Sunday, May 31, 2015

AFI Top 100, #87: "Frankenstein" (1931)

I’m issuing a general SPOILER ALERT for this review, although I find it difficult to believe you didn’t read Frankenstein in HS or college, or that you haven’t gleaned the entirety of the story from the numerous references to it popular culture.

Movie Stats:
Released 1931 (USA)
American, in English
Director - James Whale
Stars - Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke

Plot Summary:
It’s the classic tale of Frankenstein (Clive), a doctor who builds a man (Karloff) out of spare body parts and animates him. Clarke co-stars as Frankenstein’s fiancee, Elizabeth.

Violence, some of it fairly graphic.

Bad Stuff:
My biggest problem with horror stories is that people typically have to behave in incredibly stupid, uncharacteristic ways to move the plot forward. For example, Frankenstein’s assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) is clearly either very low IQ and/or mentally disturbed. So why would you send that guy to steal a brain for you (thus ending up with the “criminal” brain)? Why would you leave him alone with the monster you created when you know he likes to torment the monster? Why, when the monster then kills Fritz and nearly kills you and your friend, would you leave your friend alone with the monster? I mean, I know you just collapsed and all, but you were able to walk back to town on your own, why couldn’t you spare five seconds to give the monster the lethal injection? Why, when the monster is loose in your home, would you leave your fiancee alone, lock the door from the outside, and take the key with you, so she can’t escape and no one can enter to help her? And so on. Obviously, I find the stupidity of horror story characters exasperating. It’s not limited to this film.

The fight scenes are terrible, in the way that they often were back in the day.

Frankenstein’s father, the Baron (Frederick Kerr), has one of the most annoying speaking voices on the planet. Not sure if it was the actor’s natural voice (God forbid) or if it was an affectation for the film, but it made it very difficult for me to like his character.

Good Stuff:
In my opinion, sci fi is at its best when it asks difficult moral questions. That’s the thing I’ve always liked about the Frankenstein story: it’s a morality tale. “What is the nature of man?” It asks. “Can he become God? If he can, should he?” Ultimately, Frankenstein, in his hubris, becomes a bad father (as opposed to his own father who, on the surface, seems bad but is the driving force behind saving his son from himself), and both the child he creates and innocent bystanders suffer for it.

At first, I wasn’t particularly impressed by Karloff’s acting. Mostly he does a lot of what my subtitles insisted was “growling” but what I would call “groaning.” However, I spent a couple of days thinking about it and realized how good he was. He imbues the monster with a lot of humanity. The monster, despite his criminal brain, never seems like a bad man. Rather, he seems confused, upset, and frustrated, as you might be if you were brought to life only to spend your few short days with people yelling at you, imprisoning you, tormenting you, doing nothing to help you figure out what was going on, and trying to kill you.

Shallow moment: Elizabeth’s wedding dress is gorgeous. I wish it was my wedding dress.

The Verdict:
Despite my long rant in “Bad Stuff,” I did actually like this movie. It took me a few days to figure out how to articulate why. It’s not one of those movies where I can easily say something like “the acting/cinematography/soundtrack/dialogue/etc. was amazing.” I don’t think any of those things. It’s about the story itself. Of course, the Frankenstein story isn’t original to this screenwriter, but it is a good adaptation (I can’t say how faithful it is because it’s been too long since I’ve read the book). This is a film to make you think, and having watched it after just getting home from San Andreas, it was nice to put my thinking cap on for a while. 

I give it 3.75 stars.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Solo at the Movies: "San Andreas" at AMC Century City 15

Theater Info:
AMC Century City 15
10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles
Cost: $14.29 for a 3D matinee showing

Movie Stats:
Released 2015 (UK)
American, in English
Director - Brad Peyton
Stars - Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Giamatti

Plot Summary:
When a “swarm” of large earthquakes hits California, rescue pilot Ray (Johnson) struggles to save both his daughter Blake (Daddario) and his estranged wife Emma (Gugino). Giamatti co-stars as Cal Tech seismologist Lawrence.

Lots of violence; a small amount of blue language.

Bad Stuff:
Ioan Gruffudd (as Emma’s boyfriend Daniel) uses an American accent so atrocious it’s distracting. Did you ever see that Buffy episode where Spike, who’s British, pretends to be American and his accent is ridiculous? That’s exactly how Daniel sounded. (On the bright side, I have newfound respect for the accent work of James Marsters, who played Spike and is American.)

Ray is a total Mary Sue. He can fly a helicopter! And an airplane! He knows how to tandem parachute! He can hotwire a car! Seriously, there was nothing he couldn’t do and he was never wrong, not once, the whole film.

The 3D was terrible. I wish I’d seen it in 2D because it added absolutely nothing to it.

Good Stuff:
I liked that the violence wasn’t, for the most part, gory. I’m not opposed to gore per se, but it was kind of nice to watch a violent film without spending any of it cringing. Virtually none of the death was even in-your-face.

It was refreshing that neither of the women were damsels in distress. Not only did they get themselves out of several jams, they occasionally saved the men as well. Except for Ray, obviously. Ray didn’t need any saving.

It has absolutely everything you’re looking for in a disaster movie, including violence, daring rescues, fudging of physics, pseudoscience, the sniveling weasel/coward who gets his comeuppance, lots of cleavage/wet, clingy clothes, romance, and a family in turmoil that’s united by the trauma. Really, the only thing it was missing was the snappy one-liners (well, there was at least one).

The Verdict:
Real talk here. This movie is as cliche as it gets. There’s nothing new or groundbreaking in it. It’s not going to move you. Within a week, you’ll probably forget you ever watched it. But isn’t that the point? Sometimes you just need a little mindless escapism. I happen to love disaster movies. I love them in the same way that I love rom coms. I know how they’re going to turn out. Bad stuff happens. Danger, destruction, drama, death. Then, in the end, the hero (and most likely his/her loved ones) make it out safely and live happily ever after. What’s not to like about that?

So I have to admit that I enjoyed “San Andreas” tremendously. Objectively, I recognize that it’s not a good film. However, it is a good disaster film. I found it very satisfying.*

I give it 4 stars.

About AMC Century City 15:
I saw one movie there before, on one of the smaller screens, and had a good experience. This time, I was in one of the larger rooms on opening day of a big action film, so I had a great experience. The seats are not only large, comfortable, and reclining, they’re rumble chairs! That was a nice surprise. Since it’s in a mall, the parking is plentiful, although you have to pay for it and it can get a little expensive. The theater has validation machines, but they’re only on one floor (the bottom) and the ticket taker gave me the third degree when I came down from the top floor and asked to validate my parking ticket, which was slightly annoying but I understand it’s his job. Since I was there for less than 3 hours, my parking was free, but if you’re there longer than 3, you have to pay even with validation. 

*In case you’re wondering, I don’t love ALL disaster films. I’ve seen many bad ones. “The Day After Tomorrow” comes immediately to mind. “The Core” - holy crap, that movie is an abomination. “Volcano,” ugh, although it was so ridiculous it made me laugh. You can definitely screw up this genre.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

AFI Top 100, #88: "Easy Rider" (1969)

Movie Stats:
Released 1969 (France)
American, in English (a small amount of non-translated Spanish)
Director - Dennis Hopper
Stars - Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson

Plot Summary:
Motorcyclists Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) go on a cross-country trip, where they meet a wide array of interesting characters. Nicholson co-stars as one of their short-term traveling companions, George Hanson.

Almost constant drug use (most of which was probably for realsies); violence; very brief nudity (male butt, female everything); implied sexy times (I think; I’m honestly not too sure what was going on during that acid trip scene). Surprisingly, there’s virtually no blue language, apart from the use of the word a**hole once.

Bad Stuff:
The stylized flashing cuts between some scenes were unnecessary, annoying, and borderline seizure-inducing.

It seemed kind of meandering and pointless to me, a feeling exacerbated by the rather abrupt ending.

I didn’t like the acid trip scene at all. I do recognize and acknowledge its importance to the film, but nonetheless it was confusing and off-putting to me.

Good Stuff:
The scenery is amazing. This was like watching the hippest, most trippy travelogue ever.

Jack Nicholson is really good. I’m not sure what this feeling is. I think it’s mostly surprise. I mean, he’s really good in this, in a way that I didn’t know he could be. His character isn’t very Nicholson-like at all. That is to say, for once, I didn’t feel like he was playing himself. He didn’t even sound like himself (his southern accent was pretty good IMO). And he got the best lines.

I liked that dialogue was sparse. Since Hopper co-wrote, and then directed, this film, I’m going to give the kudos to him. Not every movie benefits from minimal dialogue, but it worked here. Hopper let the characters’ actions and their facial expressions, plus the scenery, do most of the talking.

The Verdict:
I wasn’t alive in the late 60s/early 70s, but I’ve read a fair amount about it, and I’ve watched a lot of movies from that era. If someone were to ask me, “What did the late 60s feel like?”, I would point them toward this film. I really can’t imagine how it could feel more like a movie of its time. It’s not just the way the characters are dressed, or the very 60s way the scenes were shot, or the drugs, or the soundtrack (which is excellent BTW). It’s also about what the characters say, and the experiences they have. I can’t imagine this movie being born out of any other time period. It was fascinating to watch.

Quite honestly, I thought I would hate it. I’m not really big on druggie films, nor do I feel an affinity with the hippie era. However, there’s something extremely likable about this film. The core of it is oddly endearing. I wouldn’t call it sweet. I guess I was taken in by that hope that characterized much of the 60s, even though the film quashes it (and so did life, really). In the end, I actually liked it quite a bit. I would watch it again, although I might skip past the acid trip scene next time. 

I give the movie 4 stars.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Good Buys: New Purse

This is a new series that I'm contemplating taking up. Honestly, I don't tend to buy a whole lot of goods. Most of my money goes to food, music (via iTunes), and cheap, mass-produced clothes/shoes. However, I bought this purse at Santa Monica Festival a couple of weeks ago. I love it so much that I wanted to brag about it, and thus the idea for this post was born. It could end up being the only one in the series.

Here is the purse in question:

Technically, I believe it's a "wristlet," a style I don't normally go for, but the larger bags were a little expensive for my taste. Despite my initial reluctance about the style, I was won over by the design. With friends egging me on, I couldn't resist the purchase. I've used it on numerous occasions since then and find that the style suits me after all. The strap is comfortable to carry on my wrist, or I can tuck it under my armpit. It's lightweight. It's also the perfect size. I don't like big purses. This one is just right for carrying my phone, keys, i.d., and perhaps a small bottle of hand lotion and/or some lipstick.

I purchased it from a local company called Little Green Me, which only sells items made from natural or recycled materials. You should check them out for the watches alone. They're really cool. If I wore a watch, I'd totally buy one.

The purse itself was made by Urban Junket. It's made from canvas, recycled plastic, and natural dyes. How awesome is that? If you like big purses, they have those too! And they're based out of Minneapolis, one of my favorite cities ever. You should check them out!

Friday, May 15, 2015

AFI Top 100, #89: "Patton" (1970)

This movie was previously reviewed as part of my Best Picture Project. Below is the pertinent information about it: the movie stats, plot summary, and the rating I gave it. You can read the full text of my review HERE.

Movie Stats:
Released 1970 (USA)
American, in English (some subtitled German; minimal non-translated French)
Director – Franklin J. Schaffner
Stars – George C. Scott, Karl Malden

Plot Summary:
Showcases the exploits of George S. Patton (Scott), an American general, during his African and European campaigns of WWII. Malden co-stars as General Omar N. Bradley.

4 stars

Thursday, May 14, 2015

AFI Top 100, #90: "The Jazz Singer" (1927)

Movie Stats:
Released 1927 (USA)
American, in English (Most of the movie is silent, but the scene cards and most of the songs are in English; there are a handful of cantor songs that were in, I believe, Yiddish and/or Hebrew. They aren’t translated.)
Director - Alan Crosland
Stars - Al Jolson, Warner Oland, Eugenie Besserer

Plot Summary:
It’s the age-old tale of a young man rebelling against his conservative father. All young Jakie Rabinowitz (Jolson) wants is to be a jazz singer. His father (Oland) wants him to follow in his footsteps as cantor of their Jewish synagogue. Conflict ensues. Besserer co-stars as Jakie’s mother, Sara.


Bad Stuff:
Oh god, black face. Why have you betrayed me so, movie? There was something particularly offensive about a man waxing poetic on the draw to heed the “call of his [Jewish] people” while in black face for the whole scene.

It was kind of weird that most of the movie was silent while parts of it - singing and some occasional dialogue - were in sound. I mean, I understand why. No doubt people went to this movie to hear Jolson sing. I still found it odd, though, and some of it wasn’t synced terribly well. (Note: This movie is widely recognized as the first "talkie," but it was sound on disc, not sound on film.)

My biggest problem with silent movies is the overacting. I assume it’s a recipe of one part not having the benefit of being heard and one part moving from stage to film, but I find it distracting and, occasionally, funny when it’s not meant to be. For example, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to laugh during a [SPOILER] death scene [SPOILER] and yet I did.

The orchestral music was overbearing.

Good Stuff:
With the exception of the above-mentioned scene, which I’m going to blame on the director, I really enjoyed the acting of Eugenie Besserer. Her character was my favorite.

It was really fun to see Jolson sing and dance on-screen. I love old timey jazz, so this was very enjoyable for me.

Loved the costuming.

The Verdict:
On the one hand, I found this movie satisfying. It has a good heart. I was tickled by the ultra-progressive message of it because it was so 1920s. And I really did enjoy the singing, especially Jolson’s performance of “Toot, Toot, Tootsie! Goodbye.” I’m not going to ding it for the black face, even though I find it horribly offensive. I understand that was a thing back then and IIRC, it was particularly part of Jolson’s schtick. What I am dinging this movie for is how two-dimensional all the characters, and the story, are. It’s enjoyable, but at the end of the day it’s just fluff, 1920s fluff. The style of it was groundbreaking for the time. The substance is not. 

I give it 3.75 stars.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Up with Geography: Benin





Map of Africa. Benin outlined in dark
ink and shaded.

A close-up of Benin & its neighbors.

Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Togo

Water Borders:
Bight of Benin

Total Area:
43,484 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Cotonou, Abomey-Calavi, Porto-Novo, Djougou, Parakou

Famous Geographical Point:
Pendjari National Park

Famous Person:
Djimon Hounsou, actor

Book Set In/About:
Dawn to Dusk: Folk Tales from Benin by Iro Eweka

A collection of Edo (Benin) folktales.

Movie Set In/About:
"Barbecue-Pejo" (2000), directed by Jean Odoutan

A farmer chases his dream of a better life through terrible lows and triumphant highs.

Headline of the Day:
"Energy Minister Resigns Over $4.5m Fraud Allegation" in Pulse Nigeria.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

AFI Top 100, #91: "My Fair Lady" (1964)

This movie was previously reviewed as part of my Best Picture Project. Below is the pertinent information about it: the movie stats, plot summary, and the rating I gave it. You can read the full text of my review HERE.

Movie Stats:
Released 1964 (USA)
American, in English
Director – George Cukor
Stars – Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Wilfrid Hyde-White

Plot Summary:
Set in London in the late 1800s/early 1900s (the time frame is never clearly established). When the lives of English diction professor Henry Higgins (Harrison), Indian-dialect-obsessed Colonel Hugh Pickering (Hyde-White), and street vendor Eliza Doolittle (Hepburn) intersect, the two men make a bet that Higgins can turn Doolittle into a lady in six months.

3 stars

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

AFI Top 100, #92: "A Place in the Sun" (1951)

Movie Stats:
Released 1951 (USA)
American, in English
Director - George Stevens
Stars - Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters

Plot Summary:
After growing up poor, ambitious social climber George (Clift) goes to work for his wealthy uncle and finds himself torn between two women: Alice (Winters), who represents the past he’s trying to escape, and Angela (Taylor), who’s everything he’s ever dreamed of.

Implied sexy times.

Bad Stuff:
I thought it dragged in the final third, where a lot of points from earlier in the movie were rehashed.

The romance between George and Angela was so overblown that it was difficult to take seriously. After one date, they’re declaring love. Parted for a day or two, they act like they’ve spent years apart. It was like watching a couple of 14-year-olds trying to prove they understand what love is all about.

Good Stuff:
I was pleasantly surprised that this film addressed a lot of social issues, many of which were certainly controversial at the time. I wouldn’t say that the class issue was handled very subtly, but the rest of them were. I particularly admired that the issues of [SPOILER] unwanted pregnancy and potential abortion [SPOILER] were shown with a tremendous amount of grace, compassion, and understanding. You don’t see that a lot, even in modern times, when we’re supposedly so much more advanced socially.

I really enjoyed Clift’s performance. George really shouldn’t have been a sympathetic character. The mess he lands himself in is entirely of his own making. And yet, we come to see that he is, in part, a victim of his circumstances. If he weren’t so desperate to escape the poverty of his youth; if the rules of the society he lived in were less restrictive; if he weren’t a human being with a natural, healthy desire for sex, perhaps then his life might have turned out better. Clift conveyed all of that without any help from the dialogue and he never chewed the scenery. In fact, he was so soft-spoken that I eventually had to turn on the subtitles.

The Verdict:
Man, this movie is dark. I wasn’t expecting that at all. I never knew anything about it before reading the blurb on the back of the DVD case, and that led me to believe that this was going to be a romantic melodrama. While some of the romantic portions are melodramatic, most of the rest is not. I thought it was great at raising a lot of questions about modern society without giving any easy answers. It’s much deeper than you might think, just judging by the cover. I’m not saying I’m ready to move it up to my top 10 list or anything, but it’s a pretty decent film. 

I give it 4 stars.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Toys My Dog Destroys: Red Fox

Sadly, there isn’t going to be much to this post, for reasons that are explained below.

I bought Red Fox because I wanted a toy that I was pretty sure would take a while to destroy. Red Fox seemed to be the ticket. The only stuffed portions were his head and tail. The middle was made of a stretchy fabric that was unfilled. Major always has trouble busting open the heads of toys, and the stretch of the fabric in the middle made it easier to throw. Perfect!

Here’s Red Fox before I gave him to Major on 3/18/15:

Major loved this toy, and so did I. It took him about a month to bust into the head and remove the squeaker and stuffing. I had a great picture of it. Unfortunately, if you read my post about my visit to CSC, you’ll know that I broke my phone. That picture was still on the phone, which is broken in such a way that no data can be retrieved from it, so I lost it. I was also too lazy to write down the date Major de-stuffed him (I expected to get the date from the picture), but I think it was a couple of weeks ago. 

Major’s enthusiasm dimmed for Red Fox after he was de-stuffed, although only slightly. He still played with him, and he never managed to bust open the tail. He probably would have continued to play with him if I’d let him, but we were at the pet store yesterday and they had other toys that were similar, so I decided to pick up a couple. 

Here’s Red Fox before I threw him away on 5/3/15. Notice the gruesome lobotomy job Major did on him. He ripped a couple of holes in the middle as well:

I bought Red Fox at a major pet store retailer for $2.50. He lasted about a month and a half. He was well worth it.