Last Jedi” takes its own advice: “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” The film retains much of the Star Wars nostalgia, but without the tropes and predictability that “The Force Awakens” was guilty of. The story is different and masterfully told. Risks were taken and they paid off in a big way.

I loved this movie. It was brilliant, fresh, and felt like Star Wars without being copy-and-paste. My advice? Watch it with an open mind and watch it twice.

Up next: Another Wes Anderson film is on deck- “The Royal Tenenbaums”. Which Leah thought was very fitting for Christmas time until she learned that this was not the same thing as Tannenbaums.

Peace out, kids. 


There Will Be Blood (2007)

Synopsis: A story of family, religion, hatred, oil and madness, focusing on a turn-of-the-century prospector in the early days of the business.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: This is one of my favorite movies and I’ve been trying for a couple of years to get Leah to see it, to no avail. So I decided to think up this whole calendar thing as a ploy to get her to finally watch it; success!

Brent’s Review:

Daniel Plainview is a rotten excuse for a human being. If you think that sounds harsh, consider that this would either at best be taken by him as a compliment or he wouldn’t actually care what I said. Singularly focused on expanding his oil drilling company, Plainview will do or say literally anything to get ahead.

“I have a competition in me,” he confides to his long lost brother. “I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people… I want to earn enough money I can get away from everyone.”

Paul Thomas Anderson’s career began with a duo of hits: Boogie Nights and then Magnolia, which appeared earlier on our film calendar. After the very underrated Punch-Drunk Love, PTA delivered his magnum opus in There Will Be Blood. Loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s novel “Oil!”, this film centers on the Plainview character from the first to last frames.

To whom does Plainview belong? Daniel Day-Lewis, my favorite leading actor. Day-Lewis is my favorite leading actor because of this performance, which is the most masterful leading performance I can summon not only because of its ability to use silence and gestures to communicate an inner torment that cannot be explained, but also because of the high-wire act the character must perform in order to make the movie work. If Day-Lewis slips just but once, the film begins to fall apart. He doesn’t, it doesn’t, and it was worthy of his second Academy Award win.

The ensemble delivers noteworthy performances, no one taking away from the overall acting quality of the film. Paul Dano in particular shines in the dual roles of Paul and Eli Sunday, the latter of which becomes Plainview’s nemesis throughout the film.

There Will Be Blood is an epic that plays itself like a tight drama. The narrative springs forward with urgency, but the film’s pace lingers. The film is beautifully photographed (earning its other Oscar win), but the beauty in the frame is often of great menace: burning oil derricks, or perhaps spillers of the titular blood. Even Day-Lewis’ performance as the despicable Plainview presents his character in contrast with his charisma. These competing elements create a great unease for the audience, pulling us forward and backward, in and out. The film’s climax would be flat if not for these elements, but their presence in the film makes the payoff a delight of film.

While filming, There Will Be Blood neighbored the production of No Country For Old Men and actually forced a delayed in their filming while testing some pyrotechnics. The latter film won Best Picture, the former a clear runner-up in my opinion. I prefer There Will Be Blood, personally, but I recognize that it’s merely a result of my personal preference. It was unfortunately timing to release them in the same year because they’re both modern classics. Both should be seen, but There Will Be Blood should be seen with more haste.

It’s available for free streaming on Amazon Prime. Watch it.


Leah’s Review:

From the first few seconds of its haunting soundtrack, “There Will Be Blood” captures the attention of the viewer and does not relinquish its hold until the very last scene. It certainly captured my attention- in a way that few movies have. I was completely spellbound throughout the entirety of the story despite its plot revolving around a horrible man who does horrible things.

“There Will Be Blood” plays very much like a stage play. It was, in fact, inspired by an Upton Sinclair novel called “Oil!”. Complimented beautifully by Robert Elswit’s stunning cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s (who also happens to be a member of Radiohead- undoubtedly another reason Brent loves this film so much) interesting and intense soundtrack- the film is an absolute masterpiece in every way that a movie can be.

The film centers on Daniel Plainview (played by Daniel Day-Lewis), an oil man who will do anything (and I mean anything) to be rich and successful in his field. Of course, Daniel encounters many obstacles including the physical dangers of oil rigging, complicated family dynamics, religion, and jealous competitors. “There Will Be Blood” is not exactly a fast-paced story (there’s not even any spoken dialogue until fourteen minutes in), but it is a captivating one.

Of course, the centerpiece of this film is Daniel Day-Lewis. I’m ashamed to admit that the only film I had ever seen Day-Lewis in before this was one of his more recent and acclaimed movies, 2012’s “Lincoln” (I’m sure once Brent finds this out, he’ll divorce me). Day-Lewis is known for being a method actor and completely disappearing into the characters he plays. This role is no different. There is no Day-Lewis. There is only Daniel Plainview.

Day-Lewis gives a thoroughly incredible performance in this film, but I also must mention the impressive acting of Paul Dano. Aside from this film, Dano is probably most famous for his portrayal of Dwayne from 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine”- in which he gives a very different but just as memorable performance as Eli Sunday in “There Will Be Blood”. Dano is an underrated actor; behind a seemingly quiet facade, he’s a powerful and intense performer.

There are so many things I could talk about with “There Will Be Blood”, but something that I found interesting about it is that Daniel Plainview gets what he wants in the end. He states his intentions mid-way through the film: “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people… I want to earn enough money I can get away from everyone.” As we watch, we realize that Daniel is more a villain than the protagonist of the film- and we don’t expect him to succeed. But he gets everything he desired to have. Even after pushing everything and everyone away from him, after every terrible thing he’s done- he wins. There will be no justice in this story. There will only be blood.

This film is a knockout. See it.

Up next: We bought our tickets to see Star Wars tonight, so… let the countdown begin!

Peace out, kids.

The Conversation (1974)

Synopsis: A paranoid, secretive surveillance expert has a crisis of conscience when he suspects that a couple, on whom he is spying, will be murdered.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: I’d been interested in this film for some time since it was directed by the man who made “The Godfather” and co-stars John Cazale, who doesn’t have a bad film on his IMDB credit page. I thought this challenge would be as good a time as any to check it out.

Leah’s Review:

I’m not sure what our obsession with surveillance films is (maybe that says something about us), but “The Conversation” was the third and final film of this genre on our watch list. With “Cache” and “The Lives of Others” being as good as they were- I had high hopes for this 1974 flick starring Gene Hackman (and even featuring a baby-faced pre-Star Wars Harrison Ford!).

“The Conversation” is definitely the most subtle of the three films. Much like “The Lives of Others” it focuses on the surveiller, Harry Caul (Hackman). Like Wiesler, Caul lives a lonely and secretive life. He is one of the best phone-tappers in the country (it’s alluded to that he even did a job for the Attorney General), and he takes his job seriously.

After learning that the couple he is currently spying on could be in danger of being murdered- Caul becomes conflicted on whether or not he should get involved (another similarity to “The Lives of Others”). One of Caul’s past jobs resulted in the murder of two individuals and it’s clear he was never able to quite shake that. Hackman’s performance is definitely the highlight of this film as he disappears into the paranoid, obsessive, and sensitive character that is Harry Caul.

I found “The Conversation” to be slow and not as engaging as the other films of the same genre. The exception to this being the last 15 minutes in which a significant twist is revealed. It’s not that the movie wasn’t good, I just found myself not very engaged. This surprised me considering the director and writer was Francis Ford Coppola who has made a plethora of masterpiece films. So maybe there’s something to this film that I didn’t quite “get” or appreciate.

All in all, I thought “The Conversation” was an okay film. I wouldn’t encourage or discourage anyone from watching it- I probably won’t feel the need to watch it again.

Brent’s Review:

Paranoia is powerful. It can make you see things that aren’t really there, hear things unsaid, or become convinced of things that have no basis in reality. Enter “The Conversation.”

“The Conversation” is Francis Ford Coppola’s passion project and Gene Hackman’s favorite films of his own (according to IMDB trivia), so this film is clearly underrated – and it is good.

This film follows Harry Caul (Hackman), who is a freelance surveillance expert. He is very secretive and isolated; he doesn’t care why the people who use his services are interested in their targets, he only cares about getting high quality recordings. This is all true, that is, until he has a questionable interaction with an associate’s assistant (Harrison Ford) that leads him to suspect ill intent for his most recent targets. Upon actually listening to the content of his tapes, he suspects they are targets of murder.

The rest of this review will have spoilers not about the content of the film, but the form. If this interests you at all, see “The Conversation” before reading on.

“The Conversation” has a plot that lends itself to a typical mystery set up, but it eschews the temptation to become a Hitchcockian suspense thriller and instead offers a slow burn that works as a dramatic character study until the film’s climax reveals that you’ve been watching a psychological horror film all along. It’s a shocking left-turn into madness.

The trick about shocking twists is that they can’t betray what has come before. For instance, you can’t establish a clear set of rules in a Shyamalan film and then break them in the twist. The parameters of the film’s universe must be wide enough to hold both the reasonable explanation and the truth. “The Conversation” doesn’t cheat its way into a twist ending merely for shock – everything makes sense for the character and the plot.

That said, I want to be rather direct. The film is good, but not great. The lack of a neat ending with a bow on it may frustrate some and the pace of the film is, indeed, slow. About thirty minutes of run-time could’ve been trimmed had they paced a few scenes better. However, it was Hackman’s subtle performance that drew me into this world of madness and kept me there long enough for the pay off.

Released in 1974, the film was actually written prior to the publicity of Watergate. Interestingly, the film uses the same audio surveillance equipment that Nixon’s crew used to spy on political opponents. That coincidence aside, I’m sure this film resonated with Cold War-era paranoia surrounding surveillance. Surveillance doesn’t scare me today – I laugh at obvious instances of data mining most of the time. However, I can appreciate these fears in their context even without owning them for myself.

Despite not sharing these fears, I will admit that the film’s final shot – intentionally panning the camera like a surveillance camera – did resonate with me. That’s wonderful film-making.

Up next: Paul Thomas Anderson’s magnum opus “There Will Be Blood.” Brent has seen it; Brent is looking forward to seeing it again.

Peace out, kids. 

The Hurt Locker (2008)

Synopsis: During the Iraq War, a Sergeant recently assigned to an army bomb squad is put at odds with his squad mates due to his maverick way of handling his work.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here: 

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: I’d been intrigued by this movie since its release in 2008, especially since it won Best Picture and was about the Iraq War. My viewing was well past overdue.

Brent’s Review:

“The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”

This quote, which belongs to Chris Hedges, serves as the title card for this film. Our film’s protagonist is Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) and, yes, for him war is a drug. James is a bomb tech and team leader for a small outfit during the Iraq War during the height of the insurgency. Rubble litters the streets, suicide bombers could lurk around every corner, and eyes are everywhere. Anything could have a bomb in it. Anything can kill you. For James, bomb defusal is a high like no other. He’s a hotshot and doesn’t play nice with others.

I want to turn first to commend Mark Boal’s screenplay, which is fascinating. We don’t get any cheap tricks in this film. There are no false alarms. Everything is real. Every bomb James comes across could kill him and anyone in a pretty size-able radius. The first scene sets up the stakes of the film perfectly and succeeds in punctuating the tone of the film with three distinct characteristics. Spoilers ahead.

First, the opening sequence is a perfect blend of suspense and tension as it burns slowly enough to introduce all of the main characters at play in the film: the bombs, the crew trying to neutralize them, and the bombers who are likely lurking amongst the interested crowd of onlookers.

Second, the bomb tech, played by Guy Pearce, dies. Pearce is a recognizable actor; that the film would not hesitate to kill him after 10 minutes of screen time shows that no one is safe.

Finally, there are several beautiful shots in the opening sequence in which the film changes from its documentary-style grainy picture to beautiful slow-motion shots in high definition. This choice was made by the director, Kathryn Bigelow, whose Best Director academy award was well-earned in what is easily one of the best directed film’s I have ever seen. Everything about this film’s direction is near-perfect. “The Hurt Locker” is worth watching for this reason alone.

In his review of this film, Roger Ebert called James’ desire to return to combat a recognition that he’s the best person to do work that is sorely needed. I disagree. I think he returns because he doesn’t know who he is outside of combat. James rarely speaks unless he’s in the field; his most talkative scene in the barracks features a good deal of physical fighting with his squad and a lengthy dialogue about the high of dodging death. This is not a man serving his country; he’s serving the only thing he loves. He can’t even find happiness playing with his son after his tour ends, so he enlists in another year of duty.

Leah’s Review:

I always get nervous when watching war-films. Especially films depicting more recent American conflicts. Many such films often glorify war and the military and are pretty biased in their portrayals. “The Hurt Locker” takes place in 2004 during the Iraq war- so I was expecting much of these same traits. But I had also heard good things about the film (its 6 Oscar wins, for instance), and I think Jeremy Renner (who plays the lead role) is a talented and incredibly underrated actor- so I decided it was worth a shot.

I was not disappointed. “The Hurt Locker” is a riveting film which take a realistic look at not only the very real dangers of war but the effects it has on the people involved in it. It chooses to focus on a team of specialists whose job it is to find and disarm bombs in Baghdad. This was not a military function I was even aware of- so I found it extremely fascinating and it was a very different kind of perspective to show in a war film (instead of, for instance, more direct violent human conflict).

What I appreciated about “The Hurt Locker” is how realistically it portrays the effects of war to the human psyche. After the death of his commander, Specialist Eldridge struggles with depression and symptoms of PTSD (it is insinuated that he could have stopped his commander’s death if he had not hesitated to shoot the bomber)- these effects are seen on Eldridge throughout the film as he struggles to act in dangerous situations. Sergeant Sanborn fears his death will be insignificant to anyone back home. After his tour, Sergeant James returns home and tries to find some kind of “normal” with his wife and child- but soon returns to Iraq for another tour. For him, war has become an addiction and one that he does not know how to live life without. The characters in this film not only have to figure out how to work together, but how to work through what they’re going through as individuals- often drawing strength from each other in order to accomplish this. Most war films tend to focus on glorification of violence and “good guys” annihilating the “bad guys”. “The Hurt Locker” instead takes a more inward and complex approach.

In addition to having a well-told story the film features some fantastic cinematography and editing. I have to commend Kathryn Bigelow (let’s hear it for female directors!) on her flawless direction. “The Hurt Locker” deserved every bit of praise it received. It’s an engaging film that’s character development is as every bit as exciting as its action. It’s not a happy film, but it’s a powerful one that should be seen.

Up next: Our third (and final) surveillance film — “The Conversation”. Keep your ears and eyes peeled for our review.
Peace out, kids.

Snowpiercer (2013)

Synopsis: Set in a future where a failed climate-change experiment kills all life on the planet except for a lucky few who boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe, where a class system emerges.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here: 

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: I’ve heard good things about Snowpiercer, despite not being really interested in it when it first came to Netflix. The strong supporting cast (John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris) drew me in enough to give this film a try.

Brent’s Review:

“Snowpiercer” is Bong Joon Ho’s adaptation of the sci-fi graphic novel “Le Transperceneige”, which I am unfamiliar with but understand it has quite a loyal following. Featuring a star-studded cast led by Chris Evans with strong supporting turns by John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, and Ed Harris, “Snowpiercer” is simultaneously an achievement and, unfortunately, mostly bland.

First, the achievement. The film takes place in a ludicrous reality. Facing the pressures of global warming, humankind launches a chemical into the air to bring the Earth’s temperature to livable levels (because science, I guess). The problem: they overshoot the mark and freeze the world. Oh no! Only one man, Wiford (Ed Harris), has the foresight to see and plan for this contingency. His response is to build a world-spanning railroad system and set a mega-train holding about a thousand people on it to circle the globe endlessly.

The train is segregated, the bulk of the people living in poverty at the tail and less-and-less people the further you go to the front. There are also mechanisms of propaganda in place and population control the lower-class populations, but it’s all done very well in the narrative. There are a lot of moving parts going in different directions with this story and Bong Joon Ho handles them all rather deftly to suspend the audiences’ incredulity without dropping or ignoring a plot thread. This is a feat worth celebrating.

Unfortunately, the film tends toward being very bland. While the action sequences are impressive and visually striking, the framing and editing of the action is very disorienting and makes it difficult to get a clear picture of where the protagonists are in the midst of the skirmishes. It must be difficult to block action sequences in a way that isn’t disorienting in these narrow train cars, but this is an area severely hemmed in by the premise.

The second thing that felt bland are the emotional moments in the film, which I felt were undercut by the constant tone switching. The film is quite grisly in some areas and quite funny in others. The problem with this is that as an audience I am quickly switching between horrified and laughing, so when it comes to hit the emotional notes I find it difficult to really invest. This is not to say that the scenes where the action finally slows are boring; in contrast, those are the scenes I found most compelling. However, the movie never really achieves the emotional heights it strives toward.

The allegory is clear – the bourgeoisie try to keep the proletariat in check at all costs, all justified with utilitarian philosophy. The film’s ending is bizarre in that the allegory doesn’t tie itself back together neatly and present the message for the audience with a bow on top. I’m curious how others view the ending, particularly its final shot.

All in all, “Snowpiercer” is not a bad film. It’s fine, overall, and worth one watch if you’re into sci-fi or action films.

Leah’s Review:

I had never heard of “Snowpiercer” until I saw it on Brent’s list. But I watched the trailer and was intrigued. I love dystopian future stories and the film featured a number of actors whom I admire. Both Brent and I had heard about the movie being very “underrated” and so I had high hopes for it.

I really wanted to like “Snowpiercer” and there were several parts that I genuinely enjoyed, but overall I was left disappointed and confused. The pacing of the film is all over the place- most of the time seeming too fast for the audience to keep up with it. I really felt lost through much of the story. The movie also can’t seem to decide what it wants to be. Is it a serious drama? Is it an action-flick? Is it a zany comedy? I’m still not sure- but it felt like the film kept jumping from genre to genre without any sort of transition. It was jarring to say the least.

The plot itself, although fantasy, doesn’t really feel plausible- or at least not in a way that can be explained convincingly. And if your dystopian future doesn’t feel at least a little plausible- it completely unravels.

“Snowpiercer” had interesting and even likeable characters- but you never feel like you really get to know them. And as soon as you do, they get killed- leaving very little time for you to feel like you even care about their death. Even when the few remaining characters accomplish their mission, that sense of victory is underwhelming. Because we aren’t that invested in the characters, it’s hard to feel elation for them even after overcoming the odds.

If anything, this movie had really cool cinematography and color palettes that made the setting of the story come alive. The dark, industrial interior of the tail-end of the train gives off a very cold and hopeless feeling. The shots are tight and there is always a feeling of claustrophobia. Contrast this with the bright color palette of the upper-class train cars and passengers, and you’ve got a very bold and memorable look.

“Snowpiecer” was definitely entertaining. I rarely found myself bored throughout the entirety of the movie. It’s also a visually-striking film with some pretty stellar effects and cinematography. But unfortunately, entertainment and visuals are all that it’s got going for it. I’m not in any rush to see it again.

Up next: We’ll be checking out Kathryn Bigelow’s war-thriller “The Hurt Locker”

Peace out, kids.

The Birds (1963)

Synopsis: A wealthy San Francisco socialite pursues a potential boyfriend to a small Northern California town that slowly takes a turn for the bizarre when birds of all kinds suddenly begin to attack people.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Leah

Why I chose it:It’s a classic Hitchcock film, and Brent had never seen it.

Leah’s Review:

It had been at least a decade since I had last seen Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”. In fact, I think it had been longer- because I distinctly remember that when I saw it last, my parents made me close my eyes for one of the more gruesome scenes*. But even as a youngster, the film made an impression on me. It’s one of Hitchcock’s most famous creations, and features his signature style of suspense and innovative film editing.

If you’re not familiar with the film, it begins with a young affluent woman from San Francisco who, after meeting an intriguing man, makes a visit to a remote town to find him. After she arrives however, strange things start to happen- consisting of random and vicious bird attacks that seem to grow worse with every occurrence.

What makes “The Birds” great, like any Hitchcock movie, is the suspense. The first part of the movie is set-up; getting to know the characters and their stories. But because you know something will happen- there’s a constant feeling of dread and anticipation. The first attack takes place 20 minutes in and it’s not even scary- it’s played off as an “odd” occurrence and the characters don’t think twice about it…until more attacks start happening. The suspense/terror is all about the anticipation of when the next attack will take place.

The best scene, hands-down, is when Melanie visits the school to check in on Mitch’s little sister. She waits for the schoolchildren to finish their singing lesson- sitting on a nearby bench outside. In the background, we see a crow fly behind her. Followed by another. And another. And another. Melanie remains oblivious- but as the audience, we are left to grow increasingly terrified- especially with the sound of children singing innocently in the background. When she finally turns around to find the playground completely covered in crows, it’s an utterly petrifying moment.

Some might say “Birds aren’t scary.” But I would argue that this is exactly what makes “The Birds” so terrifying. Something that shouldn’t be threatening at all is suddenly attacking people relentlessly, coming through walls, windows, and chimneys- and for no apparent reason. I can imagine some pretty awful ways to die, but slowly being pecked to death by a never-ending swarm of birds is up there. The movie also never explains why the birds attack. The characters never know exactly when they will attack. We don’t even know if the characters find safety at the end. The unanswered questions are part of this film’s genius.

Technically speaking, “The Birds” holds up pretty well. Although the practical effects are much more convincing than the “digital” effects- which were impressive and groundbreaking at the time of the movie’s release, but don’t look as great by today’s standards.

“The Birds” isn’t my favorite Hitchcock film, but it’s certainly one that left an impression on me and one that’s very different from his others. It’s a classic horror movie that deserves a viewing.

*If you were wondering, it was the scene where Lydia Brenner finds their dead neighbor with his eyes completely pecked out. I think my parents made a smart move.

Brent’s Review:

There are some films in which my preference would be to remain silent and offer no public account of my opinion. This blog forbids that, so I will ask for grace from those who vehemently disagree.

As I entered the viewing, I prepared myself to be terrified! I was nervous at first, but I’ve been warming myself up a bit on the horror front lately and I was hoping to get a heart pounding film. That reputation coupled with my wife’s remarks that there were parts her parents wouldn’t let her see as a child really had me savoring.

OK, OK. I’ve stalled enough. Here’s my opinion: this movie wasn’t that good.

I want to make two comments that are going to run sideways from that assertion. First, I want to contextualize the love for this film. In 1963, I’m sure the effects and the concept were horrifying. They don’t hold up by today’s standards, but they can be forgiven because of the gulf of time that stands between when this film was made and my viewing it today.

Second, I want to flesh out my experience a bit by referencing a perspective Roger Ebert shared in his review of “The Ring” – it’s a film that you hope no one laughs during because the whole facade will unravel. “The Birds” is no different and, reader, I admit to you this: I laughed at the first bird attack and it ruined it.

Hitchcock’s “Psycho” begins with a similar setup in which we explore the normal comings-and-goings of the film’s central characters. In “Psycho”, the horror and suspense is built through unnerving imagery and an alarming conversation. The shower scene is a cathartic release of the tension that was built up before. In “The Birds”, the first bird attack is random and releases no tension because there is no tension built up to that moment.

I grant you: a flock of menacing birds is very photogenic and slightly creepy. But a suspenseful film must go somewhere with that imagery or it becomes a cheap story with no point. And sadly, that’s exactly what happens with “The Birds.”

The major downfall here is that “The Birds” is essentially a B-movie with really high production values. So is “Jaws”. The difference is that a giant menacing shark is scary while a flock of birds is not. The horror punchline is that the birds are ubiquitous and they swarm. Spooky, yes. But I will admit that I’m not scared by close-ups of seagulls pecking at Tippi Hedren’s fingertips.

Lastly, I was very distracted by the now-infamous production stories of the film in which Hitchcock psychologically, emotionally, and sexually abused his lead actress and eventually ruined her career. When the horror is behind the camera, it’s hard to really engage the events on the screen.

This is a rare disappointment both for this movie calendar and from Alfred Hitchcock.

Up next: We’ll be seeing the dystopian futurescape of “Snowpiercer.” It’s been noted as an underrated action thriller – here’s hoping it doesn’t disappoint!

Peace out, kids.

The Third Man (1949)

Synopsis: Pulp novelist Holly Martins travels to shadowy, postwar Vienna, only to find himself investigating the mysterious death of an old friend, Harry Lime.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Leah

Why I chose it: I had heard about the film a while back and new it was considered a “classic” with a killer plot twist. I was intrigued. 

Brent’s Review:

Light breaks through cracked window blinds and doorways to illuminate generally dark interiors; smoke rises from every ash tray in sight; our hero is a drunk and he’s in way over his head.

“The Third Man” is vintage film-noir.

Traveling to visit a friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), struggling writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) arrives in Vienna to find that Lime died a couple days earlier, hit by a car while crossing the street with one of his friend. Martins tracks down this friend and asks how it happened: killed instantly. After dragging him to the side of the road, Lime uttered just enough about Martins for the friend to make arrangements to care for him.

But wait, wasn’t he killed instantly? Was he alive long enough to speak or did he die in the road?

Martins pulls this thread long enough to unravel the entire sweater – and with great excitement! Carol Reed’s direction is spot on and provides proof that rules in film exist only to be broken. Unlike Roger Christian’s nauseating use of the Dutch tilt shot in “Battlefield Earth”, Reed employs Dutch tilts to show how Martins’ perspective is skewed by the people he interacts with. He sees everything, but something just isn’t quite right.

The editing in this film deserves special commendation. At 1 hour and 45 minutes, the film blitzes you with one new plot development after the next and scenes often cut and begin with little pause for dialogue. Additionally, the sound and music editing are used to great effect in the film, particularly in the final chase sequence.

“The Third Man” features a fairly sizeable (and legendary) spoiler, so consider this a spoiler warning. For me to adequately discuss the rest of the film, this point must be acknowledged.

The key to this film’s success is that I knew the spoiler going in (Harry Lime is alive!), but that plot twist isn’t the central revelation about his character. The primary revelation is that Harry Lime is, indeed, a racketeer and generally an evil man with no moral compass. He cares only for himself and will do anything to better his interests – including indirectly committing infanticide

Welles, again, knocks this performance out of the park. My favorite scene in the film is the lengthy dialogue between Martins and Lime in a Ferris Wheel car. Welles’ natural charisma is perfect for the character, selling the audience on the way in which Martins may have been duped while also nailing the sharp edges of his villainy exquisitely.

I suspect that “The Third Man” is a film that ages like a fine wine and that with each successive viewing the audience will discover more layers and begin to see the pieces of the puzzle more clearly. I am an avid fan of neo-noir films, particularly “Chinatown,” “Se7en,” and “Fargo,” so it’s fun to go through this year and explore the noir genre itself.

“The Third Man” is a real treat – check it out if you haven’t already.”

Leah’s Review:

Some reviews come easily to me. Others I struggle with. “The Third Man” is a movie that I’m sure I didn’t completely “get”. It’s an iconic and classic film noir that has earned praise for its cinematography, mystery-driven plot, and memorable performances. It’s a movie that will keep you in suspense until the very end- even if you’ve had the major plot twist spoiled for you (like I did).

There was really no reason for me to dislike “The Third Man”. But after the movie was done, I felt disappointed. It just didn’t live up to the expectations I had for it. However, I will take some time to mention what I enjoyed about the film.

The best part of “The Third Man” is undoubtedly the cinematography. I’m continually impressed by old films shot in black-and-white that are able to achieve such a stunning look without the use of color- and “The Third Man” is one of the better examples of black-and-white cinematography that I’ve seen. The film does a great job of really making the setting of the story feel alive.

One of my favorite shots was, of course, the reveal of Orson Welles’s Harry Lime. The suspense, the lighting, the surprise, and that iconic expression on Welles’ face when he is “found out” is movie perfection. My other favorite shot was at the very end of the film when protagonist, Holly Martins decides to stay behind and wait for the woman he loves- grief-stricken Anna Schmidt who only has feelings for her now deceased lover, Harry. The shot is a long one- showing Anna walking from a distance down the street as Holly waits for her off to the side. The suspense too, is long, and we wait in anticipation to see what Anna’s reaction will be. When she finally does get to the forefront of the shot and passes Holly by without so much as a glance- it’s a heartbreaking but satisfying conclusion.

So why was I not crazy about this film? I’m not sure. I didn’t find it as engaging as I thought it would, and perhaps I didn’t feel strongly enough for the characters. Orson Welles, who is so charismatic and likeable as an actor, is also thoroughly convincing as a completely off-putting character such as Harry Lime. I wanted to root for him, but I found it impossible. Holly Martins and Anna Schmidt were not strong enough characters (in my opinion) to feel very much for them.

The thing that “The Third Man” is most famous for is its main plot twist- and don’t get me wrong, it’s completely brilliant. But it kind of feels like everything else in the film builds up to that one moment, and then the momentum is completely lost from there. I didn’t dislike the film, but I wouldn’t say it’s a must-see either.

Up next: We’ll be checking out Hitchcock’s “The Birds”. We weren’t able to get this in before Halloween, but mid-November is close enough.

Peace out, kids. 

The Lives Of Others (2006)

Synopsis: In 1984 East Berlin, an agent of the secret police, conducting surveillance on a writer and his lover, finds himself becoming increasingly absorbed by their lives.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: I’d wanted to see this movie many years ago, which I spotted because of its high place on the IMDB Top 250 rated movies list. I couldn’t ever bring myself to commit to it – or I would simply forget about it from time to time. This calendar felt like a good time to remember it.

Brent’s Review:

“The Lives of Others” stars Ulrich Mühe as surveillance officer Hauptmann Wiesler in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The film intertwines three plot themes that could have filled runtimes if taken on their own. Let us begin with the political: it is 1984 in East Berlin and the GDR is wiretapping everyone’s homes and monitoring their movements to spot Western sympathies. Activists disappear or are blacklisted and ordinary citizens dare not speak an ill word against the government.

Next, there is a writer – Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) – who is supposedly the only writer with GDR sympathies who is actually read in western countries. His lover, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), is the lead actress in his stage plays.

We return to our man Wiesler, who is charged with leading “Operation Lazlo” to spy on the couple. As he spies on them, he first observes their humanity. Their arguments, their attempts to impress each other with small acts of affection, and most importantly their discrete conversations regarding their true feelings about the GDR. By the time their true political stances come to the fore, Wiesler is so wrapped up in their lives that he must choose between his state and the couple.

“The Lives of Others” is a fascinating character drama with many interesting threads, but the ones I found interesting are those about obsession and surveillance. The film begins with Wiesler demonstrating his virtuosity in interrogation and his utter lack of empathy for enemies of the state. In fact, Dreyman’s surveillance is his idea. However, after learning of some political treachery he begins to question his relationship to his suspects.

There is something deeply intimate about seeing and being seen that makes it difficult for one to remain impartial. Wiesler’s crack of doubt opens the door wide for him to intermingle his own experiences with theirs. After some minor interventions, Wiesler’s character arc becomes intertwined with theirs in an extremely immediate way.

The most interesting – and commendable, I think – thing about the film is that it resists the temptation to enter into macabre obsession territory. Wiesler is an officer of the state and in the act of doing his job he undoes all of his conditioning. He is not socio- or psychopathic; he is just a man who begins to care more for his subjects’ lives than his own.

The film wisely lives little dialogue for Wiesler. His character development takes the shape of silence, seemingly imperceptible mannerisms, and short sentences or utterances. Does Wiesler become invested because he realizes he is a pawn in a corrupt game? Or is he obsessed because he lives a lonely life? Does he lose sympathy for socialism along the way?

The film never tells us, which is to its credit and makes it stronger. “The Lives of Others” is an engrossing movie. Unlike “Cachè”, it doesn’t make you feel like you’re being watched; instead, it makes it very aware that you are the one doing the watching.

Leah’s Review:

There are some movies that stick in your memory long after you’ve watched them- that just keeping coming back to your mind. “The Lives of Others” is one of them. It’s been a almost a week since we watched this award-winning foreign film, but I still find myself thinking about it.

“The Lives Of Others” takes place in East Berlin in 1984. The secret police are monitoring anyone who shows signs of being sympathetic to the West. One member of the secret police, Gerd Wiesler is put in charge of monitoring playwright Georg Dreyman. Dreyman is celebrated in East Germany- but comes under suspicion about where his loyalty truly lies. Captain Wiesler is known for being systematic, ruthless, and highly skilled- showing no mercy to Western-sympathizers. We also later learn that he lives a life of solitude- his job is his life. And it is a lonely one.

What I loved about this film was how it draws you in. When I first started watching it, I was having trouble following what was going on- more so because it felt slow-paced than anything. But as Wiesler begins to listen in on Georg and Christa-Maria and becomes more consumed with their life- the more we as an audience are drawn in as well.

Ulrich Mühe definitely steals the show with his performance as the cold and heartless turned compassionate Weisler. His character doesn’t have much dialogue- and he doesn’t need it. We learn everything we need to know from his reactions and expressions- particularly in his eyes. After doing some research, I learned that Mühe was actually a border guard at the Berlin Wall before he became an actor. It is also speculated that his own wife was an informant while he was under surveillance himself by the Stasi. These experiences surely contributed to Mühe’s magnificent and convincing performance.

Playwright Georg is told by his rival Minister Hempf: That’s what we all love about your plays. Your love for mankind…your belief that people can change…No matter how often you say it in your plays, people do not change!” But this is exactly what “The Lives of Others” is about. The ability for even the most cold-hearted person (like Weisler) to be transformed into a compassionate and even self-sacrificing individual.

There’s more I could say about this film- but I think I would do better to encourage our readers to just watch it. “The Lives of Others” is a powerful film filled with emotion and says more without words than with them. It is simultaneously heartbreaking, touching, and full of hope for humankind.

Up next: Another Orson Welles turn for us as we watch “The Third Man”  

Peace out, Kids.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Synopsis: When two male musicians witness a mob hit, they flee the state in an all-female band disguised as women, but further complications set in.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Leah

Why I chose it: I knew it was a classic comedy and I’d never seen a film with Marilyn Monroe- I figured it was about time.

Leah’s Review:

There have been many films, both old and new, that have tried to be successful at the whole “protagonists-cross-dress-to-accomplish-a-goal-and-hilarity-ensues” shtick. But I’d venture to say that none have done it so well as “Some Like It Hot”. Despite being nearly 60 years old, this classic romantic comedy is just as accessible and hilarious as it was when it was released.

“Some Like It Hot” has the perfect combination of comedy, sex appeal (this movie felt super risque for the 1950’s), and even a little adventure. Two struggling musicians, Joe and Jerry, witness a violent crime and flee for their lives by joining a jazz band heading to Florida. The catch? The band is all-female. So with a couple of wigs, some stylish flapper dresses, and a little padding- Joe and Jerry transform into Josephine and Daphne and attempt to make their way to Florida without their true identities being discovered. This is made all the more complicated as the men meet the very attractive Sugar Kane (one of the female musicians) and try their best to keep a low profile despite their desire to be with her romantically. 

There are some problematic scenes in this film to be sure. There’s plenty of sexual objectification and homophobia (which considering the content and the time period, is not surprising). But I really liked how the movie handled some of its subject matter- particularly the ways in which women are objectified by men and how the men in the movie (disguised as women) learn this in very uncomfortable ways. Josephine and Daphne are ogled, pinched, and even patted on the butt by other men. It’s not clear whether these characters change their own behaviors in respect to how they treat women, but the irony is certainly pointed out to the audience. Being incognito also allows the men to share emotionally intimate moments with the women in the band and understand a woman’s perspective to relationships.

“Some Like It Hot” was my first Marilyn Monroe-watching experience. And I must admit, I can see why she was so popular as an actress. She’s drop-dead gorgeous to be sure, but there’s also such a sweet and charming quality to her acting. You can’t help but be enamored by her performance as the naive and unpretentious Sugar.

The dialogue is fast-paced and clever- and both the verbal and physical comedy is reminiscent of a Marx Brothers movie. And when your main premise is two men posing as women, there’s bound to be laughs galore. “Some Like It Hot” could have relied on cheap jokes and shock value to draw viewers in- but instead, it makes use of situational humor which proves to be a simple, but an effective means of comedic entertainment.

All in all, I found “Some Like It Hot” to be an incredibly hilarious and an absolute treat to watch. This is a classic comedy that should be seen at least once. I myself intend to watch it again.

Brent’s Review:

“Some Like It Hot” is Billy Wilder’s comedy starring Marilyn Monroe Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. Lemmon and Curtis are jazz musicians in Prohibition-era Chicago. They witness a mob hit and dress in drag to fit in with an all female Jazz band touring in Florida. Hilarity ensues. 

“Some Like It Hot” is it audacious film because of its willingness to challenge culturally accepted norms without offering the audience a reprieve. The homophobia is implicit throughout the film and is often played for laughs, but aside from a few minor plot points a contemporary audience can probably forgive a movie made in 1959 for this element. 

What challenged to me today was how sexually charged this film was. Roger Ebert wrote of this movie that it’s a film about sex that tries to convince you that it’s about crime and greed. Wilder uses to smoke screens to cover just how sexual the film is: first Curtis and Lemmon in drag and second the film’s finale, which features mobsters trying to kill the two protagonists. The film detours between the bookending mafia storyline, stopping along the way to revel in the sexuality of Marilyn Monroe’s “Sugar”. It’s not so much of a detour as the point of the film.

Watching this film nearly 60 years after its release, the thing that struck me the most was that many “raunchy” comedies today would probably use a similar set up. We can all probably think of a romantic comedy in which the male poses as someone who cannot be with a female love interest for one set of reasons or another. The difference between “Some Like It Hot” and these other films is that this film doesn’t resort to gross out humor for cheap laughs. Instead Wilder uses plot developments and set pieces to allow his two male leads to generate humor with their screwball timing, witty dialogue, and reversing audience expectations throughout the film.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

Take, for instance, Jack Lemmon’s character. At the beginning of the film, he bemoans the fact that he always lets Tony Curtis’s character talk him into poor financial decisions. As the film goes on, Lemmon has a more difficult time coping with the reality that he cannot pursue Sugar than Curtis does. To the audience’s surprise, he later embraces his identity as a woman and agrees be engaged to a millionaire playboy. Why? “Security!”

Despite the implicit homophobia, “Some Like It Hot” is a film I can appreciate for what it did for comedy. There were several funny scenes, but it’s not as funny as other contemporary films like “The Producers.” It’s fitting that we watch this film in the same year that we watched “There’s Something About Mary” because there were many times where I was reminded of that movie. 

“Some Like It Hot” is funny. It’s a well-made film. For some reason it just didn’t click with me like I thought it would. It’s still worth watching.

Up Next: We’ll be walking a mile in another’s shoes as we take on the foreign drama “The Lives of Others”.

Peace out, Kids.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Synopsis: A young blade runner’s discovery of a long-buried secret leads him to track down former blade runner Rick Deckard, who’s been missing for thirty years.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: I adore the original “Blade Runner” – it’s one of my favorite films. Choosing “2049” was a no-brainer.

Brent’s Review:

There’s a lot of ground to cover in 500 words, so let’s get this train movie fast. The year is 2049 and police called “Blade Runners” hunt and “retire” (kill) replicants – artificially made humanoids – who have gone rogue. Gosling’s “Agent K” is one such cop.

Upon retiring a replicant, Agent K discovers a box of bones buried near the replicant’s house. The forensics team discovers they were the bones of a replicant who died during child birth.

Wait, what?

Recounting the next steps would spoil the film, so I will leave this revelation as a teaser for you.

Good sequels must accomplish two things: capture the spirit of the original and introduce new elements. “2049” does both. Trading the original film’s noir-style for a mystery/hero’s journey tale, the film utilizes the core characters from the original – Rick Deckard and his replicant lover, Rachel – in an ingenious way in the narrative.

Gosling turns in a wonderful performance, summoning the steely exterior he employed in “Drive” with new polish and different shades. Harrison Ford is excellent along with Jared Leto’s outstanding turn as “Niander Wallace”. Newcomer Ana De Armas is wonderful as an Alexa-type AI companion to Gosling’s “K” and Robin Wright turns in a solid performance as “Lieutenant Joshi.” My word limit forces me to exclude praise for the rest of the ensemble, but the film has no weak spot in the acting department.

The first film’s writer Hampton Fancher returns to co-write this screenplay along with “Logan” writer Michael Green. Fancher, whose “Blade Runner” is a cerebral exploration of what it means to be human, sets out to do much of the same in “2049”. Attacking the concept of the human from all angles, we explore questions about the significance of artificial intelligence birthing new life, the adequacy of AI as a companion, and your typical God-complex questions from a movie about artificial intelligence.

Denis Villeneuve is, in my opinion, the most exciting director working in Hollywood today. To see him helm a big-budget think-piece, shoulder the expectations from the original, and deliver a stunner of a movie is simultaneously exhilarating and unsurprising. He has a gift for taking “heady” films and making them accessible for casual moviegoers. His ability to invite the audience into the craft of visual storytelling is refreshing – aided by the breathtaking cinematography of Roger Deakins.

You may find “2049” difficult to grasp conceptually. I would argue that’s not a problem. The film invites – and I expect it rewards – repeat viewings, just like Villeneuve’s “Arrival”.

This is a film that demands to be seen in theaters. Not only because it is imperative that art of this quality earns a profit to stave the tide of ham-handed reboots, sequels, and extended universes – despite itself being a sequel – but because in “2049” is a film made for the theater.

Step out, go to the theater, and enter another world for a few hours. You won’t be disappointed; I can’t wait to go back.

Leah’s Review:

Most people who go to the theaters to watch a sequel usually do so because they liked that sequel’s predecessor. I’ll admit that this wasn’t the case when I went to see “Blade Runner 2049”. It’s not that I hated the 1982 original, I just…couldn’t get into it. I mostly understand the movie and I think the storyline is fascinating. I chalk up my disinterest to slow-pacing, some confusing concepts, and the fact that Harrison Ford isn’t very like-able as Rick Deckard.

That being said, “Blade Runner 2049” grabbed my attention from its gorgeous and exciting trailer and it’s killer cast. And though it’s 164-minute run-time was a little on the long side for me, I have to say- the movie didn’t disappoint.

This sequel captures the spirit and feel of the 1982 “Blade Runner” (without being  copy-and-paste), but still manages to be fresh and unique. Although it’s a continuation of the first film’s story, the newest installment could almost be watched on its own. The movie continues to address the same questions from the original: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to have a soul? Where do we draw the line between human life and artificial intelligence? But by no means does it recycle material- it manages to ask these questions in new and intriguing ways.

The acting in this film is perfection. Ryan Gosling shows yet another side to his acting repertoire. Harrison Ford, even as an older actor now, never ceases to impress. Jared Leto is creepy perfection. And I’m always happy to see Robin Wright- she’s a terrific actress who has really made a comeback recently. I’ll also give a shout-out to newcomers Ana de Armas and Sylvia Hoeks- both gave captivating performances.

“Blade Runner 2049” features some of the most beautiful cinematography I’ve ever seen in a film. Every shot is stunning. The movie is just as much a treat for the eyes as it is an excellently well-told story.

The film’s music (a joint effort by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch) is spot on. It would have been easy to simply copy the iconic score by Vangelis- Zimmer and Wallfisch (who are both no strangers to making epic soundtracks) create a soundtrack that encapsulates the futuristic feel of the original score, but has a sound all its own.

I won’t go into too much detail about the plot of “Blade Runner 2049” because I think it’s a movie one should experience. Like the original “Blade Runner”, this isn’t the kind of movie that’s going to spell everything out for you. It leaves a lot to interpretation.

When we saw the movie, I wasn’t completely blown away. But in the days since, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it (maybe because Brent won’t stop talking about it). The more time that passes, the more I’d like to see again. “Blade Runner 2049” is one of the best made films of 2017 and I highly recommend it.

Up Next: Get out your best dress – we’re checking out the 1959 comedy “Some Like It Hot” starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon,

Peace out, kids.

The Graduate (1967)

Synopsis: A disillusioned college graduate finds himself torn between his older lover and her daughter.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: Leah had seen it before and she didn’t really care for it. I thought it was time for me to see this movie because it’s so critically acclaimed, despite her not liking it.

Brent’s Review:

Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate” is an exercise in subtlety. The film begins with Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) returning home after his college graduation only to find himself disillusioned by the prospect of his future. Ben begins exhibiting unpredictable and spontaneous behavior, most notably in having an affair with a married woman. 

After the film’s famous seduction by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), Ben is coerced into taking out Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross). Unpredictably, they fall in love! 

This setup would feel at home in a contemporary rom-com, but made in 1967 “The Graduate” feels like a critique of modern romantic comedies before they became the cliche-riddled movies we know all too well today. 

Consider a scene in which Ben and Mrs. Robinson decide to have a conversation before they make love (“for a change,” Ben says). The scene leads to a fight and eventually a resolution, but Nichols doesn’t cut there. The shot lingers, the two lovers pathetically taking off the clothes they hurriedly put on during the fight. It’s depressing. 

The same is true of the triumphant ending. Where most romcoms would be satisfied with the smiling couple riding into the sunset together (and Elaine ditching her groom at the altar), Nichols holds the shot long enough for both characters to realize what they’ve done. Spontaneity plays well in the movies; that’s the facade Nichols breaks down in the film. 

“The Graduate” is wonderful on a superficial level as well. Ben and Elaine’s first date had me in stitches (until it nearly had me in tears) and the scenes where Ben is nervous about Mrs. Robinson’s sexual advances are equally side-splitting. The film follows the familiar formula, but that’s not the only thing it’s here to do. 

Beyond that, the writing and cinematography are wonderful throughout. It’s no surprise to me that this film has 3-4 shots that are used whenever talking about “the classics”. Good cinematography usually (not always) gives you a pretty good indication that you’re in the hands of competent filmmakers; what a treat this film is. 

It’s interesting to me that this film’s message has been misread for so long. In many ways, the film’s iconography has become grander than the film itself. It’s a classic, but not for the reasons you might typically hear. Want to know what the fuss is about? Familiarize yourself with the primary source – see “The Graduate”. 

Leah’s Review:

I watched “The Graduate” for the first time about five years ago. I hated it. I thought it was completely overrated, boring, and just kind of bizarre. Even as a huge Simon & Garfunkel fan, I thought if I heard “Scarborough Fair” one more time I was gonna lose it. I couldn’t understand why this movie had gotten so much praise and attention- I chalked it up to being made in “a different time”.

But I guess first impressions can be misleading. Yes, there were still a few times when Simon & Garfunkel was played just a little too much. But the movie was much better than I had remembered it being.

“The Graduate” is a comedy- but it’s not what we typically think of when we think of a comedy movie. There are no gags or “obvious” jokes. The humor is entirely for the audience- not the characters. So when I watched this movie the first time, I really didn’t understand how funny it truly was. A huge part of what makes this film so funny is Dustin Hoffman’s performance as awkward and moral Ben trying to navigate his way through an affair with a married woman.

But aside from its comedy, “The Graduate” also features some moving and emotional moments. Perhaps the most memorable is from the scene when Ben tries to have a real conversation with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) while they’re in bed together. Resistant at first, Mrs. Robinson eventually opens up about her past, her marriage, and what she has lost because of the direction that her life took. This scene portrays her as more of a sympathetic and dynamic character than we might have originally given her credit for.

I first watched this film while I was in college. As hokey as it sounds, I think I had a better appreciation of “The Graduate” as a graduate. The first 15 minutes of the film are hilariously painful to watch as Ben is bombarded by his family and their friends constantly reminding him that he now has to decide what to do with his life- expecting him to have all the answers. As anyone who has graduated from college knows, this is so true to life. It can be so claustrophobic at times and, like Ben, we just want to sink to the bottom of the pool and get away from it all. Or stare at a fish tank for hours (or days) upon end, trying to decide what our future should look like. These contemplative scenes with Ben seemed so silly and pointless to me upon my first viewing- but in a different perspective, I think they’re brilliant.

As for Simon & Garfunkel- I still think a few songs are repeated too many times. However, this movie could have had no other soundtrack than the melodramatic melodies that folk duo.

I’m glad I gave this one another go-round. It’s by no means a perfect film, but it’s solid and well worth a viewing (or a second viewing).

Up Next: We’re time-tripping with Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford in “Blade Runner 2049”. 

Peace out, kids.

Half Nelson (2006)

Synopsis: An inner-city junior high school teacher with a drug habit forms an unlikely friendship with one of his students after she discovers his secret.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Leah

Why I chose it: I had never heard of the film until recently when I learned that Ryan Gosling had received a Best Actor nomination for it. My interest was piqued.

Brent’s Review:

Question: don’t you sometimes feel like Ryan Gosling is just playing himself in movies? Or at the very least, that he’s playing his brand or his persona? I do, at least sometimes. This is the same thing we say about Ryan Reynolds, so why does Gosling get an Oscar nomination for “La La Land”?

Hollywood got swept up in “La La Land” and gave out a couple of pretty undeserving nominations, in my opinion. I’m not retracting my thoughts, but after “Half Nelson” I’m willing to put them in context. An undeserving Oscar nomination doesn’t make Ryan Gosling an overrated actor. Exhibit A: “Half Nelson”

“Half Nelson” is a character study of a high school history teacher who is addicted to crack. One night after a girls’ basketball game he smokes crack in the locker room and one student, Drey (Shareeka Epps), finds him. She doesn’t turn him in, but they form an uneasy relationship. She watches him destroy his life while trying to mentor her and turn her away from becoming a drug dealer.

This film was made in 2006, near the turning point of popularity for the War in Iraq. The characters talk about this and Gosling’s Dan Dunne character gives his “history is the study of change through struggle” speech half a dozen times throughout the movie. The students in his class are studying the civil rights movement and Dunne encourages them to find their voice and make it heard.

The turning point in the film is when Gosling confronts the drug dealer that also vies for Drey’s attention, Frank (Anthony Mackie). Realizing the irony of a crack addict asking a crack dealer to stop seeing a teenager because he’s a bad influence, Dunne goes inside for “a drink” and later goes off the rails entirely.

“Half Nelson” has a number of themes running across one another, the two most obvious being drug abuse and mentoring. But the third theme is the underscore: political consciousness. In the aforementioned confrontation, Frank asks Dunne what gives him the authority to ask him to stop seeing Drey. “I don’t know! But I have to do something, right?” The moral is that imperfect people can still choose to work for good. In fact, Dunne says something similar to his class.

This film is not without cheer. Gosling’s natural charisma shines in the classroom, but it’s his self-loathing in times of solitude that capture the true power of his performance. Special commendation goes out to the writing duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck as well, whose script avoids melodrama while also eschewing despair.

This film is authentic and the characters feel real. Gosling is the centerpiece – his organic turn as Dan Dunne feels so real that you might guess he actually slept in those clothes before shooting. Unlike his other performances, these clothes don’t feel like his but rather those of someone else entirely. And that’s a very different compliment.

Gosling demonstrates great depth in “Half Nelson” – it’s definitely worth watching.

Leah’s Review:

“Half Nelson” is about a junior high teacher with an addiction to cocaine. Despite his best efforts to get clean, Dan Dunne continues to fall back into old habits of an unhealthy lifestyle. The only thing that keeps him sane and focused are his students. Teaching history in an inner-city school in Chicago, Dan excels at getting his students interested in class topics by using unconventional (but effective) methods. One day, one of his students finds him half unconscious and high. Drey chooses to keep her discovery a secret and the two start an unlikely and complicated friendship.

So let’s be honest- the main reason I wanted to see this film was because of Ryan Gosling. And no, it’s not because he’s attractive (even though though that’s true- but hey, even my husband agrees 100% with that statement). While many know him for his performance in 2004’s “The Notebook” and more recently, last year’s “La La Land”, Gosling has also proven his acting skills in such films as “Lars and the Real Girl”, “Drive”, “The Big Short”, and “The Nice Guys” just to name a few. Whether it be drama, comedy, crime, or romance- Gosling has the ability to play a variety of roles in an engaging and convincing way. “Half Nelson” is no different as we see Gosling play a role very different from others we have seen him in: A man plagued by an addiction he can’t seem to escape (despite the passion he has to be a mentor to his students) who spirals ever further into a cycle of self-destruction.

Gosling is great- but it is Sharkeera Epps who nearly steals the show from him with her performance as Drey. Not only does Epps prove her acting chops by playing a thirteen year-old (when she herself was 17 at the time) but she acts with a maturity well beyond her years. We don’t expect such a young inexperienced actor to be able to match the likes of Ryan Gosling- but Epps’s portrayal is just as engaging and is a perfect complement to Gosling’s.

“Half Nelson” is marketed as an inspirational film- but this is misleading. Just when we think Dan has kicked his drug habit for good, he comes back to it with a vengeance. The movie does not take the easy way out by choosing to have Drey save Dan from his addiction or have him saving her from her potential future as a drug dealer. It shows the realities of someone living with an addiction. It shows the realities of a child growing up in a poor, broken, and drug-ridden society. The ending is ambiguous. Does Dan clean up for good? We hope so. Does Drey choose not to sell drugs to make a living for her family? We hope so. All we know is that these characters have something to teach one another despite their differing circumstances.

“Half Nelson” is an underrated and understated film that deserves a watch.

Up next: ‘The Graduate’, which is 50 years old this year. Yeah, fifty. You read that correctly.

Peace out, kids.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Synopsis: The story of a forbidden and secretive relationship between two cowboys, and their lives over the years.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: I was intrigued by this film when it came out, but it was too taboo in my social circle to see it. Better late than never.

Brent’s Review

Ennis: This is a one-shot thing we got goin’ on here.
Jack: It’s nobody’s business but ours.
Ennis: You know I ain’t queer.
Jack: Me neither.

“Brokeback Mountain” was, to be sure, a polarizing picture. It starred two young, attractive actors engaged in a homosexual romance for much of the film’s runtime. More than that, critics said it was good!

I recall the opposition asking, “why do we need a gay cowboy movie?” The appropriate response, I think, is why we would need another straight cowboy movie. But let’s delve deeper into the narrative.

Ennis (Ledger) and Jack (Gyllenhaal) are ranch hands looking for work in the summer. They take on a shepherding job in the Wyoming mountains – Brokeback! They spend the summer together, one tending the sheep while the other tends the camp.

The summer gets cold in the Wyoming mountains. One night, the two get drunk and stay out too late for Ennis to travel back to the sheep. Hearing him shiver by the embered fire, Jack invites Ennis to come in to the tent to warm up. Drunk and confused, they make love.

Summer ends and they part ways. They don’t speak again for four years, by which time Ennis has married and fathered two children. When they do reunite, their passion rekindles and live the remainder of their lives with limited interactions, always wondering “what if?”

The “what if” is the dream of a time when they could be together. There are two brief scenes in which the consequences of being suspected of homosexuality cost your life. Both men also face consequences for not having the language for their desire. Both Ennis and Jack desire labels. They don’t want to be considered queer, but they surely can’t quit each other, as the film’s famous line goes. The film explores how the limits on their own understanding of sexuality keep them separated as well.

Wisely, director Ang Lee and co-writers Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana (all three won Oscars for this film) avoid putting the characters into boxes. They’re not gay-men-posing-as-straight-men. They’re not straight-men-choosing-to-be-gay. They’re not bisexual. They’re two men who love each other and also love their wives. The primary conflict in the film is navigating how to express it.

The film is layered, as well. Ennis is product of a broken home and has difficulty showing love, either to Jack or his wife Alma (Michelle Williams). Jack is a failed rodeo rider and feels compelled to prove his masculinity at every turn, especially to his father-in-law. These secondary conflicts pivot around the film’s central theme.

“Brokeback Mountain” is a sad study of two men who can’t love each other, both because of who they are and what society says they are. The element of sexual orientation sharpens the story and, indeed, changes its dynamics. It’s necessary.

This is a film that demands to be seen and, depending on your perspective, perhaps even wrestled with.

Leah’s Review

I remember when “Brokeback Mountain” was released. Growing up in a conservative Christian home, this film was seen as controversial to say the least. The “gay cowboy movie” was either never talked about or condemned by its content despite its rave reviews.

As my views have broadened and my appreciation for well-made films has also expanded, “Brokeback Mountain” became a movie I felt I needed to see at some point or another (especially with the recent and early death of star Heath Ledger). Ang Lee is also a director I admire- the dude knows how to make beautiful films.

Because of it’s content, I expected “Brokeback Mountain” to be more of a statement on LGBTQ social issues. And, in many respects- is was that. There certainly hadn’t been any critically acclaimed movies that dealt with homosexual relationships in this way before. It got people talking. But when watching this, I think it should be viewed less as a political statement and more as a story about love and the complexity of human relationships.

While one could argue that the movie revolves around homosexuality and the complications involved in being in a homosexual relationship in 1960’s rural America, it can also be appreciated by and have an impact on anyone- whether gay, straight, or otherwise. As Roger Ebert states in his own review of the film: “The more specific a film is, the more universal, because the more it understands individual characters, the more it applies to everyone.” No matter what your feelings on the subject matter of this film may be, it’s pretty difficult not to feel for its characters. Ennis and Jack clearly have a deep love for one another that goes beyond physical intimacy and we feel their pain when they are torn apart by the complexities of their world. We also feel for their wives, Alma and Lureen, who suspect (or in Alma’s case- know) that their husbands are being unfaithful to them and we watch Ennis and Alma’s marriage and family disintegrate as a result.

The acting in this film is spot-on. Heath Ledger does what he does best as he completely disappears into his character of tough, reserved, and quiet Ennis. Jake Gyllenhaal shines as energetic, sensitive, and passionate Jack. Michelle Williams’s performance as Alma is heartbreakingly outstanding and Anne Hathaway holds her own as Lureen, (proving her acting chops outside her previous Disney films). Add to that some killer cinematography (a signature feature of Ang Lee’s films) featuring gorgeous mountainscapes- and it’s not hard to see why the movie was nominated (and won) so many Oscars.

Some may feel too uncomfortable with this movie’s content to consider watching it. But I would encourage them to view it with an open mind and heart. It’s a beautiful and magnificent piece of filmmaking, and at its core, “Brokeback Mountain” is about our human need to love and be loved. And that’s something we can all resonate with, no matter what our viewpoints may be.

Up next: We’re going back a decade to check out Ryan Gosling’s first Oscar-nominated performance in “Half Nelson”. 

Peace out, kids.

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Synopsis: A wealthy art gallery owner receives a draft of her ex-husband’s new novel, and once she starts reading it she just cannot put it down.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams… can’t go wrong (or so I thought).

Leah’s Review:

About 30 minutes into our viewing of “Nocturnal Animals”, I thought to myself “I do not want to watch this anymore.” And if this movie hadn’t been a part of our challenge, I probably would have stopped watching.

“Nocturnal Animals” is not a poorly made film. On the contrary, it is a masterfully made film with high production values, a seemingly-promising storyline, great cinematography, and an all-star cast. It has all the potential of a masterpiece- but unfortunately, it falls short.

Let me start with the plot. In a simplified form, “Nocturnal Animals” focuses on Susan (Amy Adams), a rich and successful art gallery owner who has done some terrible things in her past- specifically in regards to her first husband Edward, a writer (Jake Gyleenhaal) who she is divorced from. Years after their separation, Edward sends Susan a manuscript of a book he has written and dedicated to her. Reading his dramatic and incredibly gruesome novel causes Susan to reflect on their past relationship and how the “fiction” of the novel mirrors the reality of the actions that caused their marriage to disintegrate.

At one point in the film, Susan tells Edward what she thinks of his novel: “It’s devastating. I am deeply moved. It is beautifully written.” This statement is true of the movie as well- however I find that there is more style than there is substance when it comes to “Nocturnal Animals”. The unwinding plot certainly keeps us interested long enough to see what happens next to the characters- but we really don’t feel anything for them.

The scene with the most substance takes place in Edward’s novel when Tony (who is also played by Gyleenhall), his wife and daughter are encountered by strange men who pull them over on the highway. The family is threatened and harassed, Tony is beaten, and his wife and daughter are kidnapped by the men in Tony’s car leaving him stranded. This scene is tense and gut-wrenching, giving the audience a feeling of dread for the entirety of the scene (which is very lengthy, by the way). It was after this scene that I almost asked if we could stop the movie. That’s how convincingly horrifying it was to watch (and that’s really a tribute to the stellar acting featured). The film is so dark throughout- and it never gives you a reason to want to keep watching.

“Nocturnal Animals” is not a movie I can honestly recommend to anyone. It’s dark. It’s moody. It’s not entertaining. I feel like there could have been so much more to this film, but the director settled for surface-level material and tried to make up for it with sleek visuals and big name actors. This one’s a hard pass from me.

Brent’s Review:

“Nocturnal Animals” features two stories running parallel to one another. In the alpha storyline, we see Amy Adams’ Susan Morrow as she sulks the days and nights away. One day, she receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has dedicated it to her. This storyline jumps back and forth between the present and her history with Edward throughout the last half of the film, but mostly follows Susan in the present.

The beta storyline is the novel, in which Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) and his family, Laura & India (Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber), are accosted by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) on the highway. Tony watches helplessly as his family is abducted by Marcus and his friends. Beaten and left for dead, Tony finds out days later that – yep, you guessed it – they were raped and killed. The rest of the novel recounts Tony’s quest for vengeance, aided by corrupt officer Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon).

Okay… so where to begin? First, it’s dark. Really, really dark. The scene in which Tony’s family is abducted is stomach-turning. Second, the movie is very macabre. The opening credit sequence features three or four heavy women wearing nothing but hats (yes, literally nothing) and dancing in slow motion. It’s… different.

But mostly, this film is dreadful. It isn’t like watching a nightmare – it’s like what nightmares watch when they want to be scared. Essentially, Gyllenhaal’s Tony is tortured again and again for two hours. More than that, the alpha storyline is bleak. No one smiles. Everyone just mopes and sulks. Then, we switch back to the beta storyline, which is full of rape and murder.

For all of these negative things, there are three outstanding qualities of the film: it’s brilliantly acted, beautifully photographed, and the score is superb.

And this is the thing that is the most frustrating. This movie is so disappointing that it made me mad. How do you get a cast with Gyllenhaal, Adams, and Shannon and screw this up so badly? Ford can’t stay out of his own way throughout the film and it really comes back to tone and story arc. The linchpin of the narrative is whether you care about Susan Morrow, but how am I supposed to care for a character whose one direction note is to sulk? Ironically, Adams is so convincing in this performance that she convinced me to not care at all about this character. Backfire.

So yeah yeah yeah, I get it. Maybe I didn’t like it because it offended my delicate sensibilities. Whatever. I loved “Prisoners”, “Oldboy”, and “Se7en”. It’s not what the movie is about, but it’s that it’s totally fumbled. Sure, the script needed some more work (the alpha storyline has way too much filler). But past that, the tone totally throws the movie off.

You might say I didn’t get this movie. I would say I don’t care. I can’t think of a single person I’d recommend this movie to. Watch “Arrival” instead.

Up Next: The second of our Jake Gyllenhaal double feature is the 2005 Best Picture nominee “Brokeback Mountain.” Even after encountering the first dud of our calendar, we still don’t wish we knew how to quit it.

Peace out, kids.

Amélie (2001)

Synopsis: Amélie is an innocent and naive girl in Paris with her own sense of justice. She decides to help those around her and, along the way, discovers love.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: I’ve wanted to watch this movie for nearly a decade, but I’ve always been too lazy to do it. This movie was another inspiration for this list because I knew I’d never actually see this movie without committing to it.

Brent’s Review:

“Like Don Quixote, she pitted herself against the grinding windmill of all life’s miseries…”

“Amélie” is about a young woman who explores altruism. First, she returns an heirloom to a man who had hidden it four decades earlier. Seeing his reaction, she becomes addicted to helping others. She plays a matchmaker for two coffee shop regulars, a defender for a bullied vegetable stand employee, and a companion for “the glass man”, an apartment neighbor with extremely brittle bones.

What Amélie does not do for the first half of the film, however, is tend to her own concerns. She stumbles upon a childhood friend and is immediately taken by him. The second half of the film features a lengthy game of cat-and-mouse between the two before a wonderfully photographed final sequence of the two on a motorbike.

“Amélie” is beautifully shot, wonderfully paced, and very funny. Oddly enough, the two films that came to mind throughout my viewing were “(500) Days of Summer” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”. In the case of the former, the writing is very sarcastic, very funny, and is very inventive throughout (“Amélie” was nominated for a Best Writing award at the 2002 Academy Awards). In the case of the latter, “Amélie” relies heavily on magical realism. Inanimate objects move, converse with the characters, and everything is bright and clean.

I wish to explore the connection between “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Amélie” a bit further. For me, the two films’ uses of magical realism are important in punctuating the narrative. Both films feature very dark elements (neglect, humiliation, and reclusiveness are themes running throughout “Amélie”). However, the difference between Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s comedy and Guillermo Del Toro’s twisted fairy tale is the directions in which the dark elements of both films run. In “Pan’s Labyrinth”, lighter elements are foregrounded (and cast in shadows) in order to push the darker elements to the backdrop; in “Amélie”, the reverse is true.

Who better to play a character dabbling in altruism than Audrey Tautou? Tautou’s personality is transcendent in every scene. That isn’t to say that she steals scenes – this is very much Jeunet’s film – but she happily carries the weight that the film asks her to shoulder throughout. It’s an electrifying performance, complemented very well by her love interest Mathieu Kassovitz.

Roger Ebert called “Amélie” a “delicious pastry of a movie.” Maybe. But I think it has a lot more to it than that. The film foregrounds the death of Princess Di, which was a very sad event worldwide at the film’s release (in April 2001, mind you), but finds opportunities to bring joy in the midst of that sadness. Perhaps there is an interesting subtext here. Perhaps not. “Amélie” is an enjoyable experience either way.

And it’s streaming on Netflix now, so…

Leah’s Review

A quirky comedy about an adorable Parisian introvert who tries to make the world a better place? How could this go wrong?

“Amélie” is a very simple story, but one that is told in such a way that keeps the audience captivated the entire time. It’s beautifully shot, well-paced, witty, and absolutely charming.

The tone of the movie is quickly set at the beginning of the film. The narrator introduces us to  Amélie and her family and explains that because of her parents’ distance and her isolation from other children growing up, “Amélie’s only refuge is an imaginary world.” As an audience, we are immersed in a world of both fantasy and reality as we see it through Amélie’s eyes. The film has a very whimsical feel to it- often reminding me of 2004 “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” with its bizarre editing and quirky storytelling. Aesthetically, it’s such a bold and colorful film, complimented wonderfully by its geographical setting of Paris.

Amélie’s character is an endearing one, but made even more so by the performance of Audrey Tautou. The role is one she was born to play as the delightful, naive, kind-hearted, sometimes mischievous young woman who dreams of love and wants to bring happiness to all she encounters. As a fellow introvert, I could resonate with Amélie’s struggles of fitting in with others, expressing herself, and being open to love (both giving and receiving). Sometimes it is easier for her chose to live in her own reality or “relate to an absent person that build relationships with those around her” as one friend so eloquently states. This movie is a great reminder to not neglect our own needs and desires in the pursuit of making others happy.

I’ve never seen a film quite like “Amélie”. Watching it is sort of like stepping into a very vibrant painting. There is so much to take in and there’s beauty to be found everywhere- not only visually, but emotionally. Amélie becomes driven by a mission to bring joy to those she meets- and in doing so, we as the audience are also touched and impacted by her deeds. And we’re left feeling a little happier and lighter as a result.

There’s more I could say about the film, but my words fail me. “Amélie” is truly a treat and is one of my favorites we’ve seen this year so far.

Up Next: We’ll be burning the midnight oil with “Nocturnal Animals”, the first of two Jake Gyllenhaal movies we’ll be watching back-to-back. Brent is excited.

Peace out, kids.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Synopsis: A cyborg, identical to the one who failed to kill Sarah Connor, must now protect her ten year old son, John Connor, from a more advanced cyborg.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here: 

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: It’s been too long since I’ve seen this movie and Leah would never agree to watch it without the calendar. This was one of the movies that motivated the creation of this calendar… *sinister laugh*.

Brent’s Review:

Arnold Schwarzenegger has one film in his catalog that I believe every person must see, and “Terminator 2” is it. But what about “The Terminator”? Won’t you be lost without seeing the first one?

I don’t think so. The first two Terminator films (and, in my opinion, the only two that count) occupy vastly different genres. The first film plays like a slasher movie – Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is the damsel in distress and the Terminator stalks her throughout the city. “Terminator 2,” however, is much more of a traditional sci-fi action/adventure movie. James Cameron trades narrow corridors and abandoned factories for occupied highways and government buildings. The budget increased from $6.4 million to $102 million for the sequel and it shows (“Terminator 2” won 4 Academy Awards and was nominated for another 2, including Best Cinematography).

Most folks know the twist already, namely is that Schwarzenegger’s terminator is a good guy this time! Unlike the first film, the protagonist is the macho terminator while the villain is slender and quick. Robert Patrick’s T-1000 terminator is much more agile and capable of maneuvers that Schwarzenegger’s terminator is too bulky to execute. There is a great deal of restraint I don’t have confidence that today’s action films could exercise: the counter force to a Schwarzenegger protagonist shouldn’t be a bulky antagonist, but something entirely different. “Terminator 2” nails it.

The point of “Terminator 2” is not the story (even if the film hints at an interesting story beneath the surface that the sequels fumbled repeatedly). The point is the action. Film critic Roger Ebert once called the slasher film “Halloween” less of a film and more of an experience. “Terminator 2” is similar. The action scenes are paced so well that the film never feels like it slows down. A sci-fi film like this requires a good deal of exposition to set the backdrop for the events of the film. Consider this: the film’s exposition never slows the film down, but instead manages to speed it up (even and especially exposition delivered by Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose acting prowess is oft-maligned).

The selling point on this film is the special effects. “Terminator 2” was made at a time where it was still more cost effective and time effective to mix practical effects with CGI. The film earns its academy award wins for effects as the special effects still hold up to this day, even though this film is older than Leah (barely). Mixed with the dark blue aesthetic that Cameron chose for the film, the shiny metallic effects used for the villainous T-1000 still look more realistic than some contemporary releases, such as Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit”.

James Cameron is an action auteur (he is also responsible for “Avatar”), but “Terminator 2” is his magnum opus. The action still keeps me on my seat after having seen the film over a dozen times. It’s a timeless action film – how fitting for a film driven by time travel.

Leah’s Review:

Full disclosure: I watched “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” without having ever watched any of the other Terminator movies. Thankfully, I have a husband who loves this movie with all of his being who was able to explain the gist of the first film and lay the groundwork for the second.

Of course, I have always been aware of the “Terminator” series. The first two films are absolutely iconic in 80’s and 90’s culture and are probably the most famous Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. I can remember, even as a small child, imitating Arnie and saying things like “Hasta la vista, baby”. So I was looking forward to watching “Judgment Day” and seeing if the movie would live up to the hype.

“Terminator 2”, as an action film, is pure fun. The action scenes, whether they feature a chase or a fight, are creative and exciting. There’s no over-the-top editing or crazy CGI explosions like we’re used to seeing in modern action movies (though the film features some amazing special effects that still hold up quite well after 25+ years). It’s the kind of non-stop action that keeps you on your toes and entertained the whole time. There’s also a healthy dose of comedy here and there to appropriately lighten up what could be a very dark movie.

So let’s talk about Sarah Conner. Not having seen the first film, Brent explained to me that Sarah was really more of a damsel in distress- a stereotypical female role in an action flick. In “Judgment Day”, Sarah is a badass. After living through her experiences in the first film (where attempts are made on her life and she learns of the impending doom of the human race), Sarah isn’t about to sit back and let the horrific events of the future take place. She’s a very strong and independent character whose love for her son and convictions to her beliefs make her, in my opinion, a great protagonist and female role model.

One interesting aspect about “Terminator 2” is its underlying message about the value of human life- something we don’t often get in these kinds of action films. After discovering that the  Terminator is programmed to follow his commands, young John Connor orders him to stop killing people (even when they put him in danger)- and so for the rest of the movie, there are no lives taken by the Terminator. In another scene Sarah goes on a mission to kill Miles Dyson (who is ultimately is responsible for Skynet and the the nuclear war destined as a result). But as she is about to kill Miles, Sarah realizes that taking his life is not the way to prevent the war.

I’m glad I got around to seeing this movie. It’s probably one of the best action films I’ve ever seen and it’s such an important part of the culture that I grew up in- so it’s good to finally be in the loop.

Up Next: We’re craving another foreign film and 2001’s “Amèlie” one looks pretty adorable. 

Hasta la vista, kids.

Before Sunrise (1995)

Synopsis: A young man and woman meet on a train in Europe, and wind up spending one evening together in Vienna. Unfortunately, both know that this will probably be their only night together.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Leah

Why I chose it: I had heard good things about it and the premise sounded…dare I say “cute”.

Leah’s Review:

I have a lot of gripes with romance movies- most of which has to do with how unrealistic they are. Between movies which make romantic relationships look perfect and effortless and scripts featuring dialogue which no human would ever actually say- romance flicks usually get a pass from me. The kind of film that I find appealing shows the real, gritty, ups and downs of love (so get lost, Nicholas Sparks).

Enter “Before Sunrise”. This movie  is about a young man and woman who meet on a train in Europe, both heading in different directions. They chat. They connect. They get ready to go their separate ways. When suddenly Jesse (Ethan Hawke) asks his new acquaintance Celine (Julia Delpy) if she’ll blow off her plans and spend the next 12 hours in Venice with him while he waits for his flight.

Ok- so there’s definitely some fantasy here. This has all the makings of the unrealistic romance movie that I would ordinarily disdain. But what sets “Before Sunrise” apart is its script. A dialogue-heavy film, Richard Linklater’s writing never once feels contrived or forced. The conversations the characters have feel like the real and vulnerable conversations two people have when they’re trying to get acquainted. Sometimes they’re deep and passionate. Other times they’re awkward and uncomfortable. Above all, the words spoken feel human. And that’s not always easy to achieve in movies.

Part of the reason this script works so well is because of the great actors behind it. Both Hawke and Delpy are convincing in their performances individually, but also have a phenomenal chemistry- further convincing the audience of their characters’ mutual affection. Their performances are so natural- as viewers we are swept up in the romance almost as quickly as the characters are. I especially loved the little moments in the film that felt so true to real life falling-in-love, like when Jesse moves to tuck a piece of Celine’s hair behind her ear and then stops himself, embarrassed. Or when Jesse and Celine share a moment in a music-listening booth and nervously try to look at each other without the other noticing (this scene is so intimate, you can cut the romantic tension with a knife). There’s also plenty of times when the characters clash- their views on life and love don’t always line up. They fight. They make up. They weave in and out of the complexities of developing a meaningful relationship.

The film uses Vienna as a backdrop for Jesse and Celine’s romance. The relationship takes center stage in such a way that the characters could literally be anywhere and we wouldn’t notice. At the end of the film, we see shots of places the couple has been- now seeming quite empty without them. Almost as if them being there together is what made those places significant. And isn’t that what falling in love is all about? Movies that can capture this feeling are hard to come by. “Before Sunrise” does it with flying colors.

Brent’s Review:

Richard Linklater is a filmmaker whose “arthouse” movies are like dreams (not like David Lynch’s movies are like dreams, mind you). They’re simple, vivid, and can lead us in a lot of directions. He even once made a movie called “Waking Life”, where the protagonist is literally awaking from a dream throughout the film. “Before Sunrise” retains that dreamlike quality throughout.

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy), two strangers who bump into each other on a train in Europe and spend the night touring Vienna. Early in the film, Jesse shares his idea for a television program that has 365 episodes in a year, each episode being 24 hours in the life of someone from a different part of the world – eating, sleeping, and so forth. This idea bleeds into the film as Jesse and Céline tour the city, discussing everything from the fate of the souls to their past relationships to their favorite music. One scene in particular spans nearly ten minutes of runtime with an unbroken shot of the two sitting in the back of a bus, having a normal conversation that changes subjects three times.

Linklater has never sought to dazzle with his technical wizardry or editing prowess, which is clearly evident in this film. The scenes where conversations are actually edited together, rather than a long unbroken take, typically feature a series of routine over-the-shoulder shots. The most impressive feat in this film is the restraint Linklater shows in crafting his scenes. In a film that, by definition, goes nowhere (that is, both characters are very apparent that this is their only night together), Linklater guides us gently through the streets of Vienna, allowing us to walk with them on their wonderful night. (Note: this film earned over 20 million more than its shooting budget; the 90s was a magical time for cinema).

The true standouts in this film are its co-leads, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (both of whom would co-write the sequels “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight”, each earning Oscar nominations for writing). Their chemistry is so poignant that they seem to be a real couple – a perfect couple – simply playing out their life before us. Not only is their chemistry mesmerizing, but their technical skill in acting is on full display. Delpy confirmed that very little of the film was improvised; even the line interruptions were rigorously rehearsed. “Before Sunrise” is one of the most impressive displays of acting you’re likely to see in a film, but films like these are often underappreciated for their skill because they’re seen as “simple”. The acting looks effortless so it probably wasn’t hard, right?

Linklater’s dream-walk through Vienna is magical. The stakes are clear: their time together is limited. But isn’t that always true? Perhaps we shouldn’t let that melancholy thought stop us from being happy tonight. Or maybe it’s just a movie about two people walking around Vienna. Dreams can be interpreted a lot of different ways; “Before Sunrise” is a beautiful dream.

Up Next: Brent is going to introduce Leah to one of the greatest sequels of all time – Terminator 2: Judgment Day. We’ll be back.

Peace out, kids.

Citizen Kane (1941)

Synopsis: Following the death of a publishing tycoon, news reporters scramble to discover the meaning of his final utterance.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Both of us

Why we chose it: It’s the greatest film of all time…

Brent’s Review:

In the mid-to-late 1990s, the American Film Institute (AFI) began running an annual “100 Years, 100 Movies” list, counting down the “best” movies of all time. “Citizen Kane” claimed the top spot every single year that the list was produced, thus giving it the reputation of the greatest film ever made.

“Citizen Kane” is not, in my opinion, the greatest film ever made. But it’s a good one. The story centers on the life of Charles Foster Kane, a fictional man whose life is grandiose and is, in some ways, the embodiment of the American Dream. A humble beginning gives way to a grand stature and political ambition. While he never truly succeeds in the ventures he sets for himself, many see him as a very successful man.

Kane is an enigma, however. His later years are those of a recluse: living alone in his grand estate with his accumulated treasures (statues, possessions, and the like). Upon his death, reporters seek to unlock the mystery of his final word: “Rosebud”. Rosebud is, of course, one of the most well-known McGuffins in cinema history (that is, an object or device that merely serves as the trigger for the plot). An investigative journalist researches the entirety of Kane’s life to find the meaning of this word, which he ultimately fails to do (it is revealed to the viewer in the final shot of the film).

Great films seem to breathe – they are so imbued with life that they nearly jump off the screen. This isn’t a comment about technical wizardry or originality, but merely the “it factor” of a film. Orson Welles has so much charisma that he steals not only every scene, but any and all of his absences in scenes feel as though they rob the scene itself – it’s his “it factor.” His performance is quite good, which is largely aided by the fact that Kane is a character especially suited for Welles’ persona. Yet, his performance is so effortless that you wonder if he’s even acting at all. It’s a blast to watch.

I found the film to be uneven. However, as a loosely bound collection of scenes, it is brilliant. Welles’ technical mastery as a director is on full display: astounding tracking shots, a masterfully shot and edited deterioration of a marriage centering on a small handful of dinner conversations, and a scene that required the crew to cut holes in the floor to achieve the low angle he wanted – Welles is in total control.

Maybe it’s Welles’ booming presence – his charisma, his legacy, his distracting display of auteur film-making – that ultimately lost “Citizen Kane” for me. It’s a wonderful film, to be sure – and it’s sure to grow on me when I return to it in coming years – but I cannot call it a great film. Iconic? Yes. Masterfully made? Certainly. But the greatest film of all time it is not and, like Rosebud, “Citizen Kane” may never fully live up to its legend.

Leah’s Review:

I’ve rolled my eyes so many times when “Citizen Kane” inevitably shows up on every top ten list that it’s almost become comical. And it’s this reputation which persuaded me to add it to our watch list.

It’s fair to say that expectations were pretty high when we finally sat down to watch “Citizen Kane”. Did it hold up to these expectations? Sort of. The movie was certainly groundbreaking for its time. Featuring masterful camera shots, memorable performances from mostly unknown actors, and an interesting documentary-style story told in a nonlinear fashion. Although it initially bombed at the box office, “Citizen Kane” was eventually recognized for its achievements in film-making and storytelling. That being said, it’s not the greatest film I’ve ever seen. But I appreciated it for what it was and found watching it to be very enjoyable.

What I would highlight about “Citizen Kane” (other than its engaging plot) is its cinematography and filming style. Orson Wells incorporated lots of layers into his shots. It’s not unusual to see a shot where three or more characters share the screen- having a conversation- but the camera doesn’t move from one speaker to another. Instead, blocking is used so that each character has their own space whilst sharing the shot with other characters. In doing this, Wells highlights different characters to show their importance to the scene. An example of this is when Charlie Kane’s parents and Mr. Thatcher discuss Charlie’s future while Charlie plays outside (Charlie is all the way in the back of the shot- but he’s framed by the window). Another example is when Thompson goes to see Susan Alexander Kane and makes a call from a phone booth. Instead of choosing to focus on the Thompson, Wells includes Thompson, Susan, and even the restaurant waiter in the same shot. The two latter characters being framed in such a way that we watch them even though they’re not part of the “action”.

“Citizen Kane” also features shots that are just beautiful to look at. One of the most stunning is of Kane walking in front of a double mirror- projecting an endless line of reflections. Another favorite shot is of Thompson as he enters the library reading room – the lighting in this scene is just perfect. (The style reminds me of more modern films- specifically some shots from 1982’s “Blade Runner”).

I can’t finish my review without mentioning “Rosebud”- Kane’s last word before he dies and the catalyst for the plot. The characters never find out what Rosebud really means. Thompson states “[Kane] was a man who got everything and then again lost everything, Rosebud must’ve been something he lost or something he wanted but never got”. We as the audience get to see what “Rosebud” actually alluded to… a symbol of the childhood and love that Kane never had- and which he was so desperately trying to find. I think it is this symbolism which really made “Citizen Kane” the great movie that it is today.

Next Up: We’re going to get swept away in the first of Richard Linklater’s “Before” romance trilogy, starting with the 1995 film “Before Sunrise”, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Swoon.

Peace out, kids.

WALL-E (2008)

Synopsis: In the distant future, a small waste-collecting robot inadvertently embarks on a space journey that will ultimately decide the fate of mankind.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Both of us

Why we chose it:

Leah: I love Pixar movies- and this was one of the few I hadn’t seen.

Brent: I definitely picked it because it was time that I got around to seeing this. Probably past time, honestly.

Brent’s Review:

“WALL-E” is a cleaning robot left behind on Earth to clean up the obscene amount of garbage that has ravaged Earth. While cleaning, WALL-E finds a small plant, which is the first sign of life since humans left Earth centuries ago. After an exploration robot, EVE, comes to Earth – just long enough to WALL-E to fall madly in love with her, mind you – the plot is thrust in motion as she takes the plant back to the ship that humans have called home after Earth in order to show this new sign of life.

The ship’s name is the Axiom and it is in this middle act that “WALL-E” departs so markedly from most Pixar films that come before (and after). Unlike the happy-go-lucky Pixar titans (“Toy Story”, “Incredibles”, “Monsters Inc.”), “WALL-E” shows a vision of the future that is an indictment of American consumerism. The Axiom is a space resort where humans have so accustomed themselves to utilizing their electric hoverchairs that every human is morbidly obese and physically unable to walk. They eat their foods in liquid form, served exclusively in supersized fast food cups. In one scene, WALL-E accidentally bumps a human and disables the virtual tablet display that distracted her from seeing the little robot. Her response? “I didn’t know we had a pool!”

This satire is, of course, merely the backdrop for an adorable love story. WALL-E’s time alone on Earth has given him ample opportunities to learn the concept of love from artifacts left behind by humans. One such artifact is a film reel from “Hello, Dolly” in which WALL-E observes dancing and the significance of holding hands, two tropes revisited time and again throughout the film. I simply cannot put it another way: the romance between WALL-E and EVE is one of the cutest of any film I can think of (even more than Carl and Ellie from “Up”, my favorite Pixar film).

“WALL-E” is also adventurous for an animated film. The film’s first sequence – running over ten minutes – takes place entirely without dialogue. We are introduced to the characters and this world primarily through their actions, a technique rarely used in films aimed at children. The film’s director – Andrew Stanton – publicly stated that Charlie Chaplin’s films were a large influence on “WALL-E”, which is obvious both in technique and tone.

My favorite scene is easily the beautiful “space dance” sequence between WALL-E and EVE. It’s easily a top 5 Pixar scene for me and, I think, a fitting analogy for the film itself. On its surface, it’s a love story. But if you dig deeper, you will find biting social commentary. Watching both play out beautifully is something of an impressive dance.

As an aside, the Academy expanded the number of films that could be nominated for Best Picture from 5 to 10 in 2009, just a year after both “WALL-E” and “The Dark Knight” received serious Best Picture buzz, but failed to garner nominations. Something to ponder…

Leah’s Review:

There are two factors that (in my opinion) contribute to a well-made children’s movie. The first is how well it stands up to the test of time. Not only should the film still resonate and be enjoyable five, ten, twenty or more years down the road for generations of children– but for adults as well. The second factor is the movie’s intelligence. It is my belief that children don’t need a movie full of cheap jokes and bathroom humor to be entertained. Children are quite capable of watching a smart and engaging film and actually getting something out of it.

Like most Pixar films, “WALL-E” contains both of these qualities. Pixar has a knack for making films which (for the most part) appeal to those of a young age, but are smart and accessible enough for any age group. “WALL-E” has cute characters, an interesting story and enough adventure to make it an engaging watch. But Pixar doesn’t feel the need to dumb it down like other family films- I think this is one of the reasons why the studio has been so successful.

“WALL-E” is unique in the fact that it has little dialogue. Its main characters, WALL-E and EVE (who are robots) don’t say much beyond a few words and beeps. The first sequence of the film has almost no spoken lines- but somehow, it is able to capture and keep its audience’s attention with the combination of a well-crafted soundtrack and WALL-E’s hilariously adorable antics.

Some have criticized “WALL-E” for being too preachy when it comes to its overt messages about the reliance on technology and its potential hazards on the environment as well as the human race. I personally think Pixar did a great job of not hitting the audience over the head with this message, but rather presenting it in a way to get the viewer thinking (something 2012’s “The Lorax”, failed to do) and instilling the idea of caring for ourselves, others, and the planet we live on.

Pixar is known for its extremely heartfelt stories- the kind that make you ugly cry (think “Up”, “Inside Out”, “Toy Story 3”). I wasn’t expecting a movie about robots (even cute robots) to make me get so emotional. But, once again, this is something that that “WALL-E” is able to do brilliantly. Whether it’s the unrequited love and unspoken words between WALL-E and EVE or the fact that WALL-E has a soft spot for musical numbers and Rubik’s cubes- these are the things that make the characters in “WALL-E” resonate with us even though we are human and they are not.

“WALL-E” is a wonderful family film that will make you laugh, make you cry, and everything in between. What it truly captures is the indescribable, unspoken enchantment of love and the beauty we can find all around us if we just look close enough.

Up next: We’ll be watching the movie of all movies. A film that has been called the best of all time… “Citizen Kane”.

Peace out, kids.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Synopsis: The story of T.E. Lawrence, the English officer who successfully united and led the diverse, often warring, Arab tribes during World War I in order to fight the Turks.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Leah

Why I chose it: Probably because its one of those movies you’re supposed to see before you die. And because I love beautiful cinematography.

Leah’s Review:

There are some films that need to be seen. I hate being that person who says that you need to watch a movie because it’s so iconic- but “Lawrence of Arabia” really is something that everyone should watch and experience at least once in their life.

Does “Lawrence of Arabia” appeal to the modern movie-goer? Yes and no. I think much of the film goes unappreciated by many who would see it today. For an adventure-genre film, it isn’t action-packed. Sometimes there’s little to no dialogue. It’s a nearly four-hour long epic, much of which goes by rather slowly. But the story isn’t really what’s important here- rather how the story is told is what’s important.

For someone who appreciates film as an art and not concerned solely with content- “Lawrence of Arabia” is a cinematic treat. The story is an epic and is meant to be experienced rather than watched. Much of the grandeur of this film is lost solely because of the modern format we’re forced use. Much like last week’s “Dunkirk”, the movie was shot in 70mm and this really is the only way one can fully view and appreciate it. I can only imagine how much more epic the vast desert scenery would have looked on the big screen as it was meant to be seen.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m a sucker for a movie with good cinematography- and “Lawrence of Arabia” is really the cream of the crop when it comes to cinematography. Nearly every shot shows the stunning and expansive landscape of the dessert- fully immersing the viewer into that environment. And I can’t not mention the iconic and brilliant shot of Omar Sharif’s entrance through the desert mirage or my personal favorite transition between Lawrence blowing out a match to a desert sunrise landscape shot.

The cinematography is beautifully complimented by Maurice Jarre’s masterful score- giving majesty and a sense of wonder to each scene. I would go so far as to say that the movie wouldn’t be nearly as epic if not for its soundtrack (which, no surprise, won an Oscar for best score).

I must also mention the flawless performances of stars, Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, and Alec Guinness (Guinness was an extremely strange choice given his English nationality- but still does the character justice). Previously, I had only seen O’Toole in two of his lesser films (and yes, one of those was Pixar’s “Ratatouille”), but was completely captivated by his performance as T.E. Lawrence. Omar Sharif has always been one of those magical actor names that I knew but had never actually seen on screen. His portrayal of the complex Sherif Ali (whose character development is perhaps the most interesting) was one that I immensely enjoyed.

I don’t think think “Lawrence of Arabia” appeals to everyone- but I do think it is a movie that had a huge impact on film-making and is a must-see for any film-aficionado. Or if you just really like camels.

Brent’s Review:

“Lawrence of Arabia” is a biopic of T.E. Lawrence, a young and peculiar British soldier who was successful in uniting Arab tribes to fight against the Turks during World War I. “Lawrence of Arabia” is an epic. It begins with an overture and features an intermission. The cast features eight actors who either won or were nominated for Oscars (including Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif, who both were nominated for their performances in this film). The film runs just short of four hours in length. Viewers be warned: watching “Lawrence of Arabia” is an investment of more than just time.

The genius of “Lawrence” is lost on me today, watching the film now 55 years after its initial release. The film’s most impressive and beautiful feature is its cinematography. Landscapes are photographed so beautifully by Freddie Young that it seems the film is made of artwork that came to life. More than that, the cinematography plays heavily into the atmosphere of the film: characters don’t cut immediately into the frame (as Sergio Leone did in “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” another film in a desolate landscape). Instead, characters begin as blips on the horizon. One character’s introduction is lengthy, nearing several minutes in length as his spec becomes a person who becomes a man with a rifle. The only signal of his impending arrival is the dust kicked up by his camel in the distance. The beauty of this type of cinematography loses a lot when exchanging a 70mm theater print for a digital format on a 32” HDTV.

The other aspect of the film that I missed by my contemporary eyes is the patient sense of storytelling. “Lawrence of Arabia” is a slow story by any standards, but watching it today makes it feel like the story crawls. It’s hard for me to enter into in an epic of this length when I’m used to nice, tightly-wound narratives that get you in and out in two hours. This film harkens to a time where watching a film wasn’t just entertainment, it was an event. David Lean never meant his epic to be watched on a home television on a Saturday afternoon. Can I even say I saw the film he wanted me to see?

But I can say that I’ve seen it – and I enjoyed parts of it. I appreciated parts of it, especially the screen presence every actor has, especially Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif. But for me, it felt less like watching a story I could get involved in and interact with and more like watching a historical document. Watching a film of this scope reminds me of family, some of whom have passed away, who would watch these sorts of films as children. I wanted to see “Lawrence of Arabia” so I could be part of that conversation. And, like the soldier near the film’s end who shakes Lawrence’s hand just to say that he’d done it, now I suppose I can

Next up: We’re going to dial the cute factor up to 11 and check out “Wall-E”, a Pixar film that we both missed when it was released… nearly a decade ago.

Peace out, kids.

Dunkirk (2017)

Synopsis: Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surrounded by the German army and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: Christopher Nolan wrote and directed it… and Tom Hardy is in it, so…

Brent’s Review:

Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is the most visceral war film I have seen since “Saving Private Ryan”.

“Dunkirk” recounts a week-long “battle” in which German forces pushed British and French soldiers to Dunkirk beach, which is so close to the cliffs of Dover that 12 ferry rides per day are held between the two locations in 2017. “You can almost see [home],” one of the captains says early in the film. Escape is the goal, but it isn’t simple: tanks block the way back into France, U-boats patrol the sea, and the German air force are blowing up any ships that they can. Time is running out.

The narrative in this film is constructed ingeniously. The story is told across three individual stories, each with a different location (land, sea, and air) and each with a differing time interval (the longest section is one week; the shortest is one hour). Much of the film’s suspense is generated by the ways in which these storylines interface with one another.

It seems clear to me that Hans Zimmer’s score will receive an Academy Award given that 90% of the suspense is derived from his endless crescendos, atmospheric soundscapes, and that ticking clock that twists the screws tighter with each passing click. Zimmer, whose foghorns in “Inception” were so famously copied for years after its release, has created yet another memorable score.

My gut tells me that Nolan will get his due with “Dunkirk”, by which I mean that he will receive his first Academy Award nomination for the category of Best Director (my brain, however, tells me he will not win). “Dunkirk” is certainly an early favorite for Best Picture accolades, along with sure nominations for cinematography, editing, and sound design.

One criticism I’ve heard of the film is that the characters are too static and that there isn’t enough development for each character to feel like a film worthy of such high praise. For me, this criticism misses the point: Nolan wasn’t trying to create a story with dynamic characters, he was trying to put you on the beach. He succeeded.

Leah and I had the great fortune of seeing this film in 70mm at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus, OH (my new favorite theater). There were over 100 people watching the film with us, each of us having shelled out more than double the normal price of admission to see the film the way Nolan intended. The gunshots that ring out in the film’s first minutes were deafening. Everyone was instantly glued to the screen. I could feel people around me tensing up as Nolan crafted sequences so spellbinding that breathing sometimes took effort.

After being disappointed with “Interstellar”, I had some reservations about “Dunkirk”. My reservations melted away near the end of the first act when I realized Nolan had crafted something wholly different from his last outing. He was in control of this film from the word go.

See “Dunkirk”, in 70mm if you’re able.

Leah’s Review:

I’m not typically a fan of war-movies. And as I’ve previously mentioned, history is not something I find enjoyable- but I do love a good biopic. When I found out Christopher Nolan was directing a movie about World War II, I was intrigued. Nolan has made some amazing films that I’ve watched and enjoyed (the most recent Batman trilogy, “Inception”, and “The Prestige” to name a few). I was interested to see how Nolan would take a nonfictional event and put his spin on it.

First off, I must mention that we saw “Dunkirk” in 70mm. “Dunkirk” was shot in 70mm and was meant to be viewed in this format. There are only a handful of theatres in the country showing the film in 70mm, but we were able to find a screening of it at an amazing independent non-profit theatre in Columbus. I will say that this really enhanced the viewing experience. It gives the movie a sense of authenticity as well as volume- it’s a “big” story and deserves to be seen up close and personal.

There are many war movies that I’ve not seen (notably “Saving Private Ryan”), but I think “Dunkirk” is one of the most authentic depictions of war that has been put to film. Nolan doesn’t shy away from the gruesome, gut-wrenching, and intense aspects of the battle of Dunkirk. One aspect that made this film feel real was that, as an audience member, you’re essentially dropped into the thick of things. There’s a brief introduction that gives the viewer some context of what is happening, but otherwise- it’s a pretty jarring beginning (which really sets the tone for the rest of the film).

If I could choose one word to describe “Dunkirk”, it would be urgency. British and French troops have a limited amount of time to escape the beaches of Dunkirk- and not much protection to do so safely. There are three separate but connected storylines going on- and each has a force driving its characters to accomplish the task at hand. Staying alive is key. Combined with Hans Zimmer’s subtle, yet masterful score (featuring a ticking pocket watch throughout)- we’re kept on the edge of our seats for the majority of the film.

Nolan chose to cast mostly unknown actors for “Dunkirk” (with the exception of Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy). This really allows the viewer to focus on the performances themselves. The film doesn’t rely so much on dialogue as it does the action. Again, this makes “Dunkirk” a very authentic sort of experience- as a viewer, you feel like you are experiencing the battle with the characters.

I was very impressed with what Nolan was able to create in “Dunkirk”: A war movie that doesn’t feel overdone, characters you root and feel for even though their lines may be limited, an ending that is inspiring without feeling cheesy, and an authenticity that very few historical films can pull off. Even if you’re not a history buff, go see “Dunkirk”.

Up next: We’re visiting the desert with Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, and Alec Guiness in “Lawrence of Arabia”. 

Peace out, kids.


The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Synopsis: The adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous hotel from the fictional Republic of Zubrowka between the first and second World Wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Leah

Why I chose it: I’ve always wanted to see a Wes Anderson film and this one featured nonstop hilarity, a colorful backdrop, and a handful of my favorite actors. Which, I guess, could be features of any Wes Anderson film- but I also recalled all of the Oscar buzz that this one received when it came out.

Leah’s Review:

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a story within a story. We are introduced to “The Author” of the story of the same name at the very beginning of the film- but the storyteller is ultimately Zero Moustafa, the once poor bellboy and the now owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel (who relays the story of how he came to own the hotel to “The Author”). The movie never wastes any time, and we are quickly thrown into the story of M. Gustave, the hotel’s most remarkable concierge. Gustave take Zero the bellboy under his wing, teaching him everything he knows. This relationship becomes important as Gustave gets involved in a situation involving his lover’s inheritance and her possessive, psychopathic family.

The pacing of “Grand Budapest” is what makes the film work so well. The plot advances so quickly that you’re never bored- but the exposition helps the viewer not to get completely lost. There’s a large cast of characters, but each one is so distinct and memorable that you never get hung up on who’s who. The fast pace of the movie combined with the quick and witty script makes for a delightful and entertaining viewing experience (the comedic timing often reminded me of that of the classic “Pink Panther” films). The story is quirky, heartfelt, often ridiculous, but never feels ham-fisted. It’s escapism at its best.

Perhaps one of my favorite aspects of the film is its vibrant color schemes. There is a specific color palette for nearly every scene and, coupled with the movies’ numerous wide shots, this makes the watching experience more akin to viewing a great piece of artwork. Often, the palettes are composed of complementary colors (the most noticeable being the orange-ish backdrop of the hotel itself with the purple uniforms of the employees) which really make every shot stand out on its own.

The movie’s often absurd characters would not be able to come to life without the brilliant performers behind them. There’s a handful of actors that are broadly recognizable, even if they are only on the screen for a few scenes- who make sure that their characters are not forgotten. Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Tilda Swinton, and of course Bill Murray (who is a regular in Wes Anderson films) are all fantastic in their respective roles. Then-newcomer, Tony Revolori shines in his role as young Zero (with the talented F. Murray Abraham as his adult counterpart). And I can’t not mention Ralph Fiennes who I am now certain can play any character convincingly- from the heartless and ruthless Amon Goth in “Schindler’s List” to the hilarious and ridiculous M. Gustave.

I had high hopes for “Grand Budapest” when we made our list for the year- and I was not disappointed. It’s definitely one of my favorite films we’ve seen so far and I look forward to watching it again as well as the next Wes Anderson film on our list.

Brent’s Review:

Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a wet sponge, by which I mean it is incredibly dense. I could wrap both hands around it, twist it again and again, and yet I believe I would not be able to fully wring out everything from this film.

I will confess that, including this, I’ve only seen two Wes Anderson films – the other being “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” which was a bit of a letdown for me. I didn’t have exceedingly high hopes for this film. It looked intriguing, but “maybe,” I thought. “Maybe Wes Anderson is a type of quirky that I just don’t get.”

Not so. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a fire hydrant. The costume design, score, and production design are all fantastic (all won Oscars in their respective categories). The acting is pitch perfect and well-cast, even if the cast really features Wes Anderson’s usual cast of regulars (Willem Dafoe, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Ed Norton, and many more). The plot, too, is even ridiculous: a famous concierge at the titular hotel inherits a priceless painting from a widow whose heart he won years after her husband’s passing. One catch: her children are psychopaths and want the painting for themselves. The concierge – the famed M. Gustave – steals the painting with the aid of his immigrant lobby boy, Zero Moustafa.

For me, the difference between “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Life Aquatic” is pacing. “Grand Budapest” is a flurry of jokes, some of which are hidden in the artwork in the background and others of which are hidden in a glance between characters. Some might call the comedy quirky; I would call it subtle.

The film begins at a breakneck pace as it introduces the primary plot device: a story over dinner between the older Zero Moustafa and a guest at the now-rundown Grand Budapest. The first chapter moves so swiftly that it might trample you if you’re not invested from frame one, but once you catch up you will find much to enjoy.

I will confess, however, that I found myself trying to convince myself of disappointment midway through the film. “This is a comedy, right?” I asked myself. “You should be laughing out loud a lot more than you are.” As soon as I became aware of this thought, I realized that I’d been grinning like an idiot for the better part of the last hour. “Grand Budapest” is whimsical – you’re not likely to bust a gut, but your cheeks will feel the burn.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” relies on a layered approach to both storytelling and comedy. Indeed, the drawn landscapes in the film are just as beautiful as the painting the protagonists steal. I am going to use a cop-out and suggest that my difficulty in finding the best words to describe this film relies on its own reliance on visuals to propel the story. I guess you’ll just have to see this movie to know what I’m talking about.

Up Next: We’ll be traveling to the theater to see Christopher Nolan’s newest film, “Dunkirk.”

Peace out, kids.

The Godfather (1972)

Synopsis: The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: Leah hadn’t seen it and I think everyone should, if only to be part of the pop culture conversation.

Brent’s Review:

“The Godfather” is the first of a three-part crime saga recounting the Corleone family’s attempts to stay in power. We meet Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) on the day of his daughter’s wedding, agreeing to grant favors to anyone who asks, per a Sicilian custom. Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), his right-hand man, takes notes and helps keep things organized. His three sons – Santino (James Caan), Fredo (John Cazale), and Michael (Al Pacino) – stalk the grounds and generally enjoy themselves. It’s a day of celebration.

Happy times fade, but that isn’t surprising. What also isn’t surprising is that it’s a result of Vito Corleone saying no to someone he shouldn’t have said no to. After an assassination attempt, there is a power vacuum at the head of the Corleone family. The Godfather is a crime epic featuring more than twenty main characters and sets spanning the entire United States and Italy. But the scale of its setting and ensembles can easily distract from the true premise: The Godfather is an examination of the transition of power in a crime family from a well-respected patriarch to the reluctant, but prodigal, son, Michael.

A lot of good ink has been spilled talking about the acting and direction of this film. After all, the film had four Best Actor nominations (only Brando won), but instead of retreading that very well-worn path, I’m going to talk about two items I don’t often hear about “The Godfather”: the writing and the cinematography.

The film is co-written by Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola and it won an academy award for the strength of its writing. This film boasts a script so dense and complex that the fairly straightforward tale we see ended up on the screen is nothing short of miraculous. Time and again, we find the most significant details to be small, seemingly innocuous. Consider: after Michael and a family friend narrowly dodge a confrontation with hitmen, Michael has to help the other man light his cigarette because the other man’s hands are shaking too violently to use his lighter. Michael’s aren’t shaking, which surprises him. These small actions are woven throughout the script and shrinks the scale of the film to a very basic level.

The cinematography is very underrated. Consider the opening shot in which the shadows cast upon the face of a disrespectful man make him look like a rodent, only a gleam of his eyes and front teeth showing. Or in another scene (my favorite shot in the entire film), Vito Corleone mourns the loss of one of his sons, only his upper torso dimly lit against a pitch-black background. It’s stunning.

Hollywood legend Howard Hawks once said that a good movie has three good scenes and no bad ones. “The Godfather” has half a dozen perfect scenes, a few more that are great, and the rest are good. That pretty much sums it up. It’s not my favorite of all time, but it’s a phenomenal film. See this movie.

Leah’s Review:

So we’ve come to it at last. “The Godfather”. Almost universally hailed as one of the greatest films of all time. I have to admit, I felt a lot of pressure watching this movie. Pressure to love it. Pressure to come to the same conclusion that it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen. I mean, it’s “The Godfather”.

I didn’t dislike “The Godfather.” But I didn’t quite love it either. Don’t get me wrong- it’s an expertly-made film in every way. From the script, to the cinematography, and the acting- it feels like an authentic gangster film. It’s gritty, gruesome, and difficult to watch at times. It never feels flashy. The characters aren’t presented as the cool gangsters that the audience wants to emulate. We watch what occurs in the Corleone’s world- but we don’t really want to be a part of it. It’s exciting, to be sure. But a little too dangerous for our liking. We’ll stay safe on our couch, thank you very much.

I thought the acting was spot on. Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, and Robert Duvall (amongst others) completely disappear into their respective roles. Keeping their performances from distracting us from what is going on in the story- and instead giving life to the plot and making the Corleone family a believable one. I was really impressed by the transformation of Pacino’s Michael Corleone from a respectable, honest young man into a cold, ruthless, and manipulative leader of an operation he never wanted to be a part of in the first place (the film does a good job of showing how the events that occur in the story influence Michael in the direction).

I see myself watching “The Godfather” again in the future. Not because I really liked it, but because I felt like there was so much that I missed. A large cast of characters (with names I couldn’t keep straight and thick accents I couldn’t always understand), an often dense plot including many intricacies of the mafia that were more assumed than explained certainly didn’t help. I also think that because I was expecting something more flashy, more ”glamorous” if you will (think “Goodfellas” or “Pulp Fiction”)- it was harder to keep up with this more subtle (and again, more accurate) representation of gangster life. I think keeping this in mind for my second viewing will make it a more enjoyable experience and provide me with a greater appreciation for this masterfully-made film.

Up Next: We’ll be on holiday at “The Grand Budapest Hotel”.

Peace out, kids.

10 Movies You Gotta See

There is an allure to “Top 10” lists. The prospect of making a “Top 10” list of anything is daunting, but the attraction entices us to rank items in this way, definitively marking the “best” of any given list. But, of course, “Top 10” lists really serve to spark debate: certainly something was left off or a reader might re-rank your own list. In the end, opinions fall short, and the truth about film is that each film must be considered as it stands on its own two feet: one cannot adequately compare “The Godfather” and “The Dark Knight”, as it were.

So we will resist the temptation to provide any definitive ranking of any film. Instead, we will provide you with two separate “Top 5” lists. The films appearing on these lists are not the “Best 5” movies of all time — or even great movies in some cases. Instead, these are just Movies You Gotta See.


5 Movies Brent Thinks You Gotta See

5. Jackie Brown (1997)


Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Based on a novel by Elmore Leonard

Synopsis: A middle-aged woman finds herself in the middle of a huge conflict that will either make her a profit or cost her life.

Why you gotta see it: Quentin Tarantino’s follow-up to “Pulp Fiction” lacks the pizzazz of its predecessor, but it’s cool in its own funky way. The climax features one of the most dazzling suspense sequences in his entire filmography and the star-studded cast features Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Robert De Niro, and Michael Keaton — all outshined by Pam Grier.

4. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)


Written by Frank Pierson

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Synopsis: A man robs a bank to pay for his lover’s operation; it turns into a hostage situation and a media circus.

Why you gotta see it: Al Pacino turns in one of his most chameleon-like performances, exuding energy with every scene and in every line. At a time of great social unrest, Pacino’s screaming “Attica! Attica!” at a riot squad is one of the most underrated moments in film history. And the kicker is the phone call scene between Pacino and his lover — entirely improvised by the two actors.

3. The Truman Show


Written by Andrew Niccol

Directed by Peter Weir

Synopsis: An insurance salesman/adjuster discovers his entire life is actually a television show.

Why you gotta see it: Ed Harris’ brilliant turn as show-runner and visionary “Christof” is outshined at every turn by Jim Carrey’s dazzling “Truman Burbank.” Carrey’s first foray into a dramatic role is right in his wheelhouse: it’s energetic without being slapstick, and within that more subdued posture he finds genuine moments of emotional resonance.

2. Chinatown


Written by Robert Towne

Directed by Roman Polanski

Synopsis: A private detective hired to expose an adulterer finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption, and murder.

Why you gotta see it: I’m not winning awards for originality with this pick, but “Chinatown” is cinematic perfection. Towne’s script is often used in writing classes in film school as an example of how to write a mystery, Polanski’s direction is impeccable, and the cast — especially Nicholson, Dunaway, and Huston — never miss a beat. The film works as a noir, but then it throws in a whopper of a twist. It’s hard to forget about “Chinatown.”

1. Baby Driver


Written and directed by Edgar Wright

Synopsis: After being coerced into working for a crime boss, a young getaway driver finds himself taking part in a heist doomed to fail.

Why you gotta see it: “Baby Driver” is a genre mash-up of action, comedy, and heist thriller shot in the form of a music video. The cast is stellar, top-to-bottom, and I’m recommending this movie now because it deserves to be seen in theaters, which you can do for the next couple of weeks.

5 Movies Leah Thinks You Gotta See

5. Never Let Me Go (2010)


Directed by Mark Romanek

Written by Kazuo Ishiguro (novel) & Alex Garland (screenplay)

Synopsis: The lives of three friends, from their early school days into young adulthood, when the reality of the world they live in comes knocking.

Why you gotta see it: “Never Let Me Go” is a film I would add to the you-also-need-to-read-the-book list (Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel by the same name is masterfully written). It’s a fascinating and heartbreaking dystopian future story which features some amazing performances from then-newcomers Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield and it’s also just a very beautiful movie to watch. This is not a lighthearted film but its extremely intriguing concept challenges its audience to consider what it means to be human.

4. Rear Window (1954)


Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Written by John Michael Hayes (screenplay) & Cornell Woolrich (short story)

Synopsis: A wheelchair-bound photographer spies on his neighbors from his apartment window and becomes convinced one of them has committed murder.

Why you gotta see it: I have not yet watched every one of Alfred Hitchcock’s film- but this one is definitely my personal favorite (and probably his best after Psycho). Possibly one of the slowest tension-building story-lines of Hitchcock’s, making the payoff all the more rewarding. It continues to keep you guessing right until the very end and the climax is heart-stopping (I’ve seen it multiple times and last few scenes still gives me chills). Jimmy Stewart is flawless, as always, and Grace Kelly’s performance complements his perfectly.

3. That Thing You Do! (1996)


Directed and written by Tom Hanks

Synopsis: A Pennsylvania band scores a hit in 1964 and rides the star-making machinery as long as it can, with lots of help from its manager.

Why you gotta see it: This underrated and overlooked film was directed, produced, and features the acting talents of the one and only Tom Hanks. It’s not an Oscar-worthy movie by any means, but it’s a light, fun, and enjoyable watch that provides more than its fair share of laughs and will leave you in a good mood (and a catchy pop song in your head for the rest of the day).

2. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)


Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Written by Jesse Andrews (screenplay and novel)

Synopisis: High schooler Greg, who spends most of his time making parodies of classic movies with his co-worker Earl, finds his outlook forever altered after befriending a classmate who has just been diagnosed with cancer.

Why you gotta see it: In a world where our current teen-culture is obsessed with movies/books featuring love stories where one of the characters has cancer (or some life-threatening disease) comes a film that is actually authentic and tasteful. This extremely underrated movie stars three essentially unknown actors who give spectacular, funny, and heartfelt performances. Movie-nerds will appreciate it for its references and it will have your sides splitting for most of its duration. I’m also a fan of this one because it was based and filmed in Pittsburgh and, as a former Western-PA native, I love all things related to the ‘burgh.

But be warned. The ending will make you ugly-cry. Hard.

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)


Directed by Michel Gondry

Written by Charlie Kaufman & Michel Gondry

Synopsis: When their relationship turns sour, a couple undergoes a procedure to have each other erased from their memories. But it is only through the process of loss that they discover what they had to begin with.

Why you gotta see it: This offbeat romantic dramedy is perhaps one of the most beautiful, heartbreaking, and brilliant romance films I’ve ever seen. Jim Carrey shines in a role very different than the quirky comedic ones you might be used to seeing him in and Kate Winslet gives a delightful performance of the least graceful/dignified character she’s probably ever played. This is definitely a movie you need to watch a couple of times to fully appreciate (the story is told non-linearly and can be a bit trippy your first time through), but it is a moving and authentic portrayal of the complexities of relationships, the importance of memories, and how both define us.

What movies do you think we gotta see? Leave comments below! We need ideas for next year, after all!

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)

Synopsis: A bounty hunting scam joins two men in an uneasy alliance against a third in a race to find a fortune in gold buried in a remote cemetery.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: It had been a long while since I saw this film — probably six or seven years. Let’s just say I have a greater appreciation for film-making and storytelling methods now… I liked it then, but I thought it was sloooowwww. I wanted to see if I thought the same thing this time (spoilers: I didn’t).

Brent’s Review:

“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” takes place in barren wastelands – even the scenes taking place in towns or buildings last only a few moments before cannonballs blast the walls in. Set during the backdrop of the U.S. Civil War, the third film of the “Dollars” trilogy follows three men – Blondie (The Good), Angel Eyes (The Bad), and Tuco (The Ugly) – as they each seek to obtain $200,000 in gold coins buried in a cemetery.

The film’s director, Sergio Leone, has an eye for framing and cinematography. The actors’ cragged faces are examined in close-ups, detailing every feature of their sun-worn skin. Characters enter abruptly from just beyond the frame, cutting long shots into close-ups. Deep Focus is used throughout, adding depth to every shot.

We’re just getting started. Leone is a master of tension. In one scene, three bandits creep upstairs to get the drop on a character while he cleans his gun, the sound of marching soldiers covering the sounds of their spurs. Ignorant of his danger, he continues cleaning. The scene goes on for minutes, wide shots turning into close-ups and the pace of the cuts ramps up to the turn: the march stops and a spur chimes. Now the race is on to get the upper hand.

This is but one of many suspenseful sequences in the film, which reminded me of Hitchcock’s distinction between suspense and surprise. To paraphrase: Suppose we’re having a chat and there is a bomb under the table. At a certain point, the bomb explodes. You’re surprised. But suppose now that we tell the audience that there’s a bomb under the table and it’s going to go off at a certain time, but we still continue to chat. That’s suspense.

Suspense falls flat, however, without meaningful characters. Clint Eastwood criticized the film, saying Tuco’s character is the only one fleshed out in the story. He’s right, but that’s missing the boat. Blondie, Angel Eyes, and Tuco aren’t just men, they are archetypes. They stand like titans in this wasteland. The film’s climax features a three-man duel. We know that only one of the men can win, but the sequence only works if we connect with the characters.

I cannot end this review without mentioning the perfection of Ennio Morricone’s score, which words cannot do justice. Without its perfection, however, entire sequences of the film simply would not work, including a lengthy sequence where a character runs in circles through a cemetery. And I want to give a special note about Eli Wallach’s turn as Tuco, which is superb.

Watching this film in 2017 calls to mind the filmography of Quentin Tarantino, whose more recent works mimic Leone’s style. It also calls to mind Eastwood’s film “Unforgiven”, in which he pens his love letter to the genre. The “Dollars” trilogy revived the Western genre, if only for a short time. That this film is so influential is appropriate – its legacy stands tall like a titan in an all-but-barren wasteland.

Leah’s Review:

I have a confession to make: I hate Westerns. I find them to be boring and slow and the subject matter isn’t something that I can connect to. On the rare occasion that I catch one on TV, my eyes usually glaze over and I immediately change the channel. However, I knew I needed to see “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” purely because it’s such a classic, iconic film.

Despite my hesitations, I genuinely enjoyed Sergio Leone’s masterpiece. Sure- the run-time was probably 45 minutes more than it needed to be and there are definitely some parts that drag. But overall, the pacing works well- slowly building the tension between the three lead characters until their final, iconic standoff. The soundtrack and classic main theme couldn’t fit the feel of this film better (why did it take until 2016 for Ennio Morricone to win an Oscar for his score???). And the cinematography is downright gorgeous.

Another confession: This was my first Clint Eastwood watching-experience (This is probably due to the fact that he’s in so many Westerns). I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed his performance. I’ve always pegged Eastwood for playing the grumpy/crotchety, jerkish character (And maybe that’s just because of how he seems in real life). But I absolutely loved his role as Blondie- the charismatic, smart, and cunning gunslinger. He is truly a hero (though often quite dastardly) that you want to root for. And that poncho. I mean, come on.

A final embarrassing confession: The only movie I had ever seen Eli Wallach in was 2006’s “The Holiday” (which is by no means a great film, but is one of those guilty-pleasure-romantic-comedies for me). As I soon discovered, Wallach appeared in countless films (both Westerns and other genres) from the late 1940’s until his recent death in 2014. And it’s no surprise. Wallach’s performance as Tuco is flawless. Eastwood may have been the star of this film, but Wallach definitely has the most dialogue by a long-shot. A method actor, Wallach did most of his own stunts and somehow manages to make the corrupt and deceitful outlaw one of the most like-able characters. If I got anything out of this film- it’s a resolution to watch more of Wallach’s films.

Side note: After watching “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”, I definitely felt like I better understood the filmmaking of modern director Quentin Tarantino. A favorite film of Tarantino’s, it inspired and influenced several of his own movies including “Reservoir Dogs”, “Pulp Fiction” and (very obviously) “Django Unchained”. The pacing, the style, and even some of the camera shots feel like they’re straight out of a Tarantino film. The theme of glorifying criminals is also a nod to Leone.

I was very happy to be proven wrong about Westerns. Perhaps they’re not quite as bad as I thought they were. Or maybe they’re just not as good as “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”

Up Next: We’re getting a chance to see “The Godfather”, which some say is the best film of all time. Hard to refuse an offer to see that, am I right? 

Peace out, kids.

Brick (2005)

Synopsis: A teenage loner pushes his way into the underworld of a high school crime ring to investigate the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: “Brick” is one of those movies in the late 2000s that caught my eye, but I have no discernible reason to say *why* I wanted to watch it outside of it being a supposed crime thriller. Truthfully, I can’t even remember watching the trailer. Years later, knowing that Rian Johnson wrote and directed it was all I needed to know to land it on my list.

Brent’s Review:

“Brick” is written and directed by Rian Johnson, of “Looper” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” fame. This film has a pretty standard setup: teen loner, Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), looks into the mysterious appearance of his ex-girlfriend. Where the film is unique, however, is that it exhumes the corpse of film noir, a genre firmly in the rearview mirror of the film industry today, and throws every trope in the genre at the viewer with confidence. In the few moments that the film slows down, I found myself reflecting on an interview with Quentin Tarantino I saw a few years ago in which he describes his experience writing “Pulp Fiction” as having the confidence to tell a really simple story.

The mission of “Brick” is massive: use film noir in a high school setting and make it convincing. Save for a few solid laughs, the film is very self-serious – it could even be a comedy if not for Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s strong performance.

Yet, the strength of “Brick” is also its weakness: the choice of setting sometimes requires more suspension of disbelief than I wanted to give. The movie insists on realism – indeed, the violence is visceral. On the other hand, the film is about teenagers in high school – and it doesn’t shy away from its setting, including inquiries about “who’s eating lunch [with whom]” and the inadvertently hilarious line, “I don’t want you to come kicking in my homeroom door because of something I didn’t do.”

Johnson does an excellent job of crafting a film that would never have been made if it didn’t have this “fresh” angle – indeed, it took him six years to fund this one on a budget of less than half a million dollars – but ultimately, he is backed into a corner. His solution is to try to meet the challenge head-on and occasionally come up for air, winking at the audience along the way. In one brief scene, Brendan interacts with The Pin’s mother, which feels like it was transplanted from a teen comedy. Brendan slips back into his tough-guy facade after she excuses herself.

If you find yourself distracted by the setting, the film’s breakneck pace doesn’t let you be distracted for long. Johnson’s command of this material is outstanding. As excited as I am to see his work on “The Last Jedi,” I am even more excited to see the solo projects he will helm in the future. Overall, I was impressed by his work on such a small budget. Make no mistake: the film isn’t perfect. There are some jerky camera movements that betray his trademark crispness and some out-of-focus shots that a more experienced Johnson probably would’ve cleaned up. But the film is consistently beautiful to look at and, overall, the camera movements are very fun to watch (his whip-pans and close-ups are especially noteworthy).

I really wanted to love “Brick”, but I’ll settle for really liking it a lot. It’s definitely worth a viewing – maybe even a few.

Leah’s Review:

My main reason for wanting to watch “Brick” was because of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Levitt is a fantastic actor who has been in a variety of genres including drama, comedy, and action. I’ve never seen him give a bad performance and, in fact, he usually blows me away with his abilities to adapt to very different characters. I also have a tendency of enjoying movies that take place in high school settings as well as murder-mystery stories, so “Brick” was a film that I was looking forward to seeing.

“Brick” is a very interesting blend of film. What you need to know up front (and what I didn’t catch from until about halfway through) is that it is a film noir movie. The interesting part is that its setting is a modern-day high school. “Brick” asks its audience to suspend their belief that this combination should be a natural one and also assumes we will catch on to any subtle attributes common of the film noir genre. On top of that, the fast-paced and often frenzied-feeling story makes it nearly impossible to keep up with what is happening in this unfamiliar environment. Nevertheless, once you’ve gotten your bearings, the film is both engaging and engrossing.

After watching “Casino” last week (another crime movie made with a larger budget and more established movie-makers/actors), I was really impressed with how “Brick” was able to make itself feel like a really authentic film noir movie. Sure, modern-day high schoolers aren’t nearly this polished or cool. Underground teenage heroin rings, though some surely exist, aren’t nearly this well-managed. But somehow, it all works in a very believable way. On a side note, I really liked the fact that the director chose to have the characters use pay phones as their form of communication instead of cell phones to add complication to the plot and a more film noir feel.

“Brick” is a dark movie. It deals with some heavy subject matter and thrusts teenagers into a very adult world. There were times I was reminded of watching “Chinatown” or “L.A. Confidential”- which (like “Brick”) both feature investigation of corrupted murders. “Brick” features some of that same brutal violence. Brent disagreed with me about the movie being violent- but maybe it stood out more to me because the ones dealing with the danger and corruption were not cold-hearted gangsters or experienced detectives- but rather high school kids. And, again- I think that’s what makes this film so brilliant. The effortlessness in which the world of film noir and high school drama are so perfectly melded together is both innovative and entertaining to watch on screen.

Up Next: “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. The mother of all spaghetti westerns. 

Peace out, kids.

Casino (1995)

Synopsis: Greed, deception, money, power, and murder occur between two best friends: a mafia underboss and a casino owner, for a trophy wife over a gambling empire.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: Years ago, I bought a copy of “Casino” on a discounted price. I hadn’t seen it before I bought it, but when I sat down to watch it I discovered that the DVD I had was broken. It would skip starting at the 100-minute mark. Very distracting — I wanted to finally see it in its entirety.

Brent’s Review:

“Casino” has an incredibly complicated plot, which I shall attempt to recapitulate succinctly. In the 1970’s, casinos in Las Vegas are controlled by the mafia using an intricate series of fall guys, proxies, and bag men to give the appearance of legitimacy while skimming their take of the profits. $100 million may go into the casino each week, but the mafia bosses (located in Kansas City) get their money by skimming a little off the top, a few million here and there – who’s the wiser?

Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro) is a proxy for the mafia bosses, placed in charge of the Tangiers casino and hotel. He’s good at it – probably better than he needs to be. He’s got a good thing going, but trouble comes on two fronts: his childhood friend Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) and a transfixing call girl named Ginger (Sharon Stone). Sam tiptoes around Nicky, who knocks off oddsmakers and bookies in Vegas in an attempt to establish his own crime syndicate. On the other hand, Sam goes all in with Ginger, fathering a child, marrying her, and giving her the only other key to a safety deposit box full of millions of dollars in cash and jewelry. If you’re wondering whether this is a poor decision, then you probably aren’t familiar with the genre.

“Casino” is part of what I’ll call a “Wiseguy” trilogy for Scorsese, including “Wolf of Wall Street” and my all-time favorite film, “Goodfellas.” All three films have a distinct style: “cool” movies with lots of narration, and plenty of anti-heroes. “Casino” isn’t a bad movie, but it’s easily the worst of the three. In “Goodfellas”, we see Henry Hill rise and fall in the mafia, ending up as a nobody. In “Wolf”, Belfort’s horrific life is recounted before our eyes and yet he is still idolized by many. In “Casino”, we see Sam… eventually land where he started.

The three leads are incredibly unlikeable throughout the film. Sam is psychologically abusive to his wife, Nicky is violent and stubborn, and Ginger is a selfish drug addict. “Casino” falls well short of both “Goodfellas” and “Wolf” because there isn’t one single likeable character – even in the supporting cast (“Wolf” at least had Jordan’s father!). When the characters finally get their comeuppance, the violence plays flat because I didn’t have a reason to root for them in the first place.

Leah put it well after “Casino” ended: “It’s like they said, ‘Hey, let’s make ‘Goodfellas’ again.’” Yep. The difference is that “Casino” is cold – Scorsese rarely involves the audience in what’s happening on screen as well as he does in “Goodfellas”. The setup and the punchline isn’t the same, but the delivery and the substance are: these are bad people living in a bad world and bad things will happen to them.

“Casino” is… O.K. I can’t recommend it, but I wouldn’t tell you to avoid it. Now having seen it in its entirety, I conjure only one word: disappointment.

Leah’s Review:

“As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a casino owner.”

I was looking forward to watching “Casino”. Martin Scorsese has made some amazing films including “Goodfellas” which like “Casino”, focuses on the complex lives of mob members. “Casino” also (like “Goodfellas”) stars one of my favorite actors, Robert DeNiro.

The film was solid. It featured excellent performances from its lead cast and had an intriguing, fast-paced storyline. However, “Casino” came up short for me. Maybe if I hadn’t already seen “Goodfellas”, I would have enjoyed it more. Because it kind of felt like Scorsese had such a good time making his 1990 gangster film, that he decided to make another one five years later that wasn’t as good. There are a lot of similar themes in both films. The plots that focus on the mafia, excessive violence, language, and drug use, messy marriages, and endings that show the lead characters getting their comeuppance. But in my opinion, “Goodfellas” was a more engaging and better-made film.

Something “Casino” does well (much like “Goodfellas”) is create a stylish atmosphere that you as the audience want to be a part of. Scorsese does a great job of making the mob life look cool, exciting, and appealing. “Casino” features a wide color palette that much like its setting (Las Vegas) is lavish, bold, and loud. The costume budget for the movie was $1 million and DeNiro alone had 70 different costumes (Stone had a measly 40). As someone who appreciates fashion, I loved each and every one of DeNiro’s fabulous suits that were custom-made just for him.

The best part of “Casino” were the performances of DeNiro and Stone. I can’t not enjoy a film with a good DeNiro performance. He’s truly a masterclass actor, and this genre suits him so well. I had never watched a movie with Sharon Stone in it before and was blown away by her performance. She plays her character of the cunning, drug-addict, trophy wife to a T and is able to showcase her acting skills on both sides of the characters’ spectrum (a confident con-artist to a desperate user). Not surprisingly, Stone was rewarded with her first Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination.

All in all, “Casino” was not a bad film. But it certainly wasn’t my favorite. It lacked that engaging quality that would make me want to watch it again. I may be biased, but I think I’ll stick to “Goodfellas”.

Up Next: We’ll be watching Joseph Gordon-Levitt (before he became the heartthrob from “500 Days of Summer”) in one of his first big-picture performances: “Brick”.

Peace out, kids.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Synopsis: There is panic throughout the nation as the dead suddenly come back to life. The film follows a group of characters who barricade themselves in an old farmhouse in an attempt to remain safe from these flesh eating monsters.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: Our culture is obsessed with zombies; I wanted to watch the film that started it all.

Leah’s Review:

I’ll start with two confessions. The first is that I don’t like horror movies. The second is that I really wasn’t interested in seeing “Night of the Living Dead”. This has to do with my first confession and because this particular film looked lame and campy. However, I watched it because I knew it was a classic and very instrumental in revolutionizing the horror film genre. The most surprising thing about this movie was how much I enjoyed it.

Part of what is brilliant about “Night” is how it’s able to subtly change the story’s tone. Roger Ebert puts it perfectly in his review:

“The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying.”

I found myself going from kind of enjoying the campy/scary feel of the film to being genuinely on the edge of my seat with fear.

“Night” was a very low-budget film. This is clear from the moment the movie begins. But honestly, I think it’s one of the things that makes this film great. Director George Romero was able to do so much with so little and use his limited resources to do some truly creative things. The way the film was shot was brilliant. The use of 35mm black-and-white film gives the film a very “documentary” vibe and therefore a more realistic feel. I think that’s another aspect I appreciated about the film- it felt real. The characters in “Night” react and behave the way you’d expect real people to act in that situation.

While watching this film, I kept thinking about how audiences in 1968 would have reacted to it. People had never seen a horror movie quite like this before. Watching it now, I recognize many tropes and “cliches” of the horror genre (which are used really well in this film, I might add) that were not commonplace in 1968. And then- there’s the zombies. Our current culture is so overly-saturated with zombies with seemingly every horror movie, tv show, and video game involving the undead. As such, most people now have an understanding of how zombies function. But those watching “Night” in 1968 didn’t have this common knowledge. There hadn’t been too many zombie movies before this. There are scenes that were frightening to me, but must have been so much more-so for the original audiences. Without giving too much away, there’s a scene where a character is bitten by a zombie. Because of my zombie knowledge, I instantly assumed they would definitely turn into one at some point. So when this does inevitably happen, it was a scary moment- but I wasn’t shocked. I can’t imagine watching this scene in 1968 or how terrifying it must have been.

There’s so much more I could say about this film. I recommend reading Roger Ebert’s full review as it completely captures the feeling of the movie. And I would also recommend watching “Night”. Because it’s truly fantastic. (But maybe wait to eat your supper until afterwards)

Brent’s Review:

When selecting films for this list, I knew I wanted to have horror movies included on it. However, both Leah and I scare easily, so I had to choose wisely. I settled on “Night of the Living Dead” as a pseudo- research project: our culture is obsessed with zombies, so I wanted to see the primary text that inspired it.

“I wasn’t disappointed, but it took some time to get there. The film’s beginning has a very campy feel. I’m sure the first half of “Night” would’ve fit right in with a double feature of other B-horror flicks like “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”. The characters are bland; the dialogue is serviceable, but the acting is poor; the horror isn’t gruesome at all. In fact, the first zombie attack isn’t remotely scary. However, the film makes a hard-right turn into horror about halfway through. The acting improves and several plot-threads unite in the climax to provoke genuine horror. “Night” contains one of the best climaxes in any horror film I’ve seen, including images that were genuinely scary for me in 2017; I cannot imagine the horror it provoked in 1968.

My favorite aspect of this film is that it is grounded in “reality”, if that’s possible for a zombie film. My favorite scene involves the survivors watching a television news broadcast in which a scientist confirms that radiation from Uranus is causing strange mutations to reanimate unburied dead, who have turned into cannibals. This exposition is followed with a beautiful exchange between the characters about getting a nearby truck to a gas tank. These characters don’t care about how they got where they are, they just care about how to survive.

I have one more comment to make, but it will require spoilers. Feel free to stop reading now if you’re intrigued; I highly recommend this film.

I turn now to describe one feature of the film that Romero claims was accidental, but cannot be ignored: “Night” becomes an allegory for racial tensions in America in the late 1960s. Released months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Night” holds the distinction of being the first film to cast a black actor (Duane Jones) in the lead role regardless of his race (that is, his race is not a plot device). Furthermore, Jones is cast against an all-white cast and an all-white zombie horde. The film ends as he is the lone survivor throughout the night, only to be killed and burned in a pyre by an all-white mob tasked with cleansing the countryside… a mob that looks and acts an awful lot like a lynch mob.

Romero claims these tones were accidental, but they make the final moments of the film work. Without this allegory, the film is sad. With it, the film is shocking.

Horror is a vehicle to explore anxieties and tensions on a macro level just as much as it is on a micro level — “Night” works on both levels.

Up Next: We’re watching “Casino” which is both a Martin Scorsese film and mob-movie…I wonder who chose this one???

Peace out, kids.

Magnolia (1999)

Synopsis: An epic mosaic of interrelated characters in search of love, forgiveness, and meaning in the San Fernando Valley.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: This has long been one of my favorite films, but it’s really hard to talk about or convince someone else to see because of the long run-time and huge cast of characters/plotlines… a perfect candidate for the project.

Brent’s Review:

“Magnolia” is Paul Thomas Anderson’s third feature film and, in his own words, is “…for better or worse, the best movie [he’ll] ever make.”

“Magnolia” is a monstrously epic drama set in San Fernando valley with an unbelievable amount of plot coincidences and conveniences, which would cause any other film to sink under the weight of incredulity. However, the film begins with a seven-to-eight minute mini-movie recounting three short urban legends that are surely pure acts of coincidence… but could they possibly be just coincidence? Once the film lures you into a suspension of disbelief, suddenly it seems plausible that 10+ strangers in the San Fernando Valley might actually, maybe have some connection.

Each character’s story is unique, ranging from an angry son reconciling with his dying father to a police officer falling for a drug addict and many others in between. The strength of this film is in the way each character’s struggles are manifested in different and unique scenarios; “Magnolia” is not a reflection on how love is impacted by external forces, but instead on how love impacts – and in some ways defines – one’s scope of reality. Every player in this story acts out of character as they all seek to give, receive, or find love in their lives.

I’ve seen every Paul Thomas Anderson film with the exceptions of “Hard Eight” and “Inherent Vice.” I disagree with his sentiment that this is the best movie he’ll ever make (my personal favorite is “There Will Be Blood”), but “Magnolia” showcases his virtuosic talents in directing and, in particular, getting phenomenal performances out of every single actor. There is only one other film I can think of that has an ensemble performance as good as “Magnolia” and that’s “The Departed”, which features a cast filled with Oscar winners and nominees. The amazing feat PTA accomplishes with this cast is that it is primarily comprised of career supporting actors and, in some cases, actors whose only credited role is “Magnolia.”

Typically, I’m not a fan of movies with 3-hr runtimes – that’s a huge time commitment, I think. However, “Magnolia” is one of the few 3-hr movies that I could watch any time because it features so many magnificent tracking and dolly shots – and long takes! – that no scene is ever boring. PTA’s energy and passion is very apparent throughout the film. The film’s soundtrack consistently complements his direction as well, including a long take featuring Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger” that inspired me to attempt writing screenplays in high school.

All in all, “Magnolia” is an incredibly hard film to talk about. Even if I were to highlight Tom Cruise’s amazing performance as “Frank T.J. Mackey” (disclaimer: I’m not a Cruise fan, but he nails this role), I feel like I’m doing a disservice to John C. Reilly’s excellent “Jim Kurrig”. And even if I highlight a performance, I’m neglecting the ending, which comes out of nowhere and… yeah, it’s memorable.

In short, see “Magnolia.” It is very much worth your time.

Leah’s Review:

When a film has a runtime of over three hours- I get a little nervous. Taking three hours to watch a movie is quite a commitment and there is always the fear that it not be worth my time. But when you become so absorbed in a movie’s storyline that you completely forget about time or how long you’ve been watching, that’s usually a sign of a well-made film. This was certainly the case for “Magnolia”. From the moment I started watching it, I was instantly engrossed in the lives of the characters and their varied stories- the movie never once feels “long”.

“Magnolia” shows the lives of a handful of very different individuals (who are also strangers at the start of the film) over a 24-hour period. Close in proximity- but seemingly not connected, we see these characters going through a variety of struggles- some of which are similar to other characters’ struggles or share common themes. Their stories are “brought together” (although not always through in-person interactions) through the commonalities of their lives and the events that affect them all in some way. One event that brings these characters together (which I will not spoil) requires some suspension of belief. This film is not of the fantasy genre, but it does- as Roger Ebert says of the film- require us to “leave logic at the door”.

“Magnolia’s” strengths lie in two areas: the way the storylines are woven together (as I mentioned above) and the performances of its actors. Tom Cruise, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, and John C. Reilly are just some of the actors on the billing and there isn’t one bad performance in the whole movie. I particularly enjoyed Hoffman’s performance as a dedicated and sensitive hospice nurse, Reilly- who plays a sincere and compassionate cop (a role that is both endearing and a change of pace from his usual comedic characters), and Cruise- who I am usually unimpressed with, but gives a commanding and emotional performance (which got him a well-deserved oscar nomination).

So what is Magnolia about? That’s hard to say. Themes of coincidence, connectedness, family, loneliness, and forgiveness are all at the forefront of this film. But I’m not sure there is a concrete “takeaway” from this film. Rather, I believe “Magnolia” is a tool to show us the complexities of the human experience and human relationships.

All that being said, I enjoyed “Magnolia” immensely and would gladly take another three hours out of my day to watch it again.

Up next: We’ll be watching a classic of horror cinema: George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”.

Peace out, kids.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Synopsis: An insane general triggers a path to nuclear holocaust that a war room full of politicians and generals frantically try to stop.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: I’d seen it twice and my reactions were as follows: didn’t love it, didn’t hate it; thought it was hilarious. I wanted Leah to see it so she could say she could and I wanted to see if it got better with each passing viewing (spoilers: it did).

Brent’s Review:

“Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” is an audacious satire poking fun at the Cold War and the men who “fight” it. The deranged Col. Jack D. Ripper makes use of a military loophole to launch a preemptive nuclear strike without presidential clearance, accompanied by radio silence and full defensive counter measures to protect the base from which the code was launched. In short, he pulls a fast one over the soldiers in his command while hoping to force the presidents’ hand into launching a full-scale attack on the U.S.S.R.

The film has three set pieces. The first is my favorite: Col. Jack D. Ripper’s office, in which he tells the distressed Capt. Lionel Mandrake his theory about the Communist plot to overthrow democracy through fluoridation and stressing the importance of maintaining the purity of one’s bodily fluids. The second is perhaps the most iconic: the War Room, which features 20-or-so men sitting around a table while the board of military targets looms in the background. The last: a B-52 bomber en route to a target in Russia. This set piece ends with one of the greatest single shots in film history: Major ‘King’ Kong (played wonderfully by Slim Pickens) riding a nuclear bomb as it plummets to Earth, swinging his cowboy hat as though he were riding a bronco.

“Dr. Strangelove” is full of great comedic turns. All are worth merit, but the film simply would not work without Peter Sellers. Consider: Director Stanley Kubrick was notorious both for forbidding improvisation and his solemn demeanor during filming. Given this, it’s notable that not only was Sellers given permission to improvise most of his lines, but Kubrick was often laughing audibly during his takes. The final scene of the film – easily a top-5 all-time comedy scene – features the titular doctor fighting with his bionic arm, which has malfunctioned and begins heiling Hitler and fighting with the doctor for control of his entire body. Sellers’ co-stars were laughing so much at his performance that it necessitated numerous edits to hide their laughter.

The world is on the brink of annihilation and its fate is left to the hands of idiots who are so concerned with their self-image, personal affairs, or their power plays that they allow a major global catastrophe. The characters react as though they had just committed a social faux pas. Satire is beautiful. Dr. Strangelove didn’t do it first, but it probably did it best.

Satire tells jokes that reveal truths about sad or scary things, hoping that the jokes won’t always be funny. More than 50 years later, “Dr. Strangelove” loses some punch. The fear of nuclear war and Communism are lost on my generation; I am more scared of homegrown terrorism than invasion. But I’m not too far removed from the Cold War to enjoy this film. If you haven’t seen “Dr. Strangelove,” I recommend you do it before the jokes aren’t funny anymore.

Leah’s Review:

Ever since I first watched the original “Pink Panther” movies when I was a kid, I’ve been hooked on Peter Sellers. His comedic timing is some of the best the film industry will ever see and his ability to take what “should” be a serious role and turn it into something of pure hilarity is perfection. So when I found out that “Dr. Strangelove” starred Sellers in not one role, but three- I was eager to watch the film.

I must confess, however, that I did not love this film. It has its moments, to be sure. Comedic scenes that stood out for me are when Captain Mandrake (Sellers) tries to call the President of the United States on a pay phone (but first he has to break into a Coca-Cola vending machine to get the change) or President Muffley’s (Sellers again) hilariously awkward phone conversations with the Soviet Premier.

The film fell flat for me because I personally didn’t think the “payoff” was worth the buildup to the punchlines. I kind of expected “Dr. Strangelove” to have more of a constant humor to it, much like “Airplane!” or “The Naked Gun” series. And while there are some genuinely funny sequences, there are also some long (and dare I say), boring scenes with no gags/jokes that make the film lag. From my perspective, there was just no balance to the sporadic comedy and I couldn’t tell what the movie was trying to accomplish.

Now, I know that “Dr. Strangelove” is a critically acclaimed comedy and is considered one of the best of its genre. From what I’ve heard, this is also a movie that needs multiple viewings for optimal appreciation. So perhaps, some day in the future, I will sit down and give “Dr. Strangelove” another watch and discover that I was grievously mistaken.

But for now, I will simply say: Strike two, Stanley Kubrick.

Up next: A star-studded cast and a multi-layered story-line take center-stage in Paul Anderson’s “Magnolia”. Let’s hope the three-hour run time is worth it.

Peace out, kids.

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Synopsis: Two British track athletes, one a determined Jew and the other a devout Christian, compete in the 1924 Olympics.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Leah

Why I chose it: This is one of my all-time favorite movies and I’ve been bugging Brent to see it for years.

Leah’s Review:

My parents showed me “Chariots of Fire” when I was about nine. Afterwards, I remember taking some chalk outside and drawing a racetrack on our driveway so I could practice running. And while this didn’t last long- I remember how inspired this movie made me feel. Nearly 20 years later- this film remains a profound one for me.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched “Chariots of Fire” throughout my life- but I think I gleaned more from this last viewing from an adult perspective. As a child, my takeaway was always how Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams’ faith affected their motivation for running and because Liddell ran for God and Harold ran for himself, Liddell was the one who really won at the Olympics.

But it’s important to consider the social/historical context while watching this film. When we meet Liddell and Abrahams, World War I has just ended. Loyalty to one’s country has now become especially important- outranking any other loyalty including religion. The chance to do one’s country proud was of utmost importance- shedding light on both Liddell and Abrahams’ struggles. Harold feels the need to prove himself because of his Jewish ethnicity while Eric’s reason for running is glorifying God. Though both have a fierce loyalty to their country, Abrahams experiences anti-Semitism from the head of his college while Liddell is strongly judged for refusing to run a race on the Sabbath- both choose to be true to themselves in order to succeed.

I can’t talk about “Chariots of Fire” without mentioning its majestic score by Vangelis. His style is so unmistakable and the score sets the tone for the film. I’ve always loved the contrast between the very 1980’s/futuristic-sounding music paired with the backdrop of 1920’s England. Each piece of Vangelis’s score perfectly captures the emotions of what is taking place in each scene. One that has always particularly stood out to me is “Abrahams’ Theme”.

We first hear this theme when Harold Abrahams experiences his first-ever loss in a race. We see the look of defeat and despair on Harold’s face as he watches Liddell cross the finish line before him. After the race, we watch as Harold re-lives the loss over and over in his head. The way the shots of this scene are cut together combined with the powerful score displays some of the best editing I’ve ever seen.The music conveys all of the anguish that Harold feels in a way that makes us feel every bit of his heartbreak and failure. I’m always taken aback by how much emotion this piece makes me feel no matter how many times I’ve watched this scene.

There’s so much more I could say about this film, but it would go beyond my word-limit, so I digress. “Chariots of Fire” is a fantastic movie that features incredible performances and an inspiring story that otherwise might have been left untold. Add this to your watch list if you haven’t seen it already.

Brent’s Review:

“Chariots of Fire” is a film that revolves around a world that is not only foreign to me, but also frankly quite boring. That world, of course, is foot racing. The film itself tells the story about the competitive relationship between Harold Abrahams – a Jewish man at Cambridge whose arrogance about his racing talent makes waves with the faculty – and Eric Liddell – a Scottish missionary who delays his mission work to compete in the Olympic games.

I will admit that I found difficulty following the narrative in the first twenty or so minutes. The characters – many of whom are British, with a handful of Scots – speak very quickly and with heavy accents. Further that, the story moves in and out of a couple time periods and between countries in the first act in order to establish the two leads.

The film picks up as the two men begin to race. In particular, Liddell’s first open 400 race shows him being shoved down at the beginning and then miraculously catching up to win. Abrahams first taste of triumph is edging the courtyard dash, which a freshman hadn’t done in centuries. In my opinion, the film’s best moment is the first head-to-head meeting between Abrahams and Liddell – a tight contest in which Liddell edges Abrahams, sending him into a tailspin of disappointment and driving him to hire a personal trainer.

Would a film that is just about foot racing win Best Picture? Of course not. Racing becomes an outlet for different things. Liddell and Abrahams run for different reasons – Liddell to glorify God and Abrahams to escape his Jewish ethnicity. Both men face various obstacles in attempting to accomplishing these goals via their racing excellence – and bettering one another. The third act of the film does waver from these two themes just a bit as the two Europeans are tasked with overcoming the two famed runners from the United States, the film’s two villains if there ever were any.

On a technical level, the direction is serviceable (Hugh Hudson was nominated for Best Director, which seems a bit much to me). The film does win an Oscar for an unquestionably deserving category, which is Vangelis’ amazing original score, which is impeccable. And the Oscar win for Best Writing is probably deserved, especially given the film’s ability to tie together a biographical recounting of two men who hail from different nationalities, religious backgrounds, but still find commonality through their passion for foot racing.

So what can be said now that I’ve seen a film that Leah has wanted me to see for so long? Did I enjoy it? Sure. I’ve only seen one of the other five films it went up against in 1981 for Best Picture, the other being “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Should it have beaten “Raiders”? Probably not, no. “Chariots of Fire” stands the test of time. It’s a good movie. I didn’t think it was great, but I enjoyed it.

Up next: We’ve got another Kubrick film on the queue- this time, a satire. “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Atomic Bomb” stars Peter Sellers in not one- but three roles!

Peace out, kids.

City Lights (1931)

Synopsis: With the aid of a wealthy erratic tippler, a dewy-eyed tramp who has fallen in love with a sightless flower girl accumulates money to be able to help her medically.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: Why: I’d never seen a Charlie Chaplin film and this was the one that interested me the most to start with. I only chose one for this movie calendar because I was nervous about including so many silent films — what if I didn’t like one? There’s always next year, of course…

Leah’s Review:

I laughed. I cried. And then I laughed some more.

Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” was one of the most enjoyable movie experiences this year thus far. Previously the only other silent movie I had even seen was parts of “Modern Times”. As that was also a Chaplin classic, I knew what I was getting myself into: general hilarity.

“City Lights” is a story about a tramp meets a blind flower girl, falls in love with her, and works to help her financially with the assistance of an eccentric millionaire who he prevents from committing suicide. The simplicity of the plot allows for plenty of zany moments and shenanigans to ensue. This is definitely a movie you can turn your brain off for- and that is in no way a bad thing.

As this was my first viewing of a silent film in its entirety, I was caught off guard by how little “intertitles” or subtitles there were. We don’t get to read every line that is “spoken” on camera- which allows us to use our reasoning and imagination to fill in the blanks when needed. However, the acting is so well-done, that this doesn’t take much doing. It’s amazing how little we need the dialogue because of how the film so clearly shows us everything we need to know. Being an actor must have been very different in the silent film era and likely required a very different set of skills than those of today’s films.

Having previously seen some of Chaplin’s work, I knew this film was going to be entertaining as well as comical. But I don’t know if I expected it to be as funny as it was. The comedy in “City Lights” is so simple- but it gets you every time. Since it’s a silent film, most of the laughs come from physical comedy, which Chaplain is a creative master of. Something I appreciated about this film is that it knows not only how to time its comedic moments but also knows how to not let jokes become redundant.

As funny as the film is, there is a truly genuine emotional side to it as well. The love story between Chaplin’s tramp and Virginia Cherrill’s blind flower girl is sincere and heartfelt even though all of the humor. The movie ends (SPOILERS) with the tramp and the (no-longer blind) flower girl re-uniting after being separated for some time. Having never actually seen the tramp with whom she fell in love with, the flower girl does not know who he is right away. But as he stares at her, we see the recognition slowly appear on her face as she asks “You?”. Pure joy appears on Chaplin’s face as he nods his head. It is moving and beautiful.

If you watch this film- you might find yourself, as I did, crying from happiness as well as laughter. This is a must-see classic movie and I would recommend it to anyone.

Brent’s Review:

“City Lights” is a Charlie Chaplin film, but more than that it is a “comedy romance in pantomime…” The key here is pantomime, which is another way of saying this is a silent film. Four years after Al Jolson changed the landscape of cinema in “The Jazz Singer” – the first “talkie” – Chaplin continued to make films featuring heavy use of pantomime and title cards. That the film is engaging and heartwarming is revelatory of the nature of cinema: films are moving pictures.

Chaplin plays a tramp, or a beggar or vagrant. He wanders the city getting into mischief, but he comes upon two major supporting characters: a blind woman who sells flowers (the love interest) and a suicidal, drunk aristocrat. He befriends the aristocrat, who only remembers him when he’s drunk, but he longs for the blind woman. The Tramp discovers that the blind woman and her mother will be evicted if they do not make their rent, so he sets out to get the money for her. Through happenstance, he not only makes the rent but also gives her enough money to get cured of her blindness.

The details of the plot are inconsequential – often times they serve to move Chaplin from set-piece to set-piece, not unlike most comedies we find in cinemas today. The formula is tried and true: write your best jokes and figure out a setup to tell them. However, Chaplin’s humor is always in service of the plot itself. He never strays from the overarching narrative, even if the detours are long and wide.

Chaplin is a master of physical comedy – in the sense that he’s using his body to tell jokes, not that he’s merely taking pratfalls and hurting himself (although he does this as well). One scene in particular illustrates his brief time as a street sweeper. We see him react with disgust as a horse rides by and he scoops its droppings. To his dismay, an entire horse-led parade turns down his street. Frustrated, he turns around to find something worse: an elephant stomps by. The timing and his facial expressions are perfection – I was in stitches the entire scene.

But this isn’t just a comedy; “City Lights” is very much a romance. I mentioned in my review for “In The Mood For Love” that I invest myself into screen romances only so much as I care for the individual characters. Chaplin understands that the best way to do this is through comedy – and genuine comedy that doesn’t degrade the character you’re supposed to be invested in. Consider, for instance, that the first scene of the film runs nearly five minutes in length and does nothing except vaguely introduce you to the idea of Chaplin’s Tramp character and also to make you laugh. If the Tramp can make you laugh, he will surely make you cry.

“City Lights” is a lesson on the importance of timing and blocking in both comedy and romance. Its status as a film classic is unquestionably deserved.

Next up: We’ll be watching one of Leah’s all-time favorite movies “Chariots of Fire” which won four Oscars at the 1981 Academy Awards including Best Picture and (unsurprisingly) Best Original Music Score. To say that Leah is excited to finally introduce this film to Brent would be an understatement.

Peace out, kids.

In The Mood For Love (2000)

Synopsis: Two neighbors, a woman and a man, form a strong bond after both suspect extramarital activities of their spouses. However, they agree to keep their bond platonic so as not to commit similar wrongs.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Both of us

Why we chose it: We can only assume because we saw it on CineFix videos… like thirty of them.

Leah’s Review:

Being the cinema buffs that we are, Brent and I watch a lot of videos from various YouTube channels that discuss film. “In The Mood For Love” has been featured more than once on several of these videos. This definitely peaked my interest in the movie I had previously never heard of before and I was instantly struck with how beautiful the featured shots from the film were. It doesn’t hurt that the movie has an interesting plot either.

What “In The Mood For Love” does particularly well is capturing the feelings of loneliness and isolation that the main characters, Su Li-zhen Chan and Chow Mo-wan, feel throughout the film. It’s able to do this in obvious ways through simple exposition: we quickly find out that both characters’ spouses spend most of their time at work and later learn (along with the characters) that their spouses are also having an affair. But the film also shows the emotions that the characters experience without saying anything at all. Use of slow-motion, for instance, displays the long, agonizing heartbreak and the wait for some kind of resolution to occur. A device used throughout the film shows Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow each walking from their apartment to the noodle shop night after night. Something about this solitary trek coupled with the beautiful score of the film perfectly encapsulates the feeling of utter aloneness.

Added to this, “In The Mood For Love” also chooses to never reveal the faces of Mr. Chan and Mrs. Chow (the spouses having an affair) to the audience. We often see them from the back or hear them speak, but we never once see their faces. This creates even more distance and isolation and helps us sympathize even more with the spouses left to deal with the aftermath.

One of the best elements of this film is undoubtedly its cinematography. The way that the scenes are shot have an almost “floating” element to them, as though we’re watching a carefully choreographed dance. We also become intimately familiar with the few set pieces used within the film (the apartment, the street where the characters often meet to talk, the noodle shop, etc.), which allows the audience to focus more on the relationship of the characters. I also really loved the use of color in this film with the contrast of bright vibrant colors against the dim, dark cityscape.

“In The Mood For Love” is a beautiful and tragic story told within a brilliant film. The relationship between Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow- which grows from a companionship. to a friendship, to something much more- keeps us rooting for their happiness despite their having become the very thing they despised about their spouses. By the end of the film, there is still much unspoken and unresolved- it’s not quite a satisfying conclusion. But overall, I enjoyed the storytelling and style of this film and would definitely say it’s worth a watch.

Brent’s Review:

In 1962, Hong Kong was overcrowded. Families would be stuffed into cramped apartments, often two or three families in a single flat. Enter Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan – two neighbors in a crowded apartment complex who otherwise could afford their own private living space (Mr. Chow is a reporter; Mrs. Chan is an executive assistant). Their roommates are eccentric in their own ways, one in particular who is a drunk and another who is obsessed with getting Mrs. Chan to “socialize.”

Chow & Chan begin to suspect something they struggle to admit to themselves, let alone speak aloud: their spouses are having an affair with one another. Meanwhile, Mrs. Chan & Mr. Chow settle for exchanging glances in the grimy stairwell that leads to-and-from the noodle stand while their spouses are conveniently out of town in the same location.

They are both quiet and their social situation is strained and abrasive. Given the circumstances, they are both drawn to the only other person who can sympathize: each other. They form a bond with one another. Both of them long for romance, but never at the same time. Ah love, how you are so interesting when unrequited!

Upon reflection, it is here that the film fell flat for me. In this story, the two lovers are victims of personal tragedy and thrust together out of circumstance. Another circumstance – the time period and their claustrophobic living quarters – forces them to remain secretive, consigning their love to shadowy alleys and cramped corridors. Yet, the setup and punchline of this film seem to exist in different worlds. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if they longed for each other before they learned of their spouses infidelities, but then chose not to act on it anyway? What if one of them confronted their spouse and left them while the other confronted their spouse and forgave them? Both of these sound like far more interesting films to me… alas.

Enough of my complaining about the narrative; the real reason I wanted to see this movie was Kar Wai Wong’s direction. It did not disappoint. I was dazzled by his ability to find a beautiful shot in the midst of drab, cramped corridors. His leitmotif of the heavy orchestral music over a seemingly innocuous act (in slow motion) was magnificent. And Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung’s turns in the lead roles were impeccable.

So what gives? In romance dramas, I will be moved only so far as I care about the characters. I’ll end with a brief comparison. Earlier this year, we saw the film “Hero”, in which Cheung & Leung play romantic partners – this time, with swords! Anyway, their love in that film is also unrequited. For what it’s worth, I was moved by “Hero”. Take it or leave it.

As a brief side note, we watched this film with a free trial to the streaming service Filmstruck, which specializes in hard-to-find films. Check it out if you want to find some hidden gems.

Up next: With the oldest release date on our list, “City Lights” features the comical stylings of Charlie Chaplin in a classic, black-and-white, silent film setting. 

Peace out, kids.

M (1931)

Synopsis: When the police in a German city are unable to catch a child-murderer, other criminals join in the manhunt.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: The plot was explained to me like this — “A child murderer is on the loose and the police cannot capture him. It gets so bad that even criminals begin to hunt him.” How do you not want to see that? Seriously?

Brent’s Review:

DISCLAIMER: I cannot offer an adequate reflection of “M” without spoilers. I will begin with my final takeaway: “M” is poignant in its social commentary and awe-inspiring as a cinematic achievement. It is a masterpiece; see this film.

I apologize for all subsequent spoilers.

A young girl – maybe eight or nine – walks home from school alone, bouncing a ball and humming. She bounces the ball off a poster placed on a lamppost. “Who,” it reads, “is the murderer?” A murderer is preying on young girls. Her song is interrupted by a shadowy figure who remarks, “That is a nice ball you have.”

Heart. Stopped.

The first ten minutes of “M” could be transplanted into any contemporary crime thriller and be equally excellent, so superb are they in conjuring feelings of dread and horror.

Another victim, paranoia erupts. The police attempt to catch the murderer by raiding typical criminal gathering spots. They aren’t optimistic, however: they admit that a child murderer is likely a psychopath and may act like a sane person for every moment of their life except when killing.

Business slows for “common criminals” – thieves, drug peddlers, and so on. The heads of the city’s syndicates gather to form a plot to catch the child murderer. They enlist the organization of beggars (which, I’ve read, actually existed in 1931) to catch him. The beggars chase him into an abandoned warehouse.

We arrive at the third act. A typical crime thriller – even a hard-boiled crime thriller – might seek for a spectacular finish, even a convoluted one at that. However, “M” isn’t a film about the audacity of a child murderer; it’s a film about mob mentality.

Peter Lorre’s portrayal of child murderer Hans Beckert is captivating. He is both insidious and pathetic; he is terrifying and pitiful. The director – Fritz Lang – only shows him at the beginning of his hunt, but meticulously portrays his entire time being hunted. Lorre’s – ahem, unique –face is accentuated repeatedly, often with shadows illuminating only his enormous eyes and forehead. We see a frightened man, not a monster.

What follows is a lengthy “trial” sequence, in which Beckert is confronted by the city’s criminals and the parents of the murdered children. Lang permits him to speak. Beckert squeals, “I can’t help what I do!” The film ends with a crying woman speaking directly to the camera – to us! She pleads, “This won’t bring back our children. One needs to keep closer watch over our children. All of you!”

Fritz Lang staunchly opposed the Nazi Party. It’s not hard to connect the dots here. Seemingly right-minded people (say, regular Germans) fall into the paranoia plaguing their society (serial child murder). Fearful, they turn to anyone who can give direction. Enter the criminals (Nazis), who push to scapegoat the child murderer. Does the mob accept their culpability or do they scapegoat?

In the end, it won’t make things how they were before.

“M” was banned by the Nazi party years later; I’m stunned it was even released.

Leah’s Review:

After watching Fritz Lang’s 1931 crime-drama “M”, I was impressed. Not that I was expecting it to be bad, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so brilliant. It’s a great film to watch if you’re studying film and cinema and how the movies of the past have shaped modern film-making. It also features a masterfully-told story and some stellar performances.

For this review, I’d like to highlight some of my favorite aspects of the film:

  • The opening scene in “M” is on par with any modern suspense film: A little girl plays with her ball. A man’s shadow appears. He speaks to the girl and they leave together. He buys her a balloon- whistling a familiar tune. Cut to the girl’s mother. She is making lunch for her daughter who should be coming home soon. The minutes tick by. No sign of the girl. The mother calls down the stairs. No answer. Cut to a shot of the girl’s ball rolling away and a balloon tangled in electrical lines…
  • Something interesting about “M” is that there are several scenes which are silent- no music, no sound at all. I later found out that this was because the filmmaker’s couldn’t afford to add sound (in the 1930’s, sound in movies was fairly new) to the entirety of the film. Lang went with it- adding suspense to scenes by cutting out the sound in some of the most intense scenes.

  • Another brilliant directing decision was showing the murderer’s face early on. Lang could have easily chosen to keep the killer’s appearance hidden to add more suspense- but instead, we see Hans Beckert’s face within the first half hour of the film. But here’s the thing- we don’t actually know if the man on the screen is the murderer. We just assume he is because of the context. So now we’re on our guard. Among the crowds on the street, we constantly search for Peter Lorre’s unmistakable face- but he alludes us. When we finally do see him again, he is attempting to lure another small child- whistling that same eerie tune.

  • For most of “M”, we don’t have much reason to sympathize with the murderer. But near the climax, the story takes an interesting turn. Hans is finally apprehended by a criminal mob and put on a kind of “trial”. It’s here that he reveals that he has no control for his compulsion to kill. There’s something evil inside him that he can’t escape from. A lawyer defending Hans refutes the mob’s demands to have him killed for his crimes. “A sick man should be handed over, not to the executioner, but to the doctor.”

    By the end, we no longer see a heartless criminal- but a troubled man who struggles with what he is. “Who knows what it’s like to be me?” Making a statement on the complexities of justice and mental health is pretty bold- even by today’s standards, let alone a movie from the 1930’s.

Up next: In addition to it being the third and final Asian film on our list, we’ve heard a lot of good things about “In The Mood for Love”. Frequently listed as one of the greatest films of the 2000s, this is one of the movies we’re most excited to see this year.

Peace out, Kids.

The Tree of Life (2011)

Synopsis: The story of a family in Waco, Texas in 1956. The eldest son witnesses the loss of innocence and struggles with his parents’ conflicting teachings.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: I’d yet to see a Terrence Malick film, even though his entire filmography looks intriguing to me. I chose “The Tree of Life” as my first Malick film because it looked the most beautiful from the trailers. And as a general rule, whenever Brad Pitt is in a movie that’s a sign that I should pay attention to it.

Leah’s Review:

It’s been a few days since we watched “The Tree of Life”, but I find myself still processing this film. I would describe it as part “2001: A Space Odyssey” (with somewhat more graspable themes), part Discovery Channel’s “Planet Earth” (with less narration), and part “Stand By Me” (with much darker overtones). With that said, this isn’t a light movie to be watched causally. Like so many of the other artistic films we’ve viewed so far, “The Tree of Life” is not to be watched, but experienced.

The movie begins with various shots of the O’Brien family (intercut with shots of the outdoors) and narration from the mother character (played by Jessica Chastain) as she explains the difference between grace and nature:

“The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. It accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. It accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. It likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy. When all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”

As the story unravels, we discover that Mrs. O’Brien and her husband (Brad Pitt), each with wildly different personalities, ways raising their children, ways of living life and seeing the world, each characterize grace and nature. Mrs. O’Brien (Grace) is very open with her affection towards her three sons and encourages them to be creative, to play, to be forgiving, and to love. Mr. O’Brien (Nature) is harder on his sons, showing little affection towards them, teaching them to be tough and that they can’t get ahead in life by being kind.

Most of the movie is shown from the perspective of Jack (played by Hunter McCracken and Sean Penn respectively), the oldest son, as he grows up with his parent’s very different perspectives and struggles to choose which to look up to. We meet Jack as an adult as he has flashbacks from his childhood and tries to reconcile with what happened in his family and how this connects with his relationship with God.

“The Tree of Life” takes a different (and rather remarkable) approach of showing three boys growing up in the 1950’s- not making it your typical period piece. Thought-provoking narration about God and faith, stunning cinematography, and subjective themes that leave the viewer with no real take-aways- this movie is one of the most spellbinding, bewildering, and unique films I have ever seen. Like I said before, it’s an experience above all else.

So did I like “The Tree of Life”? I honestly don’t know. I wouldn’t say I disliked it, but I’m not sure I’d be in a hurry to watch it again either. If you’re in the mood for a complex, artistic, and emotionally charged movie- I’d say give it a go.

Brent’s Review:

Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is an ambitious undertaking. I’ll begin with a recapitulation of the basic plot. We begin with a small family in Waco, TX – The O’Briens – as they receive word that one of their sons has been killed, in what I assume is armed service. They grieve and we watch. The film then intercuts a 20-minute sequence of beauty and awe as we witness the cosmos dance before us, just before jumping forward to see one of the adult O’Briens (played by Sean Penn) wander morosely through New York City. He sulks for a bit and eventually wanders into a wasteland of sorts as we snap back to the beginning of the O’Brien narrative and see his upbringing before his brother’s death, which is the focus of the remainder of the film.

“The Tree of Life” is disorienting. I didn’t understand this film in its fullness. While it holds great beauty and left a deep impression, I admit I don’t have much yearning to return for further examination. I’ve struggled to form coherent thoughts on this film, so I will opt instead to leave a few general comments.

First, “The Tree of Life” is a beautiful film. It’s a film that could be watched with the sound off. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki and Malick’s skewered camerawork coalesce into living paintings. While you might expect the bulk of these shots to come in the “cosmos” sequence, I found that the most beautiful shots were of the Waco sequences. Malick’s navigation of 1950s America was breathtaking.

Second – and probably a related thought – I was struck by how much the setting came alive. Characters roam the streets in what feels like an actual town, play, and even run through the mist left behind by insecticide sprayers in one scene, which I’ve learned was a common event in that time. The set breathed so fully that I felt I could have stepped through the screen into Waco, TX in 1956. Furthermore, the small-town feel Malick creates mimics my own experience growing up in a small town, which itself feels like it was preserved in time fifty years ago.

Finally, “The Tree of Life” has a deep memory – after all, Penn’s character spends the bulk of the run time remembering his childhood. The film ends with a beautiful “Heaven” sequence, during which all of the characters recognize and remember one another. Is Malick suggesting that memory is integral for the human experience – or am I missing the boat? Probably the latter.

I’ll end with a brief reflection. One theme kept recurring for myself throughout the film. Juxtaposing the creation of life with the story of a family in a small town suggested to me a conflation of the vast and the minuscule. Life is flat: all things carry equal weight. I think that’s a beautiful idea worth exploring further. I also think that’s a creation of my own imagination, which “The Tree of Life” happened to inspire in me.

Up Next: We’re watching one of the classic films (as well as one of the oldest) on our list: The 1931 mystery-crime drama “M” with (one of Leah’s favorite old-school actors) Peter Lorre.

Peace out, kids.

There’s Something About Mary (1998)

Synopsis: A man gets a chance to meet up with his dream girl from high school, even though his date with her back then was a complete disaster.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Leah

Why I chose it: This is one of those iconic 90’s movies that I never saw. Also because I love Ben Stiller and I’ve seen the infamous zipper scene a dozen times and it never stops being funny.

Brent’s Review:

“There’s Something About Mary” follows lovable loser Ted Stroehmann (Ben Stiller) as he attempts to reconnect with his first and only love, Mary Jensen (Cameron Diaz). Ted recounts a doomed first date to a psychiatrist before seeking the counsel of his best friend, Dom (Chris Elliott), who suggests he hire a private detective to track Mary down. Ted does, but the private eye, Pat Healy (Matt Dillon), falls for Mary and tries to throw Ted off the trail while moving in on Mary himself. Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that Ted has deep emotional scars from his doomed first date – namely, he zipped his genitalia into his pants just before the prom and never saw her again.

The film is written and directed by Bobby and Peter Farrelly, whose debut “Dumb and Dumber” took the U.S. by storm and made Jim Carrey an overnight sensation. The Farrelly Brothers followed that film with the box office bomb “Kingpin” (a fine comedy, I think) and were determined that “There’s Something About Mary” would be their go-for-broke effort before bowing out of show business. “Mary” turned out to be the most focused feature of their entire library and, not coincidentally, their funniest.

There are several notable scenes in this film – and spoiling the gag won’t lessen the comedic value. In one scene, Ted zips his genitalia into his pants before prom. In another, we watch a man nearly kill a dog with sedatives. And of course, Cameron Diaz happily signed on to a movie in which she mistakenly puts semen in her hair. Ho ho!

“There’s Something About Mary” was a summer tent-pole film and made 7.5+ times its budget at the box office in 1998. The 90s were a weird time.

The film also includes a number of off-color (as they would’ve said in the 1970’s) or politically incorrect (as they would’ve said in the 1990’s) jokes about people with mental disabilities and mixed race marriages. I might have balked at laughing at them, but the Farrelly Brothers are able to execute one crucial component of this film that lets them get away with these jokes: this film is comforting for the audience.

Beginning with a ridiculously-awful lip-sync’d love song, the film creates an atmosphere of comfort for the audience. Every shot of the film is in service to the audience and creates an environment where it’s okay to laugh in this space. This is quite an accomplishment. The film sprinkles in PG-rated asides to help create this calming atmosphere. The difference between the “shock comedy” of “Mary” and actual shock comedians like Daniel Tosh or Seth MacFarlane is this element: the Farrelly Brothers are here for good-natured ribbing; others are just mean.

“There’s Something About Mary” makes good use of sight gags and the punchlines are funny enough – and milked well enough – that it overcomes sloppy setups. Having Ben Stiller doesn’t hurt, either. This is a funny movie, but it’s not a classic. Take it or leave it.

Leah’s Review:

Sometimes, you just need to turn your brain off.

The timing of our viewing of “There’s Something About Mary” could not have been more perfect. After the much-heavy “Schindler’s List”, I needed something lighthearted and silly. And something that I didn’t need to think too much about.

Directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly are perhaps best known for their movie “Dumb & Dumber”. If you’re at all familiar with that film, you know that it is stupid-humor at its best. Most of the jokes are silly, immature, and at times, a little gross. It’s not for anyone looking for intellectual comedy. But, boy. Is it funny.

The same is true of “There’s Something About Mary”. From the unfortunate zipper accident at the film’s start to the uncomfortably funny “hair gel” scene- this movie is full of laugh-out-loud and, yes, perhaps crude and slightly offensive humor. It also has that cringe factor of a character getting themselves in too deep with hilarious results (I’m thinking here of villain/stalker Pat Healy’s web of lies that continuously gets more complicated as the movie progresses). It’s also full of surprises and, while this movie isn’t going to make you cry, will warm your heart and make you feel good after watching it.

What makes the film work so well is not only its comical script, but actors who are able to pull it off without being over the top or cheap (like so many of the bad comedies we see today- thanks Adam Sandler). Ben Stiller knows how to play the straight man and at the same time isn’t afraid to make a complete fool of himself. Cameron Diaz plays the charming, too-trusting, girl-next door flawlessly and her own comedic timing makes me wish she made more quality films. And Matt Dillon as the hapless villain is able to make you laugh no matter how horrible his character can be.

This isn’t an Oscar-worthy film. It’s not a cinematic masterpiece. But “There’s Something About Mary” does what few comedies today can: It makes use of shallow humor but knows where to draw the line. It is a genuinely funny movie that doesn’t rely solely on fart and sex jokes to make the viewer laugh-out-loud. It’s a classic 90’s romantic comedy that will appeal to anyone who enjoys a Farrelly-esc film or the work of Stiller and/or Diaz.

Up Next: We’ll be sailing uncharted territory with a film neither of us have seen yet. Nominated for Best Picture in 2011, “The Tree of Life” features an all-star cast and an intriguing plot.

Peace out, kids.

Schindler’s List (1993)

Synopsis: In German-occupied Poland during World War II, Oskar Schindler gradually becomes concerned for his Jewish workforce after witnessing their persecution by the Nazi Germans.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: Two reasons: 1) Leah hadn’t seen it and everyone must see this film once; 2) I had seen it, but it was in a public setting a long time ago and I wanted to watch it with fresh eyes (although some images remain burned in my mind from that original viewing)

Brent’s Review:

Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.

Full disclosure: I had seen Schindler’s List once before. It was during a school assembly, part of a short-lived program to promote civic learning. The morning featured back-to-back lectures on World War II with a viewing of the film after lunch. My second viewing brought to my attention that the version we watched in school was edited to remove the scenes with full frontal nudity. 

Because depicting genocide is fine, but full frontal nudity is too far. 

Silliness aside, Schindler’s List is not a film; it is living history, it is an experience. It might be one of the most important films I’ve ever seen… and I will never see it again. 

On the face of it, Schindler’s List is a biopic about Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), the Czech-born businessman who profited from a Jewish slave workforce in Nazi Germany and ultimately spent all his profits to save 1,100 Jews from death camps, mostly entire families. The film recounts his deceptions of the SS officer Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), but it also depicts his womanizing and his friendship with Nazi officers – although his sincerity in those relationships is left ambiguous. 

On the other hand, Schindler’s List offers the most unflinching depiction of the Holocaust I have ever seen. The scene titled “Liquidation of the Ghetto” runs over 30 minutes from build-up to resolution, but it feels like an eternity. Spielberg commands dazzling performances from his entire cast throughout the film, but this scene is particularly notable: Nazis laugh in the face of horrified Jews just before killing them, sometimes without justification. It’s horrible. Schindler watches on from a nearby hill. 

I could fill a journal with my thoughts on this film, but for the purposes of this review I believe special consideration must be given to three key elements of this film, without which the film would simply not work as well as it does. First, Spielberg is a master of using tone to play the audience. The film’s introductory scenes feature humor and lightness. The scenes in which Schindler sets up his first factory are particularly light hearted. The tonal shift later in the film not only introduces cognitive tension, but also reflect Schindler’s shift in his worldview.

Second, Fiennes’ portrayal of Amon Goeth is one of the best portrayals of a villain I’ve ever seen. I’ve heard Hannibal Lector described as the most evil character in cinema history; I believe Goeth edges him. Why? Because Fiennes doesn’t play him like an evil man; he’s just a man with a worldview and a temperament who happens to be on the wrong side of the film’s moral compass. He doesn’t think he is a sociopath – he would have to grant Jews humanity to be a sociopath, after all. 

Finally, Spielberg doesn’t pull any cheap tricks, which I might not be able to say about any of his other films except perhaps Jaws. Consider a moment in the Krakow ghetto where an officer executes a child in the streets. Spielberg could have zoomed in on the boy’s horrified expression to ramp up the heartbreak for the audience. Instead, the camera buzzes right past the boy and instead focuses on the officer being reprimanded by other soldiers. He isn’t here to shock us: he’s here to show us. 

When I watch films that make me uneasy, one escape mechanism I employ is to nitpick the film itself (this was easy, for instance, on subsequent viewings of “The Passion of the Christ”). Maybe a camera movement looks sloppy or a line is delivered strangely. Schindler’s List, however, doesn’t allow me to do this; there’s no place to hide. Schindler’s List is Spielberg’s most mature effort. He is a virtuoso of cinema who can effortlessly turn out classic cinema, but Schindler’s List is clearly his passion piece. This is the pinnacle of Spielberg’s career, for better or worse. I often use this film to cite his range as a director, but the truth is that he has crafted perfection in this film – perfection that escapes even my most uncharitable nit-picking.

Schindler’s List is a film that must be seen by everyone exactly one time.

It will scar; you will wince.

But it must be seen.

Leah’s Review:

I wouldn’t say I was looking forward to watching this one. Sometimes history is uncomfortable. Sometimes there are things we’d just rather not know. Ignorance is bliss, right? But sometimes, we have to put this thinking aside because- yes, history can be uncomfortable- but it’s always important.

In the case of “Schindler’s List”, we need to be reminded that there was a time when an entire race of people were being discriminated against, hunted, and killed for who they were. Human beings were treated like animals- less than animals. The events that occurred during the time of World War II were horrific and most of us would like to forget they ever happened. But we need to be reminded that we are part of the humanity of those who suffered.

It it difficult for me to write this review, so I’ll simply state my observations about “Schindler’s List”:

It is a hard film to watch. It is not for the faint of heart. There are multiple scenes that will make you sick to your stomach. There are multiple scenes where I closed my eyes because I just couldn’t bear to watch another innocent person get shot in the head.

It is beautifully made. The choice by Steven Spielberg to shoot the film in black and white was probably one of the best creative decisions made by the director. It gives the film that sense of timelessness. (I also love watching movies in black and white because I think they make you pay more attention- there’s nothing to distract you from what’s taking place on screen.) I love how the “girl in the red coat” seems to symbolize the internal change in Oskar Schindler as he watches her walk through a violent massacre (it’s almost as if he’s seeing in color for the first time- he’s seeing the truth).

The film is phenomenally well-acted. This has to be Liam Neeson’s finest work- he completely disappears into the character of Oskar Schindler, taking us with him. Ralph Fiennes (who was made to play villains) gives one of his most convincing performances as heartless Nazi officer, Amon Goeth- I’m actually not sure if I’ll be able to enjoy another movie with Fiennes in it again because of this terrifying portrayal. Ben Kingsley is brilliant as always as Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern. And honestly- every single actor, whether they have a larger role or no lines at all, gives an utterly amazing and heart-wrenching performance.

And lastly, the story is unforgettable. I’ll admit that I didn’t know much, if anything, about what Oskar Schindler did before watching this film. Steven Spielberg is able to take an already extraordinary story and make it an experience for the viewer that feels both incredibly real and incredibly soul-crushing. There was much effort put into the production of “Schindler’s List” to make it not only more historically accurate but also authentic to the time and events that are depicted. Choosing a documentary-style of filming makes you feel less like you are watching a major motion picture and more like you are watching real footage from the Holocaust.

“Schindler’s List” is masterful piece of cinema history. It deserved every award it was nominated for and every critics’ praise. I am glad I watched this film. Not because I enjoyed it. In fact, I will probably never watch it again if I can help it. It’s not a film you watch to be entertained, it’s a film you watch because it’s important. You watch it because the truth is not always beautiful like a little girl in a red coat- but truth is what shakes us out of complacency into the way of compassion, action, and justice.

Up next: We’ll be dining on something much lighter: the Stiller-Diaz comedy “There’s Something About Mary”. I’m looking forward to shutting my brain off.

Peace out, kids.

Doubt (2008)

Synopsis: A Catholic school principal questions a priest’s ambiguous relationship with a troubled young student.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Leah

Why I chose it: It featured several of my favorite actors and the trailer and plot were both intriguing.

Brent’s Review:

Doubt is terminal, or so John Patrick Shanley’s film “Doubt” might lead us to believe. In this story, doubt is characterized as weakness or even a loss of one’s own identity.

We begin with a homily by Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) on the topic of – you guessed it – doubt. We see that not only is Father Flynn a captivating orator, but he is also friendly and has a good rapport with both boys who serve in mass and the sisters with whom he teaches primary education. Unconvinced, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) wonders aloud at dinner, “Is Father Flynn in doubt? Is he concerned that someone else is in doubt?” Sister Aloysius is stern and fierce – she is not politely questioning, she is insinuating.

Caught in the middle is Sister James, who one might call naïve or kind depending on their worldview. She fundamentally disagrees with Sister Aloysius’ pedagogy, but she seeks her counsel when her suspicions of Father Flynn arise. The inciting incident appears particularly damning on the surface: Father Flynn calls an altar boy to the rectory during class for a private meeting, whereupon returning the boy has alcohol on his breath and is clearly shaken. Later, Sister James sees Father Flynn return an undershirt to the boy’s locker. Thus begins an investigation by Sisters Aloysius and James into the matter.

Shanley’s script is confident and poised: he knows when to move quickly and when to take his time. Adapted from a stage play, “Doubt” moves effortlessly from conflict to conflict and revelation to revelation. No word is spoken out of place and no scene is without purpose. In particular, the narrative rocks gently back and forth, allowing the two primary leads – Hoffman and Streep – to occupy both protagonist and antagonist roles at different times in the film. Shanley controls this material with such confidence that I can easily pay it the highest compliment I can give a film: it is truly as good as it could’ve been.

Watching this film, I couldn’t help but feel a great sadness watching Phillip Seymour Hoffman embody Father Flynn. Hoffman’s death came at his highest moment in his career and he is one of the few actors who could truly hold his own with anyone on screen, including Meryl Streep (whose own performance is outstanding). Hoffman was one of Hollywood’s most gifted leading males – to see this performance is to both see that and appreciate it.

So back to the original observation: in “Doubt” the idea of doubt is terminal. It will infect any preconceived ideas one held and spread until it kills the idea at the root. It will tarnish the image of a once-loved priest. And if your identity is rooted in certainty, it may very well kill your identity, too. I ask: what, then, of the spiritual teachers in the Christian faith who espouse doubt as a tool of deepening religious conviction? For Shanley, doubt isn’t functional; as a Christian, I would disagree.

Leah’s Review:

When a film can make you think deeply, it’s probably well-made. When a film can challenge, unnerve you, and leave you pondering it for days- it’s probably exceptionally well-made. Much like Martin Scorcese’s “Silence” (which we watched earlier this year), John Patrick Shanley’s 2008 Oscar-nominated “Doubt” takes its audience on a journey through spiritual battles and personal struggle and leaves you wondering.

The highlight of “Doubt” is certainly its acting. Seasoned actors like the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and the always adaptable Meryl Streep are thoroughly convincing in their roles. Less-experienced and, at the time, newcomers Amy Adams and Viola Davis hold their own as the supporting characters (Davis who is able to practically steal the whole show in her 10 minutes of screen time). The film is dialogue heavy- but it is impossible to be bored with such powerful and commanding performances.

The brilliance of this film is not only its acting, but how the story is set. “Doubt” opens with shots of a neighborhood in the Bronx, New York on a bleak and dreary morning. This gloomy feeling continues throughout the film as most of the colors used are shades of gray, black, and muted greens. This gives the viewer an uneasy feeling from the get-go, adding to the sense of uncertainty throughout the entirety of the film. I thought the heavy use of black and white was a clever choice (many of the characters in the film are nuns so this make sense), as it gives you an underlying sense of right and wrong with no room for ambiguity. Interestingly enough, the most vibrant scenes take place in the church sanctuary when Father Flynn is speaking to his congregation.

What is also interesting is how the movie sets the audience up for biased point of view. From the trailer to the film’s synopsis, the audience expects a story about a priest who has taken advantage of a young male student. We are automatically under the assumption that this is what has happened, and much like Sister Aloysius, have no doubts that Father Flynn is a guilty man. But as the story unfolds, we see that Father Flynn is a kind priest, a good mentor to all students, and a charismatic preacher. He’s extremely likable and we find ourselves wondering if such a good man is capable of something so horrendous. The same is true for Sister Aloysius- because of her unshakable certainty and her demand for what is right, we naturally feel inclined to trust that her convictions are based in the truth. But as the movie gets closer to its conclusion, we start to wonder if we should feel that way.

As with the aforementioned “Silence”, the thing about “Doubt” that makes it such a masterful film is that it doesn’t tell you what to think or believe. And (slight spoiler) it doesn’t even reveal the truth to its audience- leaving the viewer to determine (as well as doubt) that truth for themselves.

Next up: A film featured on many “Top 10” lists, “Schindler’s List” won seven Oscars and was one of Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed pictures. This will be Leah’s first time watching it and she is preparing herself for the 3 hour-long emotional roller-coaster.

Peace out, kids.

The Producers (1967)

Synopsis: Producers Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom make money by producing a sure-fire flop.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it:  I’ve been wanting to see this movie for far too long and I suspected this movie calendar was the only way I could convince Leah to see it 🙂 

Brent’s Review:

Character introductions are crucial to film perhaps more than any other medium of entertainment because of the short, often self-contained nature of the piece. Literature can take its time where film must hurry along; television can dedicate episodes or even seasons to exploring the nuances of a character, but a film often must paint in broad strokes and quickly.

Oh, and it has to be entertaining, too.

I mention character introductions here because I believe “The Producers” nails its introduction of Zero Mostel’s “Max Bialystock” perfectly. A fat, balding, has-been producer who raises money to fund his quibbling productions by prostituting himself to elderly women. There are so many that he doesn’t even remember their names, just the shtick he uses when he’s with them. Despite his truly baseless behavior, we get a sense that he is a failure in every regard: he can’t even seduce a woman who is paying him for a good time without nearly breaking his neck.

Enter Leo Bloom, a highly eccentric accountant who stumbles upon an accounting error: Bialystock’s latest play raised $2,000 more than it cost to put on, but since it flopped the producer could pocket the cash. What if this happened on a larger scale? The plot starts in motion: Bloom & Bialystock set out to produce a surefire flop, raise more money than needed, and pocket the extra money.

As intriguing as this plot is, “The Producers” is perhaps most remembered by its infamous “Springtime For Hitler” stage production. The musical’s opening number begins as a wonderfully choreographed and well-performed song-and-dance routine… with lyrics expressing admiration and love for Adolf Hitler. One singer exclaims “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty. Come and join the Nazi party!” The number then ends with a kick-line in the shape of a swastika. It’s jaw-droppingly awful – and it’s one of the funniest scenes ever put to film (I laughed, hard, for five straight minutes).

“The Producers” was remade nearly 40 years later, based this time off the hit Broadway rendition. It was overshadowed by its predecessor, but it should’ve been successful. Brooks was involved, Broderick and Lane are perfectly cast, and the basic plot was retained. Yet, I think the timing of “The Producers” is key in its success: the world probably wasn’t ready to laugh at Nazi Germany, but this joke doesn’t work if you wait too long.

“Springtime for Hitler, a gay romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden… Wow!” remarks Bloom after happening upon the script. How anyone can pull this joke off in the late 1960s is an ode to the wizardry of Mel Brooks’ script. Roger Ebert has recounted an exchange he witnessed after the film’s release between Brooks and a woman who attested his movie was vulgar. Brooks responded, “Lady, it rose below vulgarity.”

“The Producers” is an exercise in poor taste with a wink and a nod while doing it. I dare you not to laugh, if for no other reason than this movie must be seen.

Leah’s Review:

I had watched “The Producers” before. Not the original- the 2005 remake. And as much as I love Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, I just couldn’t get into it. The jokes seemed cheap, over-the-top, and overly raunchy. But context is everything. Had I better known the source material, perhaps I could have appreciated it more.

Like many Mel Brooks films “The Producers” is incredibly hilarious as it is incredibly offensive. It’s almost hard to believe Brooks got away with such a movie- especially in the 1960’s. You’ve got a skeezy playwright seducing rich old ladies for their money, heros that are con-artists, and a musical that celebrates Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. And maybe it’s the timing of the movie that makes the offensive content so hysterically funny. Brooks said that one of his “lifelong jobs” was “to make the world laugh at Adolf Hitler….The only real way I could get even with Hitler and company was to bring them down with laughter.” And laugh we do. The opening number of the sure-to-be-a-failure “Springtime for Hitler” (which pokes fun at Nazism and features a kickline in the shape of a swastika), will have your jaw dropping and your sides splitting with laughter.

I was looking forward to watching “The Producers” because of my new-found appreciation of Mel Brooks (see my review for “Young Frankenstein”) and because it features one of my favorite actors, Gene Wilder. For those who know Wilder to play wild and eccentric characters, he may seem almost unrecognizable in his role of Leo Bloom. Instead of the loud boisterous performance we’re used to seeing him give, Wilder plays a timid accountant who gets easily nervous and needs a childhood blankey to calm himself down. But this just goes to show you that Wilder can be just as humorous in a different type of role. The “hysterical” scene at the beginning of the movie in particular had me in tears, I was laughing so hard. “The Producers” was one of Wilder’s first film appearances, and he plays his character like a seasoned comedic actor. This performance was justifiably awarded with an oscar nomination.

There are a number of scenes in “The Producers” which are brilliantly done and will make you laugh just as much (if not more) than any modern-day comedy. From the opening introduction of con-man/playwright Max Bialystock (played by Zero Mostel), to the montage where Max shows Leo the life he could have if they team up, to the auditions held for the role of Hitler, to the show’s opening number- this film is a nonstop riot fest. It stands the test of time and no remake could outdo it in cleverness or hilarity. I will definitely want to watch this one again.

Up next: It’ll be an acting showcase as we watch “Doubt”, starring Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis.

Peace out, kids.

Jackie (2016)

Synopsis: Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy fights through grief and trauma to regain her faith, console her children, and define her husband’s historic legacy.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Leah

Why I chose it: I’m a sucker for a good biopic and Jackie Kennedy has always fascinated me. I had also heard Natalie Portman’s performance in the film was both authentic and masterful.

Leah’s Review:

“I’ve read a great deal. More than people realize. The more I read, the more I wonder: When something is written down, does that make it true? We have television now. Now people can see with their own eyes.” – Jacqueline Kennedy, Jackie

One of my favorite genres of film is historical biopics. I never really enjoyed history in school- but there’s something about the way film can take a historical event or person that might be uninteresting in a textbook and make it come alive on the screen. I often find myself doing extra research on the subject after watching because of how riveting the film was.

That being said, I was looking forward to watching 2016’s “Jackie”. I’ve always found Jackie Kennedy to be fascinating- both as a style icon and as the tragically beautiful widow of America’s 35th President. I expected this film to encompass her entire life. Instead, the film focuses on the week following John F. Kennedy’s assassination and how his wife dealt with the unexpected tragedy.

I can’t talk about “Jackie” without mentioning it’s lead actor, Natalie Portman. Portman’s performance of Mrs. Kennedy is perfection. She completely captures Jackie’s soft, wispy voice, unique accent, and manner of speaking. Portman puts so much into this performance that you completely forget you are watching her and not the real Mrs. Kennedy. Add the iconic shift dresses and haircut, and the transformation is complete. It’s fair to say that Portman was robbed of the Best Actress Oscar she was nominated for.

What I appreciated about “Jackie” is how it attempts to shed light on its mysterious subject. Jackie was known for her fashion, but she was also responsible for restoring much of the interior of the White House- redecorating and purchasing historical artifacts for the home to give it a sense of its past. Jackie loved history and was very knowledgeable about the history of the White House. Feeling passionately that the nation should be able to see the home’s historical significance- she only used private funding to make improvements to the White House.

“Jackie” also does a great job of showing the emotional devastation of Jackie’s loss of her husband and essentially her life as the First Lady. Portman’s character states: “I never wanted fame. I just became a Kennedy.” From scrutiny for how she used money to her husband’s affairs- we see the effects that being in the spotlight had on her. Jackie grieves the loss of Jack, but also harbours resentment towards him. She is nevertheless determined that her husband be remembered for the great president that he was. His legacy and the legacy of the Kennedy’s becomes her new preservation effort- and she’ll do whatever is necessary to ensure the world takes notice of what they accomplished.

Despite critics’ complaints that “Jackie” isn’t “historically accurate”, I can’t help but recommend this film. It’s engrossing as it is artistic and provides viewers with a new perspective of one of America’s most famous First Ladies.

Brent’s Review:

When I think about excellent acting performances, I’m thinking of particular traits of a performance. I’m certainly looking for emotional depth and range. I’m also looking at good delivery on well-written lines and with a vibrant, energetic screen presence. However, the acting performances I enjoy the most are those that are truly transformational. In these performances, the characters are so powerfully embodied by the performer that they seem to disappear completely. Natalie Portman’s turn as Jackie Kennedy in “Jackie” is the first performance since Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight” that I can recall an actor disappearing so completely into a role.

Portman doesn’t just play dress-up and mimic Jackie’s voice – she becomes Jackie Kennedy.

“Jackie” diverts from a typical biopic formula by resisting the temptation to make her entire life a coherent narrative that builds to her present moment. It doesn’t try to offer explanations or rationale for why she behaves the way she does. Instead, we get to see Jackie Kennedy at the crisis moment of her life: after two failed pregnancies, Jackie holds her dead husband’s head in her lap as they speed down the highway moments after an assassination.

The narrative hops in and out of several timelines to tell the story. Moving chronologically, they are: Jackie’s CBS interview tour of the White House, various moments of Jackie in the White House prior to JFK’s assassination, the day of the assassination, the days leading up to the funeral processional, the day that Jackie memorializes her children, and an interview with a journalist years later. This is a daring strategy in handling one of the most mysterious figures in U.S. history: we don’t try to “solve” Jackie, we just watch how she acts.

I’ve read that this film isn’t historically accurate, but given that I care very little about the importance of the “Kennedy legacy” and am more interested in the idea of it, I found it to be a fascinating story told well. I’m not surprised it didn’t receive a Best Picture nomination, but I will go on record saying that Portman was snubbed for leading actress (sorry Emma Stone – I loved “La La Land” and you were great… but Portman was impeccable).

The rest of the cast is played superbly by veteran character actors John Hurt, Billy Crudup, and John Carroll Lynch. However, the only performance in the film that can even stand up to Portman’s is Peter Sarsgaard’s portrayal of Bobby Kennedy. Despite not really looking the part, Sarsgaard effortlessly acts all of his co-stars under the table with only one (obvious) exception.

So what, finally, can be said about a film that critics loved, but had a mixed reception from film-goers? Pablo Larraín dared to do something different with Noah Oppenheim’s once-blacklisted screenplay. I thought it worked; others didn’t. Even still, anyone who is remotely interested in 1) Jackie Kennedy, 2) superior acting, or 3) films with excellent costume design would do themselves a massive disservice to overlook this film.

Up next: We’re ready to laugh some more with Mel Brooks. This time, we’ll be watching “The Producers” which I am hoping is better than its’ 2005 remake.

Peace out, kids.

Godsford Park (2001)

Synopsis: The lives of upstairs guests and downstairs servants at a party in 1932 in a country house in England as they investigate a murder involving one of them.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: I was intrigued by this movie when it come out…in 2001. Sixteen years is long enough to procrastinate, I think.

Leah’s Review:

We’ve already seen a few foreign films this year- and I must say, I had an easier time keeping up with what was going on in those movies (and their use of translated subtitles) than I did when I watched “Godsford Park”. To say that Robert Altman’s murder-mystery drama is fast-paced is an understatement. With multiple actors speaking simultaneously, varied European accents, and a long list of characters whose stories and names are difficult to keep straight- “Godsford Park” is not a casual watch.

I was interested to see this film because it featured so many British actors that I love. Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Helen Miren…not to mention a number of actors I’ve seen in smaller parts in some of my favorite Jane Austen movie adaptations. This also meant that there were so many characters that I would need to follow throughout the movie. The film’s pacing doesn’t allow you to get to know these characters right away as it constantly switches perspectives- but rather, allows you to see bits and pieces of each character over the course of the movie. This make deciphering who the potential killer is even more difficult.

Although “Godsford Park” is marketed as a “murder-mystery”, this acts as more of a subplot. The question of “who dunnit” is less important than the stories of the individuals who are staying at Godsford Park. Instead of beginning with the murder and subsequently finding out more about the characters’ motives, we get to know them beforehand to get an understanding of why any could be the killer. The entertainment of the movie really comes from getting to know the characters and how each of them functions in their society rather than figuring out who the murderer is.

A noteworthy piece of trivia is that “Godsford Park” was written by Julian Fellowes who also wrote the now famous tv-drama “Downton Abbey”. In fact, the show was inspired by the film and was originally intended to be a spin-off. I’ve only seen one episode of “Downton Abbey” (shameful- yes, I know), but the style of both productions are very similar. Particularly in the way they explore the complexities of British culture (specifically the class system). This is another aspect that made the film a little “foreign” for me. Although I’ve read my fair share of Jane Austen and have a pretty good sense of how the British class system works, “Godsford Park” presents it as something the viewer should already be well-knowledgeable of. Some of this is pretty basic (servants have a lower status than non-servants, e.g.), but some of the inner workings of the system are more difficult to understand if you are not familiar with it already. It’s an important part of the story. So much of the characters’ motives are based on rank and what is/what is not “acceptable” in their society.

So did I like “Godsford Park”? I don’t know. I think so- but another viewing will certainly be necessary.

Brent’s Review:

I have been looking forward to seeing a Robert Altman film for quite some time, especially given his influence on Paul Thomas Anderson’s work. Expectations were high, to say the least.

With this in mind, how shall I describe my experience watching “Gosford Park”? Upon first viewing, “Gosford Park” is delightful fun in the sort of way a roller coaster is fun after the first couple drops, or a paintball game is fun after the first couple times you get hit and your pain threshold adjusts. There are so many characters in this film — all named, all with their own subplots — that the first act feels like falling off a high dive. Altman does a good job filling the pool with water, but the free fall is disorienting.

The film is a layered murder mystery that examines two distinct worlds co-existing in a mansion: the aristocratic party guests and the house servants. Each world is ruled by its own code, the do’s and don’ts masterfully illustrated through pivotal plot points. This world is dissected in a variety of ways by so many characters that the exploration of these small-scale societies feels organic. In some cases, it feels less like watching a film than watching life really happen in front of you.

This brings me to one creative choice I took issue with: cross-talking. In the first act, many of the characters interact with one another for the first time (or at least the first-in-a-long-time), but all of these meetings happen simultaneously and often in the same room. Does a director sacrifice realism to quiet the roar in the background to focus on exposition or does he favor realism? Altman chose realism; characters talk over, under, and through one another in such a way that it feels like we are just a party-goer people-watching for a weekend.

It’s excellent at immersion, but this is a murder mystery after all! The film shifts gears and favors more interpersonal engagements — it gets quieter, more introspective. At the end of the night, the master of the house is murdered. But by whom — and how, exactly — is revealed through a great deal of misdirection. Altman never cheats, but he is happy to mislead and arouse false suspicions for an hour.

The motivations all come out in the wash, but by the film’s end I didn’t feel satisfied. On one level, I didn’t really buy the motivations for some of the characters. On another level, they’re totally believable. As my wife helpfully pointed out after the film ended, “why” isn’t as important as “who.” True. I guess I fell victim to the film’s marketing. I expected Cluedo when I got high drama — shame on me, probably. I hope a second viewing bears better fruit.

Up next: We’ll be checking out our first biopic of the year with 2016’s “Jackie” starring Natalie Portman as the nation’s 35th First Lady. Portman was nominated for Best Actress with this performance.

Peace out, kids.

Young Frankenstein (1974)

Synopsis: An American grandson of the infamous scientist, struggling to prove that he is not as insane as people believe, is invited to Transylvania, where he discovers the process that reanimates a dead body.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: I had seen this movie some time ago and recall it being quite funny. I suspected that Leah would enjoy it, so I thought it was a good choice on a list that didn’t include a lot of comedies.

Brent’s Review:

Mel Brooks never met a pun, double entendre, or sight gag he didn’t want to put on film. If comedy is a body of water, Brooks is just as happy to play around in the shallow water as he is in the deep end. Even when his comedy does highlight the lunacy of a situation (“Blazing Saddles” tackling race and racism is interesting, if hardly nuanced), the point for Brooks isn’t to make social commentary. It’s to make you laugh.

The king of one-liners, Mel Brooks films often feel like a barrage. They’re exhausting. Even at 100 minutes, “Young Frankenstein” feels 30 minutes too long because it is so dense with jokes. In a year where Brooks also released the aforementioned “Blazing Saddles”, the question must be asked: how do you get all this material?

One possible answer: Gene Wilder. Wilder is one of the most charismatic performers to ever produce comedy features in Hollywood. His sense of timing is pitch-perfect and he has incredible range. Wilder succeeds where many comedians fail, especially in his ability to run a riff of five dollar words and run-on sentences all the while crescendoing to a punchline.

“Young Frankenstein” boasts a great supporting cast as well, including Cloris Leachman, Madeline Khan, Teri Garr, Peter Boyle, and even Gene Hackman for one scene. Each character has their moment in the sun, but it is truly Marty Feldman’s “Igor” who steals the show. Taking full advantage of his peculiar appearance, Feldman channels his background in sketch comedy to deliver zingers, one liners, and sight gags to great effect. Can you complain about a lack of comedic range when Feldman plays the notes he hits so well?

In terms of the Brooks canon (of which I’ve only seen this film, “Blazing Saddles”, and “Spaceballs”), “Young Frankenstein” is not his best work. It is by far his least over-the-top — the whackiness is more subtle, even when it’s beating you over the head. However, of all my favorite Brooks bits, “Young Frankenstein” has one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever watched. Near the midway point of the film, Dr. Frankenstein (pronounced FrAHnk-en-stEEn) puts on a stage show to demonstrate the reanimated creature’s abilities. It begins simply enough: walk heel-to-toe forwards and backwards. We then must ask, what’s the next logical conclusion for a Brooks film? A song and dance number to “Putting on the Ritz” of course!

“Young Frankenstein” isn’t a commentary on society. Even if you roll up your sleeves and try to pull that out, it’s simply not there. What you see is what you get: an uproariously funny picture for just over an hour and a half. You can put it on, shut your brain off, and laugh for a while. For me, it was more grinning than laughing: watching Wilder and Feldman do their thing is just delightful. And in that regard, Brooks has achieved his goal. He isn’t here to make you think, he’s here to make you laugh.

Leah’s Review:

There is a particular genre of movie that is a guilty pleasure for me: Comedy that is so-stupid-it’s-funny-but-you-still-have-to-be-smart-to-get-it. Whether it be “Airplane!”, the “Naked Gun” series, “Hot Fuzz”, or even “Zombieland”- I love a movie that can make me laugh easily (and hard) without doing so in a cheap way.

Mel Brooks is a director/writer that does this well. I saw “Spaceballs” in college, had recently watched “Blazing Saddles” for the first time (which was easily one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen), and was excited to see “Young Frankenstein” for another pairing-up of Brooks and Gene Wilder.

The premise of “Young Frankenstein” is one of the most ridiculous parts about it. An eccentric scientist inherits the castle of his grandfather (who happens to be the famous Dr. Victor von Frankenstein) and attempts to reanimate a dead body despite previously believing his grandfather crazy for trying to do the same. Throw in a beautiful assistant and a sassy hunchback, talented comedic actors, and a Fred Astaire number- and you’ve got 106 minutes of hilarity.

Two actors in particular make this comedy shine: Gene Wilder and Marty Feldmen. Wilder, of course, is famous for his performance as the title character in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”. Wilder is an expert at playing eccentric characters, going from calm to hysterical in an instant; making you laugh one minute, and wonder if he’s lost his mind another- all while still remaining likeable. The role of Victor Frankenstein, a brilliant and yet quite mad scientist, seems like it was made for Wilder. And since Wilder had a role in writing the screenplay- I’m sure he was able to write a character that truly fit both his humourous and deadpan acting. I’m looking forward to watching him in another Mel Brooks film on our list (The Producers) later this year.

While watching “Young Frankenstein” I couldn’t help but notice how talented and funny Marty Feldman is as Igor and wondered what else he had been in. Not much, it turns out. “Young Frankenstein” was really his only film-acting claim to fame. And it’s a shame. He clearly had a talent for subtle humor, one-liners, and poking fun at himself (those bulging eyes were not part of his costume). As Igor, Feldman nearly steals the show from every other actor in the film. I can only imagine what other comedy projects (in addition to his writing and work on television) he could have been a part of if his life had not been cut so short (he was only 48 when he died).

If you need a good laugh and you appreciate a well-done comedy, and especially if you enjoy Gene Wilder, I can’t help but recommend “Young Frankenstein”. It’s an entertaining film that will have you grabbing your sides- and you’ll never be able to hear the song “Puttin’ On The Ritz” the same way again.

Up next: A murder mystery and a British cast? It doesn’t get any better than that. We’ll be watching 2001’s Best Picture Winner “Gosford Park”.

Peace out, kids.

Breathless (1960)

Synopsis: A small-time thief steals a car and impulsively murders a motorcycle policeman. Wanted by the authorities, he reunites with a hip American journalism student and attempts to persuade her to run away with him to Italy.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here: 

Who chose it: Brent:

Why I chose it: I had heard stories of the unique “jumpy” editing style employed in this film and wanted to take it in since I hadn’t really seen a film that’s used it to this level before. I also had heard of the influence this film had on cinema and wanted to see it for myself.

Leah’s Review:

“After all…I’m an asshole.”

This is the first line in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” and it somehow encompasses the feeling of the entire film in a simple sentence. It is spoken by the film’s central character, Michel who we learn (in addition to being an asshole in general) is a thief and a man on the run. We watch him as he steals cars and dodges the police, all the while doing so with a careless and cocky attitude. He narrates every one of his thoughts out loud. Is he talking to himself? He occasionally glances at the camera as he speaks- could he be talking to the audience? It does feel as though we are along for the ride.

Eventually Michel runs into an old flame, Patricia, an American and aspiring journalist. He spends part of the movie trying to convince her to run away to Italy with him- and the other part of it trying to convince her to sleep with him. Patricia isn’t interested but she doesn’t spurn his advances either. The two carry on in a playful, back-and-forth banter for the remainder of the film often to the amusement (and sometimes frustration) of the audience. Michel is convinced they should be together, but Patricia is uncertain about her feelings for him. Things get even more interesting when the law finally catches up with Michel- forcing Patricia to make a decision that may ultimately lead to the relationship’s demise.

“Breathless” is off-beat by today’s standards to say the least. And yet, for it’s time, it’s also revolutionary. Famous for making the “jump-cut” technique popular, the way it’s shot is unlike any movie of its time. But its influence (and the influence of other similar films part of the “French New Wave”) on movies made after 1960 all the way to present day is undeniable. Stylish, fast-moving, and ambiguous- it doesn’t tell the audience what to think, only to keep watching.

A recurring comment I’ve seen regarding “Breathless” is Godard’s seemingly obvious influence on more current directors such as Quentin Tarantino. Many of Tarantino’s films feature terrible people doing terrible things. Tarantino’s villains aren’t condemned, but rather almost praised for how cool they are. It’s what keeps us watching despite their apparent immorality. The same can be said for ‘Breathless”. Michel is not a good person. He does bad things. Really bad things. But we can’t help but admire how cool he looks doing it.

I was surprised by just how much I liked “Breathless”. It’s fresh, edgy, and fun- especially in it’s time context. It’s kind of a crime movie and romantic comedy all-in-one; but without being awkward or cliche. The characters are interesting, and the pacing and fast-moving dialogue kept me on my toes and left me wanting more.

Brent’s Review:

I will make two confessions before responding to Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless.” First, I shall confess to being quite tired while watching the film and, yes, I briefly dozed off — it really was the only free day that (busy) week to watch the movie! Second, I shall confess to reading Roger Ebert’s review of this film before writing my own, which will hang heavily over my own response.

“Breathless” tells a romance story between a wannabe street tough, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), and his American lover, Patricia (Jean Seberg). The plot loosely hangs on a chase narrative: Michel steals a car, finds a gun in the glove compartment, and kills a police officer pursuing him. Why? In his words, “[he’s] an asshole.”

Michel flees to Paris, where he meets up with Patricia. They spend the day together, oscillating between flights of romantic fancy and laying low while Michel keeps trying to track down a man who owes him money. The film wanders lazily through the narrative, which reminded me of countless films featuring aimless youth (“Dazed and Confused” in particular). This is a day in Michel’s life; he happens to spend it with Patricia.

The centerpiece of the film is a lengthy sequence where Michel and Patricia spend the day in her flat. They talk, listen to music, and make love. This sequence runs nearly uninterrupted, which is notable for a film famed for its frenetic editing style. The editing of “Breathless” is one of cinema’s famed stories: the original print came in about 30 minutes too long, so the director opted to remove any parts of scenes he thought boring instead of removing entire scenes, creating a unique “jumpy” effect during dialogue. That this lengthy sequence in Patricia’s flat remains almost entirely in tact is the utmost compliment to what we’re witnessing: Godard is telling us to slow down and admire their romance.

Michel is an anti-hero. He idolizes Humphrey Bogart, mimicking him by donning a fedora, smoking countless cigarettes, and rubbing his lips. Michel, in many ways, is the grandfather of countless future anti-hero protagonists — Scarface, Henry Hill, and nearly every character Tarantino wrote into his first two features. He is effortlessly cool, but he is a superficial protagonist — he clearly stands for nothing but himself.

I’ve read “Breathless” marks the beginning of the French New Wave cinematic movement, which favored smaller stories and stripped-down aesthetics in response to more classical films of the era (there is a long shot in a bank, which was achieved by the director holding a shoulder-mounted camera and being pushed on a wheelchair). The impact of this film reverberates through cinema more than fifty years after its release. It has ample amounts of attitude and style. Watching “Breathless,” I couldn’t help recalling countless low-budget breakthroughs I’d seen: “Clerks,” “Moonlight,” and “Reservoir Dogs” to name a few.

“Breathless” is undeniably influential, but I will need a repeat viewing to fully appreciate it — and given its influence on other films I’ve loved, “Breathless” demands another visit.

Up next: We’re in need of a good laugh and what better way to accomplish that than to watch a Mel Brooks movie? This week, we’ll be watching his 1974 hit “Young Frankenstein” staring the late Gene Wilder. I can feel my sides splitting already.

Peace out, kids.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011)

Synopsis: A middle-aged husband’s life changes dramatically when his wife asks him for a divorce. He seeks to rediscover his manhood with the help of a newfound friend, Jacob, learning to pick up girls at bars.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Leah

Why I chose it: A few years ago, my then-housemates had this movie on and I happened to watch a few scenes- I really enjoyed what I saw and have since been meaning to watch the movie in its entirety. And I can never get enough of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone playing a couple.

Brent’s Review:

I have a few gripes with the romantic comedy sub-genre. First, I find the messages about love that show up in these movies to be problematic in the sorts of expectations they create for their audience. Second, the films are all simple: love is easy and the heroes are smart while the villains are stupid. Finally (and perhaps most egregiously), they often play as a wink to their audience every time they check off a cliche from the genre list, which is when I lose interest.

So what about “Crazy, Stupid, Love”? It’s a romantic comedy, but I was impressed by how kind the filmmakers were to the characters. None of them are stupid, even if they do stupid things along the way.

The dominant plot is formulaic: Cal (Steve Carrell) and Emily (Julianne Moore) abruptly get divorced and Cal meets Jacob (Ryan Gosling) in the midst of his self-loathing. Jacob takes Cal under his wing, showing him how to pick up women in bars and “rediscover his manhood.” Emily, in the meantime, is pressured by her secret lover, David Lindhagen (Kevin Bacon), to start a more formal relationship with him.

Yet, “Crazy, Stupid, Love” is ambitious: it includes two more romantic plots (including a really, really awkward love triangle) across two generations. The first is between Jacob and Hannah (Emma Stone) and the second is between Cal’s son Robbie (Jonah Bobo) and his babysitter, Jessica (Analeigh Tipton). Each subplot functions according to the formula of romantic comedies: there is an unexpected change of heart and either the characters get together, or if they don’t it’s because of a really good reason. But in this film, writer Dan Fogelman uses all three parallel plots serve to highlight the film’s message: you can’t stop true love.

I return briefly to my main gripe with rom coms. In this film, women continue to reject men and the men persist in their endeavors to make the women fall for them. Even as notable as it is that the women in the film have a huge amount of agency while the men do not, the central theme boils down to “if she’s your soul mate, don’t give up.” Okay okay, I’m being a little uncharitable here, but this is exactly the simplistic theme I would expect in a rom com. If the message is the goods, “Crazy, Stupid, Love” delivers.

And now I shall confess: I think the romance on screen works, primarily because of the casting. “Crazy, Stupid, Love” is an ode to casting directors everywhere. Every single actor has great chemistry with their screen partner, which not only makes the comedic climax funnier (and trust me, it’s hilarious), but also serves to make the outcomes of their relationships more heart-warming. Even as problematic as some elements of this film can be, I was still happy for everyone in the end.

The takeaway? “Crazy, Stupid, Love” is the kind of romantic comedy that even a curmudgeon like myself can (and did) enjoy.

Leah’s Review:

There’s a common stereotype that all women love romantic comedies. But as a woman, I’m pretty picky about what romantic comedies (particularly the modern ones) are worthy of my attention- and most “popular” rom coms don’t make my cut list with the exception of a few guilty pleasures. What I typically don’t enjoy about this genre is that the stories are usually unrealistic and the plots are thin at best- most following a similar formula followed by a very cheesy, happy ending (or they’re overly raunchy in a way that’s distracting).

When I think about the romantic comedies that I like, they have a couple things in common: they have a believable plot, they’re intelligently written, and they’re genuinely funny. When “Crazy, Stupid, Love” came out in 2011, I pegged it as another poorly-written, sleazy rom com. But when I caught a couple of scenes, I was struck by how hilarious and heartfelt they were. And, as time has gone on, my appreciation for actors such as Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Emma Stone has only escalated. So here we are.

“Crazy, Stupid, Love” isn’t an Oscar-worthy film. It’s not a movie that is going to have a profound effect on your life after watching it. It’s what my husband likes to call a “popcorn movie”. It’s entertaining and you don’t have to be too invested in it to enjoy. But what I like about “Crazy, Stupid, Love” is that it feels real. It’s about real relationships and how they can be messy and hard. Whether it’s going through a divorce, falling in love when least expected, or experiencing unrequited love- the characters in the movie discover that love is still worth fighting for. Even when it’s crazy or stupid. What’s more, the characters are relatable and likeable (even when they’re acting like terrible human beings) and the ending, although upbeat, doesn’t feel contrived or predictable.

The other thing that makes this film work is the acting. Many rom coms lack the acting talent they need to make the stories believable and worth caring about (or the plot is too thin to support the performances). But Carell, Gosling, and, Stone (not to mention a number of other actors) shine in their roles. Steve Carell, as Cal, is able to perfectly balance his comedic side that he is well-known for with his ability to play a serious, dramatic character. Ryan Gosling’s character is so despicable that it’s funny and his performance is impossible not to enjoy. And although her role is small, Emma Stone holds her own as an insecure but sassy counterpart to Gosling’s overconfident ladies’ man. It’s also worth noting that Gosling and Stone have some of the best on-screen chemistry that has been seen in a long time in the world of cinema.

So in short, “Crazy, Stupid, Love” is a great film to watch when you’re in need of entertainment, romance, a genuine laugh, maybe even a tear or two, and a good dose of Ryan Gosling (jk).

Up next: We’ll be checking out Jean-Luc Godard’s French crime drama, “Breathless” (1960). Fun fact: “Breathless” is the favorite film of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” character Terry Jeffords.

Peace out, kids.

Dead Poets Society (1989)

Synopsis: English teacher John Keating inspires his students to look at poetry with a different perspective of authentic knowledge and feelings.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Leah

Why I chose it: I had watched this film a number of years ago and I remember it having a profound impact on me. I also knew Brent hadn’t seen it and figured it was about time that changed.

Leah’s Review:

I don’t always enjoy poetry. But when I do, it’s because I’m watching “Dead Poets Society”.

“Dead Poets Society” is one of those films that continues to carry so much relevance despite being almost 30 years old. I remember it having an impact on me when I first watched it in high school. Though it may be difficult to relate to students attending an all-male private school in the late 1950’s- the themes and message of the movie are still as powerful for today’s audiences as they were when the film was released.

The movie is about words– how words have the ability to change us and the world. It also shows us the importance of going against the grain, self-discovery, and challenging the status quo.

“Now in my class you will learn to think for yourselves again. You will learn to savor words and language. No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

When we think of poetry, many of us have the same initial response as the students in John Keating’s class- that it’s boring, difficult to understand, and irrelevant. But Keating says otherwise:

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion…To quote from Whitman: “O me, o life of the questions of these recurring…What good amid these, o me, o life? Answer: that you are here. That life exists, and identity. That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse”

As the students in Mr. Keating’s class begin to read poetry for their own enjoyment we observe the words change them. We see this most prominently in Neil and Todd. Todd, who goes from a reserved, fearful student who would rather not complete an assignment then fail at it, finds strength and self-worth in poetry. Neil discovers who he truly wants to be- not what his father wants for him. He finds new passion in his life- passion that compels him to break rules and protest his family’s expectations. By the end of the film, the words have changed Neil so much that he will do whatever he believes necessary to be true to his new-found identity.

The character of Mr. Keating is by far my favorite dramatic role of Robin William’s career. For me, this performance surpasses even that of Williams’ in “Good Will Hunting”. As Keating, Williams s able to perfectly combine his laugh-out-loud humor with his quieter, sensitive side. The result is a character we find completely fascinating and one that I think we all would want to have as a teacher and mentor. After watching “Dead Poets Society” for a second time, I still find myself inspired by Keating’s words- much like his students who (literally) stand up for what he has taught them: “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse…What will your verse be?”

Brent’s Review:

There is a scene near the middle of “Dead Poets’ Society” in which Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) asks the pupils in his high school preparatory poetry class to recite original poems. The timid Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) lies, confessing that he didn’t prepare a poem. Undeterred, Keating calls him to the front of the room and writes a line from a Walt Whitman poem:

“I sound my barbaric YAWP over the rooftops of the world”

The camera spins around Williams and Hawke as Keating coaches Anderson, who stutters as he recalls a poem he’d written before class.

“A sweaty-toothed madman with a stare that pounds my brain,
hands reaching out to choke me
He’s mumbling truth, like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold.
You push it, stretch it, it’ll never be enough
You kick at it, beat it, it’ll never cover any of us.
From the moment we enter crying to the moment we leave dying,
it’ll just cover your face as you wail and scream.”

A beautiful poem, even if not truly improvised on the spot by Todd. But the strength of “Dead Poets’ Society” is not in the moments the lines elevate into the poetic, but the delivery of Keating’s punctuating line:

“Don’t you forget this.”

I will admit to not being a huge Robin Williams fan. Sure, I like his stronger films (“Good Will Hunting”, “Insomnia”, and now “Dead Poets’ Society”), but I often find his whirlwind method of improvisation to be distracting. However, the three films I note here create space in which Williams’ overpowering persona can fit the rhythms of the film naturally as well as provide ample opportunities for him to explore quieter tones to communicate. In other words, his unique talents as a performer are put to service of a worthy script.

“Dead Poets’ Society” is a layered film, but the theme that resonated with me throughout is the exploration of mentoring between Keating and his pupils, all of whom are impacted by Keating’s inspiring words of individuality and self-discovery. I don’t read this film as a cautionary tale — I don’t think the filmmakers would suggest that, either — but rather these themes are explored in a believable role play of the characters written into the story. Sometimes mentoring has immediate positive outcomes — sometimes not. The film’s hopeful ending suggests that Keating isn’t discouraged by the impacts of his teaching, even if that would be justified.

The film’s script is excellent and is masterfully commanded by Peter Weir, whose style is quiet and steady. Weir’s techniques flow organically from the script and it never once feels like the scene’s blocking or pacing has been altered to fit his vision for a camera angle or movement. As much as I love auteurs like Spielberg and Scorsese, this style does not distract from the film’s themes, which I find is a more responsible handling of this script.

My final thought: find a lazy day, seize it, and give this film a watch.

Up next: Needing a little more comedy, Ryan Gosling, and Emma Stone in our lives- we’ll be spending part of our weekend watching 2011’s “Crazy, Stupid, Love”.

Peace out, kids.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Synopsis: Two warriors in pursuit of a stolen sword and a notorious fugitive are led to an impetuous, physically skilled, adolescent nobleman’s daughter, who is at a crossroads in her life.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Both of us

Why we chose it:

Leah: I’ve seen this move featured in many “must-see” lists and was intrigued by some of the snippets I saw- particularly its gorgeous cinematography and female leads.

Brent: I’d heard so much about “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” when it was nominated for best picture that it stuck with me on my “to watch” list for years, despite never actually getting around to it. It was time.

Brent’s Review:

“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is a beautiful film from start to finish. The story is simple in and of itself: Master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) attempt to uncover the identity of the thief of the green sword of destiny. The plot quickly involves the story of Jen (Ziyi Zhang) and Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-Pei), the former of whom is an adolescent woman yearning for adventure before the date of her arranged marriage and the latter of whom is the sworn enemy of Master Li Mu Bai.

Revealing more of the plot would spoil too much, so I shall turn to a discussion on the film’s use of story telling devices. First, the film’s score is subtle and beautiful — and it is often used in a way that subverted the expectations I had for this film. There are multiple chase sequences that feature quiet, reflective music rather than the loud, boisterous music I would have expected for a film that is known for its martial arts.

Second, the cinematography is disarmingly beautiful. Every scene in the desert is absolutely beautiful to look at. Full disclosure: I caught myself drifting from the plot during an extended sequence in the desert because I was examining the beauty of the mountains in the background.

Finally, I must comment at length about the use of wire-fighting and martial arts in this film. Ang Lee, the film’s director, pitched the film as “Sense and Sensibility with martial arts.” As I noted in my response to the film “Hero”, the fighting in this film plays less like an actual fight and more like an elaborate ballet with the most experienced dancers. The biggest difference between the martial arts “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Hero” is the level of quality: “Crouching Tiger” is incomparably more sophisticated, eloquent, and effective than “Hero” in its use of fighting.

This is to say nothing of the superb acting and gorgeous costume and set design. Each element of this film’s production builds on each other to create a stunning viewing experience that arrests the audience in a layered delivery of the themes in the film, namely the theme of hiding one’s strength from others (implied in the idiom referenced in the title).

This experience can only be tied together by a masterful director at the height of his craft, Ang Lee. And what a varied career path Lee has taken. In his celebrated film career, he has directed the films “Sense and Sensibility,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Life of Pi,” and 2003’s “Hulk.” That’s an eclectic filmography, to be sure. I find that Lee’s command of his craft is more impressive given that he is not merely a genre director. He is a story teller and crafting beautiful films is his strength.

When making this film, Ang Lee was not a hidden dragon. I’m happy to say I finally had the pleasure of seeing this film, even if seventeen years too late.

Leah’s Review:

After my somewhat underwhelming viewing experience of “Hero”, I was a bit apprehensive about watching another “stylish martial arts” movie. However, I found “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” much easier to follow and was equally impressed with its cinematography and captivating plot. My enjoyment of this film may have also had something to do with its director.

Ang Lee is truly a masterful director and his repertoire of films, though shorter than some big-name directors, is diverse. His notable work includes “Life of Pi”, “Brokeback Mountain” (which we will be watching later this year), and one of my personal favorites, “Sense and Sensibility”. Lee’s films are beautiful to behold but also say so much without solely relying on dialogue. The emotional depth Lee is able to convey is what sets his films apart. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is no different. Although its genre may be that of an action/fantasy film, we are made to feel the longing and desires of the characters (such as what is felt between lovers Yu Shu Lien and Li Mu). Without revealing too much, I’ll just way that I was nearly moved to tears towards the end of the film.

Primarily, “Crouching Tiger” is both an action and a fantasy film. And, as such, features some superb choreographed martial arts scenes that are so seamless, it’s more like watching a dance than a fight. Similar to “Hero”, it uses some of the same fantastical elements of characters flying through the air as they spar. Other elements like magical swords and great warriors add to this spectacular fantasy story. I’ve since learned that this style of filmmaking is called Wu Xia which evolved out of popular Chinese fiction. This helped give a little more context to movies such as this film and “Hero”. But “Crouching Tiger” used this style in a way that I found to be less distracting and more complimentary to the story.

One of my favorite aspects of the film is the use of strong female characters. Both Yu Shu Lien and Jen Yu practically overshadow the men of the story, showing off their wits as well as their strength as cunning and gifted warriors in a context that does not encourage these characteristics and behaviors of women. In a genre of movie that typically favors men, it was refreshing to see a martial arts action film that chose to feature women in such powerful roles.

I really don’t have much else to say about this film except that I would highly recommend it. From its stunning cinematography, to its well-written characters, a flawless cast, memorable action scenes, and a downright beautiful story- it’s one of my favorite films we’ve watched so far this year.

Up next: We’re going to seize the day and watch Robin Williams in “Dead Poets’ Society.”

Peace out, kids.

Moonlight (2016)

Synopsis: A chronicle of the childhood, adolescence and burgeoning adulthood of a young black man growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Both of us

Why we chose it: This was another mutual selection of ours as “Moonlight” received some crazy critical buzz and eventually won best picture at the Academy Awards.

Brent’s Review:

The most recent film we watched was “Moonlight”, the story of a gay, black man in a poor Miami neighborhood told over three chapters of his life. I wish to take this film on its own terms, but I feel I must divert slightly before beginning.

I had “La La Land’s” release date circled on my calendar for months before I saw it in theaters. It was one of the best experiences I had in theaters in my relatively short movie-going life. I cried three separate times on the first viewing and once on the second. It’s a beautiful film, but even as we left the theater I never once thought it was the best picture.

I mention all of this because it is hard to talk about “Moonlight” without mentioning “La La Land”, two films whose legacies will always be tied together in one moment of excruciatingly agonizing awkwardness at the 2017 Academy Awards.

“So,” everyone asks. “What about ‘Moonlight?'”

“Moonlight” is the other side of “La La Land’s” coin. It is quiet, somber, and introspective. Little is given to the audience — we have to infer how the characters are changing in their situations.

Barry Jenkins — wisely, I think — plays the film flatly. It really feels like we are watching a young boy become a young man and not that it is leading to one big payoff. The narrative doesn’t have a clear rising action that builds toward a climax. In fact, the first two chapters could play independently of one another for good portions of their run-time. Each chapter plays like its own mini-movie, recalling only the most key points of the previous chapter while telling its own self-contained story and introducing new characters and situations. Isn’t that how life feels, each episode intimately tied to the last, but always feeling new?

“Moonlight’s” protagonist is Chiron. Needless to say, the film is thematically weighty. His mother is a drug addict, he is bullied, and he finds himself with fewer and fewer options to choose from as his life seems determined for him by his environment. He makes a terrible decision for himself at the film’s midway point, but given that it is really the only decision *he* makes throughout the film it made me feel conflicted.

That I would feel conflicted when a character makes their situation worse for themselves is a credit to stellar writing and it is no wonder this film took home the Oscar for best writing. The acting is the most obvious highlight of the film, notably Mahershala Ali who is impeccable as “Juan” — and it is disappointing when he disappears after a short stay on screen. Finally, the film’s cinematography is subtly beautiful and cinematographer James Laxton does a great job of playing with blues and various accent colors.

Does it seem like I haven’t really said much about this film? I apologize. Put simply, this film is rich with content. It’s a beautiful story and it demands to be seen. See “Moonlight”.

Leah’s Review:

There aren’t many movies that get perfect scores from early every critic- but “Moonlight” just happens to be one of them. Long before Oscar season and it’s Best Picture win, I’d heard of “Moonlight”’s critical acclaim. I’d also seen the trailer and was intrigued by what I saw. It’s a daring story that (outside the cinema world) might otherwise go untold: the struggles of growing up black, poor, and gay.

“Moonlight” takes viewers on a journey as we watch the protagonist, Chiron, grow up in a harsh world. We see Chiron as a small boy who gets picked on and bullied at school. He meets Juan who becomes a sort-of mentor to the boy. Juan and girlfriend Teresa provide Chiron with a safe place when his home-life becomes too much. Not only is he harassed school, but his unstable drug-addict mother regularly emotionally abuses Chiron.

In the next chapter of the story, teenage Chiron continues to be bullied at school as he struggles to come to terms with his own sexuality. There’s zero acceptance from his peers of being gay- which we see in both Chiron’s mistreatment and the pressure put on Kevin (a classmate who reciprocates the romantic feelings Chiron has for him) to disown and assault Chiron.

Lastly, we see Chiron as a man who, because of his choices and environment, has an incomplete education and jail time under his belt; and who despite having been tortured by the effects of his mother being a user, sells drugs to make a living. Chiron eventually reunites with Kevin and the two reconcile. The ending is ambiguous as to Chiron’s future, but hints that he is perhaps finally able to accept himself.

To be honest, I was underwhelmed after watching “Moonlight”. Don’t get me wrong- the acting is impeccable, the story is poignant and moving, and it’s a beautiful film as far as cinematography is concerned. But I wasn’t blown away. After reflecting, I’ve realized this is because the story of Chiron (or anyone who shares his experience) will never be my story. There isn’t a single aspect of the film that’s relatable to me as a middle-class, straight, white woman. I didn’t know what to feel because I couldn’t imagine my life being like that. “Moonlight” isn’t easy to grapple with. That’s the point. Stories like Chiron’s are the ones that aren’t told, the ones we don’t want to admit are real- but the ones we need to hear and see. I’m sure there are others who saw this film and took nothing away from it because it wasn’t their experience- those people (including myself) need stories like “Moonlight” to broaden their worldview.

But this movie isn’t for them. It’s for people like Chiron who are underrepresented and pushed aside because their stories don’t fit the mold that society says is the “right” one. For those people, “Moonlight” quietly whispers: I understand. You’re not alone. And that’s a powerful thing for a movie to be able to accomplish.

Up next: We’ll be checking out Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, the 2001 winner for best foreign film and best picture nominee.

Peace out, kids.

Caché (2005)

Synopsis: A married couple is terrorized by a series of surveillance videotapes left on their front porch.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: I was intrigued by the plot of “Caché” when it originally came out in 2005 — it’s such a simple plot and a great opportunity for a good thriller. Better late than never, right?

Brent’s Review

You’re being watched. You’re not sure who is watching or whether they have an agenda, but you know they’re watching you. They have been for hours. How does it feel?

“Caché”, translated to “Hidden”, is a thriller that Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud of. It begins with a couple, Georges and Anne, receiving VHS tapes on their doorstep that shows hours of a camera pointed at their home. No agenda, no movement. Just a wide shot of their home.

Who sent it? What do they want? Is it a joke or is it malicious?

This is the inciting action that draws the plot forward, revealing one secret after another about Georges’ childhood, which comes as news both to the audience and his wife. “Caché” works on multiple levels. Most obviously, it’s a first-rate thriller. I cannot remember the last time I saw a film where every moment is so racked with tension. This, I believe, is a result of the second layer, which is that the narrative serves as a larger study of the idea of watching and being watched.

The film causes the viewer to ask: why does being watched make us so uncomfortable? Why dyo we yearn to be hidden? Georges’ claims to have nothing to hide, but he acts irrationally when he finds out he’s being watched. I think this suggests a deeper level of unease in being watched: we feel powerless and vulnerable. All power lies with the watcher, not the watched. But why?

Mysteries, of course, rely on the sequential revelation of information to entertain the audience. Each subsequent clue must simultaneously make sense and lead to the next clue, which eventually drives the plot to its dramatic conclusion and resolves the narrative. An unfortunate downside of this genre is that these films tend to make two choices that render repeat viewings futile. First, the “big reveal” is suggested throughout, but misdirection is also used to give the reveal more punch, regardless of whether the misdirection makes sense within the narrative. Second, the “big reveal” also serves only to answer the central question of the narrative, not to raise more questions.

“Caché” is not made to fulfill genre expectations, even if it plays into them for the bulk of the run time. I don’t think Writer/Director Michael Haneke is interested in subverting the genre as much as he is aiming to tell a tightly wound narrative in the most effective way possible. “Caché” is, above all, a study of the question of being watched. But what is the film trying to convey? In Haneke’s own words, “It’s the duty of art to ask questions, not to provide answers. And if you want a clearer answer, I’ll have to pass.”

“Caché” does not resolve. It doesn’t even answer the central questions of who or why. But we get to watch a character squirm under the duress of being watched — and, I suspect, we can see a little bit of ourselves in him as well.

Leah’s Review:

Previously when viewing movies for this project- I tend to think about certain elements of a film that I want to talk about or mention as I’m watching it. This was not the case with “Caché”. As soon as the movie started, I found myself completely immersed in its gripping plot with its slow-building intensity- completely forgetting reality for the next two hours

This plot is intriguing: A couple discovers that they are being surveilled by someone for reasons unknown. Almost as soon as I began watching it, I couldn’t help but think of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”. I know, it’s not quite the same as the characters know that they’re being watched from the start- but “Caché” uses that same technique of gradually increasing the tension in a very simple but very agonizing way. Nothing really even “happens” in the first half of the story. In fact, it builds the suspense so subtly that when the turning point of the film (which I won’t spoil) comes into play, you are shocked beyond disbelief at what just occurred (it was a literal jaw-dropping moment for me). It’s a movie that will keep you guessing and doubting yourself all the way through till the end.

Another thing “Caché” does well is making you feel the helplessness and uneasiness of the characters you are watching. Georges and Anne are not only unsure of who is watching them or why, but also how they are doing it. They can’t find the hidden camera- but the tapes keep coming. The content of the tapes and the illustrations in the accompanying notes become more and more personal leading them to wonder how could this person possibly know these things? They tell the police- but are refused any further investigation unless their stalker causes them actual harm. As the viewers, we know about as much as the characters (which is to say, not very much) and so we too are held captive by an unknown tormentor, wondering what is to come next.

For this reason, we feel sympathetic towards Georges and Anne because we feel their fear and apprehension at the situation. But we also begin to realize that maybe they’re not the people we think they are…maybe there are secrets that they are keeping hidden too…

The genius of “Caché” is not only in the way it tells the story, but in the way it chooses to end that story. Again, I’m not going to give anything away- but I was not expecting the conclusion to happen the way that it did. All I can say is that it is ambiguous- leaving the viewer not only wanting more but also with a very unnerving feeling…as if we too are being watched…

Up next: We decided to switch our movie schedule around so we could watch Moonlight- which was nominated for eight Oscars and just won three of them, including Best Picture, a few days ago.  

Peace out, kids.

Hell or High Water (2016)

Synopsis: A divorced father and his ex-con older brother resort to a desperate scheme in order to save their family’s ranch in West Texas.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: Taylor Sheridan’s 2015 film “Sicario” boasted an enticing plot, quality actors, and an intriguing trailer. His 2016 film “Hell or High Water” played all these same notes for me — plus it has Jeff Bridges as an old southerner, so I’m there.

Leah’s Review:

“Hell or High Water” is one of those sneaky films that gets nominated for several Oscars but no one is really talking about. But maybe that’s just the nature of the movie itself. When boiled down, it’s nothing more than your typical heist movie- but there’s more to the story than meets the eye. The cycle of poverty and the problem of colonization of indigenous peoples in the U.S. are subtle themes throughout the movie as we see our main characters struggle with what’s right and what’s necessary.

One of the things I liked about this film is that the notion of “bad” guys “good” guys is somewhat ambiguous, and it doesn’t force you to decide who’s in the right or in the wrong. As the movie begins, we watch as Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) rob a small local bank. So of course, we’re to assume these characters will be the villains of the film. But soon-after we discover that they are using the money from the robbery (and the subsequent robberies thereafter) to save the family ranch and provide Toby’s children with a future. We also learn that the specific branch of banks that the men are stealing from have taken advantage of their family and others in the area who also live in poverty. Now perhaps more can be said for Toby’s character in this Robin Hood-esc heroism that for Tanner’s. Tanner’s (who we learn has spent several years in jail for robbery) motivation seems to be more about the thrill of the crime and perhaps some twisted pursuit of justice than helping his family. But Tanner genuinely cares about his brother and ultimately helps him succeed with his plan even though it doesn’t benefit him in the end.

As for the film’s “good guys”, Marcus (a local Ranger played by Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham)- the emphasis is placed more on the complexities of their relationship and how the each view the world they live in. Marcus struggles with his impending retirement, often taking his frustrations out on Alberto (who part Native American, part Mexican) with racial remarks and a stubborn need to be right. For the most part, Alberto takes Marcus’s rude slurs in stride- getting right back at Marcus with ageist insults. The two bicker like an old-married couple, but it’s clear by the end of the film that their relationship went beyond a seeming dislike of each other.

Where “Hell of High Water” shines isn’t only in it’s spectacular acting (Bridges is never not good, and I was really impressed with Pine’s ability to play a more serious and complex character), but in the way it weaves a rich tapestry of storytelling- making the elements of the film feel both raw and real. I doubt this movie will win Best Picture, but not for lack of quality- but because it relies less on flashiness and more on authenticity and a well-told story to leave an impression.

Brent’s Review:

“Hell or High Water” stars Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges in a southern drama about two brothers (Pine & Foster) who aim to steal enough money from West Midlands Bank to pay the mortgage and backed taxes on their deceased mother’s land while a local deputy (Bridges) tries to stop them.

Why West Midlands Bank? Because, according to the film, their policies are designed to take advantage of poor families, such as Pine & Foster’s, and keep them in debt or away from owning property.

If this sounds like a more nuanced storyline than you were expecting from an action romp, that’s because you were probably duped by the misleading marketing and casting of Chris Pine. There is no doubt that the film’s narrative is straightforward and drives like an action film, but “Hell or High Water” often opts for quiet moments of introspection where an action film might opt for big budget set pieces.

One interesting feature of “Hell or High Water” is that it doesn’t cast judgment on the characters on either side of the fence. Are Pine and Foster justified in stealing money from a bank that has rigged the game against them? Is Bridges justified in trying to apprehend them? The film seems to deliberately avoid answering this question, leaving it hang in the air during the final scene. I think this is for the better as it creates a more thought-provoking, ambiguous viewing experience and demands discussion after the credits roll.

Bridges is reliable in his typical southern drawl and Foster plays the maniacal ex-con well off of Pine’s calculating, methodical hero. Given that neither of these performances were surprising to me, I will turn to Pine’s, which is easily the best of his career. Not only is this the best script he’s had to work with, he showcases his ability to convey emotion without screaming, or in some cases without saying a word. “Hell or High Water” is worth watching for this typecast-breaking performance alone.

The real winner in this film is actor-turned-writer Taylor Sheridan, who is quickly making a big splash in Hollywood in recent years with two heralded original screenplays, 2015’s “Sicario” and now his Oscar-nominated effort in “Hell or High Water.” In both films, Sheridan demonstrates his commitment to crafting morally ambiguous stories grounded in current sociopolitical realities and creating believable narrative arcs within them. Meanwhile, he is clearly one of the most gifted writers today when it comes to writing excruciatingly suspenseful scenes. Be on the lookout for Sheridan’s work in the coming years, especially if his scripts continue to be picked up by skilled directors.

Up next: We’ll be watching our second international film of the year as we take on the 2005 French thriller “Cache”.

Peace out, kids.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Synopsis: Humanity finds a mysterious, obviously artificial object buried beneath the Lunar surface and, with the intelligent computer H.A.L. 9000, sets off on a quest.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it:  I picked this despite knowing Leah probably wouldn’t like it; it was time that Leah had seen what is considered a masterpiece of modern cinema. 

Brent’s Review:

“My God, it’s full of stars!” – Dave Bowman, from the novel “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey” is less a film than an experience. The narrative — loose as it is — is split into four distinct “mini-films” connected by a loose thread (or, perhaps, a familiar image). The first section involves the “Dawn of Man” [sic] in which we see humanoid apes develop the capacity to use tools, possibly aided by the inexplicable appearance of a foreboding black monolith (the aforementioned image). In the second, we shift forward to the “present” day of our story (near 2001) and see the same monolith uncovered again on the Moon, this time sending a transmission toward Jupiter. The third section (and the longest), depicts the voyage of a mission to investigate the transmission. The final section shows one of the crew members passing through a Star Gate and going “Beyond the Infinite.”

Small stories are for amateurs.

Thematically, the film is both heavy and ambiguous. It certainly deals with existential questions of evolution, purpose, being, artificial intelligence, and emotion, but these discussions are buried deep within the imagery of the film. The film is sparse on dialogue, which works here only because it is so full of breathing images. By “breathing images”, I mean images that are so beautifully photographed that they seem to be speaking as if they were a character in the film. Nearly fifty years have passed and “2001” still has me awestruck at its beautiful images.

The film is shot with auteur Stanley Kubrick’s trademark cold, robotic quality. The images may breathe, but few other things in the film do. The actors move slowly and mechanically; the dialogue is short and quiet; the camera rarely moves, save a few tracking shots and handheld sequences. At times, Kubrick’s cold style infuriates me (as in “A Clockwork Orange”). In the case of “2001,” it fits the film perfectly.

This is not to say the film is without flaw. I think it’s too slow in some parts — two hours probably could have got the job done. And I am certain the narrative is impossible to follow without having first read the novelization. I debated giving Leah a bit of interpretive guidance before we sat down to watch it, but decided to let her experience it without my influence (or interference?). I can’t say whether I chose correectly, but I think her response will speak to the relative inaccessibility of this movie for most audiences.

And this brings me to the most infuriating characteristic of Kubrick’s work: he dwells equally on the mundane and significant details of the story. What infuriates me the most isn’t that he chooses to do this but that I know it isn’t an accident. Kubrick is a notorious perfectionist. What drives me the crazy about him isn’t that he includes these long, seemingly innocuous passages, but it’s that I know he’s saying *something* and I have no idea what it is.

Leah’s Review:

Is there a movie that takes place in space that is more iconic than Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”? Probably not. Is it an easily accessible film for any audience? Probably not.

I was very hesitant when I choose “2001: A Space Odyssey” off of Brent’s list. From what I knew about the film (and from what Brent had told me), I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like it. I don’t particularly care for the Sci-fi genre (with a few exceptions of course) and movies with very abstract themes are not always my cup of tea. But since this movie is basically the “Citizen Kane” of Sci-fi, I decided I probably needed to see it.

“2001: A Space Odyssey” is definitely a movie you experience. It is not meant to be easily understood or to be watched for entertainment purposes. Watching this film is like going to a really weird art exhibit. You might not (and probably won’t) understand the meaning of the art because it is something to be observed and appreciated for what it is.

That being said, I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed “2001: A Space Odyssey”. I think you either hate the movie because you don’t “get it” or you like it because you do. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that it was a groundbreaking film for its time, and that it’s probably one of the best and most realistic depictions of space in a movie to date. The score is amazing and the cinematography is spellbinding. But the slow pacing of the movie combined with little-to-no dialogue and themes that were way over my head made this film inaccessible for me. I know the cinema snobs of the world will look down on me for this, but it is what it is.

On a side note, the trippy tunnel scene from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” has nothing on Kubrick’s “Beyond The Infinite” sequence. If I ever decide to get into hard drugs, this will be the first movie I watch.

Up next: We’ll be watching the 2017 Best Picture nominee “Hell or High Water” this week. Stay tuned for our response to that one soon!

Peace out, kids.