Wednesday, April 29, 2015

21st Century Cinema Cacophony Vol. #1

Welcome to the first entry in 21st Century Cinema Cacophony! I watch on average 1-3 movies daily and have been asked why I don't review them all. And while I love to read and talk about films, writing takes time, and time spent writing equals less time watching! So while ruling out logging my daily viewings after doing some brainstorming I came up with the idea for this ongoing series. I've been working my way through TSPDT's The 21st Century's Most Acclaimed Films list for awhile now. Updated yearly (and growing for the first time this year from its former 250 to 1000 titles) it's a great resource. As I continue making progress I'll post new entries in this series, each tackling 25 films from the list. Also important to note, I plan to start a simultaneous sister series, 1000 Greatest Films & I where I'll be using TSPDT's more popular list, of the all-time best movies, and doing a similar series exploring my journey through it.

We began tracking my progress through this list with Edward Zick's The Last Samurai (#997) totaling over two and half hours this yawner sees Tom Cruise adorning a ponytail as an American hired to instruct the Japanese army about modern fighting techniques. I've only seen this once as a new release in the theater and was mildly into it but I imagine time's not been kind and a revisit would assuredly reveal the plot's inner-workings laid bare. No big Peter Berg fan, allegedly a real blowhard behind the scenes, his films are no great shakes either, but I wish I could say more about his Friday Night Lights (#995) which birthed a relatively successful TV series. In the melange of 2000's sports dramas I don't dispute it's spot among the heap.

Next, a trio of possible follies. Zack Snyder, who I've yet to see a completely realized and genuinely good film from, with his gladiator film for the post-MTV generation 300 (#990), Adam McKay's Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (#989), a Will Farrell "vehicle" (pun certainly intended) and NASCAR spoof that sputtered from the starting gate for me, and Jon Favreau's Elf (#988) which while suspiciously above films by the likes of Emir Kusturica, Kim Ki-duk, and Jianchi Zhang on this list I'm not as sour on as most. I've only seen the yuletide charmer once, and maybe it's my seasonal sentimentality showing, but the quirk and charm of Zooey Deschanel partnered with a rarely better Ferrell, leave me thinking this is worthy of at least its spot if not a grade higher.

Woof, it's Wolf Creek (#985) next, a dog of a predatory horror film, shot more competently than its genre brethren, and whose Outback scenery further set it apart from the pack. Ugly in another way Patty Jenkins' Monster (#984) featured a tour de force performance by Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos, based upon the true story of a hooker turned America's first female serial killer. It's not one easy to warm up to or going to appear on a list of films you're likely racing to revisit, but on sheer acting chops alone this one earns its way onto the list. James Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma (#981) wasn't one I was overly excited to catch up to upon its release, late-1800's outlaws and all, but the charisma brought to the material by its game cast of Crowe, Bale, and unhinged scene-stealer Ben Foster, made this an enjoyable romp.

I've got a toddler daughter, so it should come as no surprise I've seen Frozen (#979), several times, and while it falls behind her personal favorite (and a better film at that) Tangled (which didn't make the list), is quite good, and when you can get around its avalanche of merchandise and all too catchy song, is rather a good deal of fun itself. Craig Gillespie has missed the mark a few times for me and while his Lars and the Real Girl (#978), a man and life-sized doll love story, has admirable quirk, and its star Ryan Gosling is capable and then some, feels a bit too much like a Sundance favorite, engineered with just the right amount of eccentricity to feel a bit too manipulated. Spartan (#977) I wish I could conjure up any feelings towards. I went into it due to David Mamet's reputation (more as a screenwriter, less a director) and liking some of its central cast Val Kilmer, Derek Luke, Kristen Bell, etc. but this tale of backhanded high-ranking politicos left me colder than mi abuela's ceviche.

X2 (#965) the second film in the X-Men franchise tapped into a sweet spot for me at the time, long before I felt the fatigue of non-stop comic franchises bombarding the box office, this still felt dialed-in, exciting, and not colorless thanks to filmmaking talent of wunderkind Bryan Singer. The Bourne Supremacy (#963), second in the modern Bourne action spy films series, works best on the big screen, as Paul Greengrass' rapid cutting and frenzied action plays finest when it washes over you. Training Day (#958) the first film thus far I've genuinely loved, first seeing it in the theater, I've been reluctant to return to Antoine Fuqua's (who has yet to live up to the standards he set here) gritty masterpiece, afraid it'll have lost some of its luster some 14 years later. A tale of two LAPD narcotics officers (played spot-on by Ethan Hawke and a career best Denzel Washington) in gang-ridden South Central L.A. you earn your mettle surviving this one to its commanding end.

Michael Moore, a very polarizing figure, and while some of his earlier work seen in full auditoriums left me shook with a sucker-punch dose of surreal reality, Sicko (#955) just left me exasperated at the prospect of American healthcare, and lacked the gumption of his earlier, muckraking works. Finding Neverland (#947), falls in the realm of meh Oscar-bait filmmaking for me, where I felt at a distant remove from its central story for its remainder. Kleber Mendonça Filho's Neighboring Sounds (#945) I'd discovered through the Letterboxd community as it appeared to be a favorite there. A film rife with tension as a private security firm is brought in to protect residents of a Brazilian community, I had the following to say in my own review of it, "impressed by the tight shot compositions less so the distancing story threads". 

Cloud Atlas (#944) is a sprawling, fantastical set of six nested stories that span time. Much has been said of its methods, the utilization of the same actors across multiple story-arcs, people playing characters of different race, gender, and age, and often combinations of the three. But credit is due to the filmmakers, the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer, for making this unseemly task more symphonic than strained. Some portions faltered but others were quite deft and stirring. As about as audacious as big budget, wide release, studio filmmaking gets. I'm no Christopher Nolan fan, but the first two-thirds of his Batman trilogy are captivating and fearless and just the right side of dark and solemn. Batman Begins (#941) sets things into motion giving gravitas to a familiar comic book origin story. Its sequel fares far better on this list but in some ways I like this first chapter even better.

Guardians of the Galaxy (#937) seems a bit premature a pick in its slot, and while earning buckets full of cash at the box office, goodwill earned by its brand of rollicking, gee golly, good-time, galaxy-traversing brouhaha was offset by having a completely forgettable villain, yet still winning enough and cleverly utilizes a memorable '70's soundtrack to earn some kudos. I can't cosign for its appearance on this list when my favorite comic book film Ang Lee's Hulk failed to make the cut. Craig Zobel's Compliance (#936) is a tough sit. It recreates a version of a series of real life crimes perpetrated remotely by a man who through coercion over the phone got fast food workers to perform various embarrassing and degrading tasks under the threat of job security and legal action. You can imagine it was a perilous task to bring this unseemly story to life but I applauded the cast for taking on a challenge where there's no easy roles to be had. It's difficult but deserving of its accolades. Speaking of the Wachowski siblings we next take aim at The Matrix Reloaded (#935). I cop to having not seen either Matrix sequel since my original theatre experiences, of which I can assure you no psychedelic drugs were consumed during despite my trance-like daze post-screening. Of the sequels Reloaded was more memorable with some dazzling action set-pieces that I would like to eventually see again, albeit I'm less inclined to let Neo take me down the rabbit hole, seeking the Keymaker and some such nonense.

Alas, an experimental film! Peter Tscherkassky's brazen Instructions for a Light & Sound Machine (#926) re-appropriated footage from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly intending to transform a Western into a Greek tragedy. Alternative Traditions in Cinema was a unique course I was privileged to attend in college that introduced me to avant-garde cinema so I have a higher tolerance, nay, a true love for this sort of out of the box moviemaking. Watch it online unless you're prone to seizures. Somewhere (#924) continued Sofia Coppola's interest in themes of ennui among Hollywood stars and existential crisis' and I quite liked Elle Fanning in it. We'll talk much more about Coppola later in this series. Lastly for this edition, Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience (#923). I tend to like Soderbergh's quieter films than his big budget outings but this one left me lukewarm. Using adult film actress Sasha Grey in the main role felt like stunt casting and a gimmick at the time, and I'm not sure time will diminish those qualms. The surprisingly drab daily life of a high-end Manhattan call girl and her borderline flatlined romance with her boyfriend, filmed in flat digital video, surely Soderbergh was attempting to wrestle with some themes, but the end product was facile instead of picante.

Agree? Disagree? Other comments or questions? Feel free to leave them in the comments here on the blog, or on the RtW Facebook, on Twitter @RtWBrian, or send me some of that electronic mail stuff.

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