Monday, September 30, 2013

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)

Director: Nicolas Gessner. Cast: Jodie Foster, Martin Sheen, Alexis Smith, Scott Jacoby. 91 min. Rated PG. Canada/France. Horror/Mystery.

Thirteen-year-old girl living alone makes every effort to maintain her privacy, and keep what she's hiding in her cellar in a shroud of secrecy. Watched this the first time in elementary school, and even though the viewer is never shown what's in the cellar, I remember any scene that was somehow related to it creeped me out at the time. Revisiting it, the entire film is disturbing even by today's standards, owing mainly to Foster's performance (done the same year as Scorsese's Taxi Driver, and Parker's Bugsy Malone). Watch this little girl, and witness a powerful actress in the making.

Mo says:

Friday, September 27, 2013

Rush (2013)

Director: Ron Howard. Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara. 123 min. Rated R. USA/Germany/UK. Biography/Action.

Ron Howard's latest venture into car chases (after 1977's Grand Theft Auto), works like a sinus wave. The first half, the true-story rivalry of two world-champion racers, is mostly about the race; not the driver. Then midway through, one driver is seriously injured, and while he struggles to get back into the race, the drama's emotional stakes suddenly shoot sky high. Then, there's a final scene that dumbs everything down so low, it ruins the past two-hour fun of breathtaking 70's style grainy cinematography, and Hans Zimmer's thrilling music. If Howard could've only left out that one final scene out...

Confession: Ron Howard is a good director. But look at his past works. Splash, Cocoon, Willow, Backdraft, Far and Away, The Paper, Apollo 13, Ransom, The DaVinci Code. All good movies, but as Kenneth Turan of the LA Times says about Rush: "... it has style, but lacks a heart." I can make the same claim about almost all of Howard's movies - except for A Beautiful Mind, which does have a heart, but that credit mainly goes to Jennifer Connelly's performance, and not necessarily Howard's direction.

Mo says:

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Prisoners (2013)

Director: Denis Villeneuve. Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano. 153 min. Rated R. Crime/Thriller.

Canadian director Villeneuve has done it again: similar to 2010's Incendies, he's created an heart-wrenching thriller about moral ambiguities, this time involving prisoner torture, the role of religion, and worst of all, the innocence of children. Yes, there are some minor story flaws, but the movie is so long, tense and taut, suspending disbelief is the least effort needed on your part. A domineering Gyllenhaal again performs the heroic cop role, and steals the show from (a somewhat struggling) Jackman, making the whole child abduction situation very believable, and extremely difficult to sit through. So consider yourself warned.

Mo says:

The Robber (Der Räuber) (2010)

Director: Benjamin Heisenberg. Cast: Andreas Lust, Franziska Weisz, Florian Wotruba. 101 min. Germany/Austria. Biography/Crime.

One of this blog's purposes is to criticize movies everybody knows about, and admire movies nobody knows about; so no point in criticizing movies nobody knows about. That's why I was hesitant to write about this true story of an ex-convict who's a bank robber, and a runner. So he robs banks, and then he runs. And he runs a lot. And we never understand why he's bad. He's just bad because... he's bad. Almost got a feeling the director has something against this guy. But then, the movie got 77% on the Tomatometer, so I had to do something.

Mo says:

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Bling Ring (2013)

Director: Sofia Coppola. Cast: Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Emma Watson, Taissa Farmiga, Claire Julien, Leslie Mann. 90 min. USA / UK / France / Germany / Japan. Crime/Drama.

Based on the true story of a few teenagers who serially robbed Hollywood Hills celebrity homes in 2008-2009; Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom and Lindsay Lohan's included. Similar to the much darker Spring Breakers, the film focuses on the youth's infatuation with celebrity luxury, to the point of intentionally or unintentionally blurring all morality lines. Coppola continues her haunting style of picturing the loneliness and isolation of the privileged (in this case, affluent teenagers) from the world, but makes a fatal casting mistake: the actresses are excited at seeing Hilton and Dunst (who have cameos) in bars, while they're stars themselves.

PS: The DVD contains a 10-minute interview with Paris Hilton, to ask her account on how her house got robbed six times in two years without her knowing. But that turns into another disgusting opportunity for Hilton to showcase her rich life and the most private corners of her home (while ironically, she calls the burglars' theft of her underwear "creepy"). I don't know if this was part of Hilton's deal with Sofia Coppola to let her film inside her house for the movie, but it entirely undermines the film's message, and takes part in the ever-continuing process of glamorizing celebrity lifestyles, and pushing teens to "become" them. Quite depressing.

Mo says:

Sunday, September 22, 2013

What Maisie Knew (2012)

Director(s): Scott McGehee, David Siegel. Cast: Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgård, Steve Coogan, Joanna Vanderham, Onata Aprile. 99 min. Rated R. Drama.

A mom and dad (Moore and Coogan) are too involved with their professions to care about their little daughter (whose innocent looks can paralyze), and end up divorcing and marrying the local bartender and babysitter, respectively. Turns out, the new step-dad and step-mom are better parents for the little girl. Heart-wrenching film about marital relations, and how cruel parents use children to score points against one another. I was expecting a melodramatic twist at the end, which never came along, and a solution is never provided. Look at it as a well-composed portrayal of a bitter situation, and nothing more.

Mo says:

Friday, September 20, 2013

Despicable Me 2 (2013)

Director(s): Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud. Cast (voices): Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Benjamin Bratt, Miranda Cosgrove, Russell Brand, Ken Jeong, Steve Coogan. 98 min. Rated PG. Animation.

Significant improvement compared to the original. Reminiscent of Pixar's The Incredibles, the sequel to the 2010 boring animation now has a real story, makes an effort at character development, and even the little yellow-colored minions have a major role in the story, and don't just hang around to be cute. There are still some subplots that don't contribute to the story (never understood what all those love-at-first-sight sequences were for, other than to make the 90-minute mark), but I was pleasantly surprised and entertained, and even laughed at a few jokes. Wouldn't mind seeing the closing chapter to a trilogy.

PS: Goudie and Reza, thanks for the recommendation.

Mo says:

Stoker (2013)

Director: Chan-wook Park. Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Jacki Weaver, Dermot Mulroney. 99 min. Rated R. UK/USA. Drama/Mystery.

Creepy uncle (Goode) shows up for the first time at the funeral of a brother who had a creepy daughter (Wasikowska) and a creepy wife (Kidman). So the whole mystery is what all this creepiness is all about - meanwhile, characters keep disappearing and bodies keep piling up. Thankfully the main events happen in broad daylight; otherwise, this could have easily masqueraded as a horror movie. By the Korean director of Oldboy and Thirst, this beautifully photographed work with a great ensemble cast kept me slightly intrigued till the end, but when it was done, I was asking: So what?

Mo says:

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Stories We Tell (2012)

Director: Sarah Polley. 108 min. Rated PG-13. Canada. Documentary.

"Every family has a story." Sarah Polley, the young Canadian director/actress of Away From Her fame, has a secret in her family involving her deceased mother. She asks her father, siblings and whoever was close to her mother to describe their own narrative of what the secret was. So in itself, every family can create such a documentary. But then the film offers a nice discussion: when you have multiple narrations ... whose version of an event should you believe? And whose version is the director editing so we as viewers would believe? The everlasting dilemma of documentary filmmakers.

Mo says:

Monday, September 16, 2013

Short Term 12 (2013)

Director: Destin Cretton. Cast: Brie Larson, Frantz Turner, John Gallagher Jr. 96 min. Rated R. Drama.

A staff of twenty-something social workers run a short-term in-house foster care facility (the twelfth in the region, I guess) of juvenile delinquents, trying to heal them through (very dangerously) empathizing with them. Tough movie to get through; similar to End of Watch, you wonder how these people mentally survive the daily job, taking care of disturbed teenagers and experiencing their pain throughout. With a mesmerizing performance by somewhat-newcomer Brie Larson, I was so glad this 99% scorer on the Tomatometer miraculously left some room for hope at the end.

Mo says:

Sunday, September 15, 2013

On My Fourth Birthday

"To me, the opening credits are very important, because that's the only mood time that most movies give themselves. A cool credit sequence and the music that plays in front of it, or note played, or any music, whatever you decide to do, that sets the tone for the movie that's important for you."

- Quentin Tarantino
From the booklet of the soundtrack-collection: 

Last year, on celebrating the third anniversary of my blog, I posted my top 10 favorite opening sequences of all time. But at the time, I made a mistake. The opening credits sequence (not the sequence opening the film) for the movie Se7en is so incredible, I was blind-sided into listing it as a favorite opening sequence. But then this year I thought, how about for Mo-View's fourth anniversary, I list my top 10 favorite opening credits sequences?

So here's the list, with the accompanying clip. Similar to any top 10 list, I had to exclude some beautiful title sequences to filter it down to my top ten. The majority (but not all) are powerful films, and in most instances, the opening title sequence is almost on par with (or even better than) the film itself. The most basic elements that make these sequences great, are how the printed words have a life of their own in defining the filmand its characters, and of course, how the soundtrack is an inseparable and fortifying component of the sequence.

(Side-note: In case you're interested in some blog stats from the past four years: more than 650 films have been reviewed so far, and my this year's entry on Roger Ebert's passing, Roger ... and Me, has had the highest number of page-views, significantly ahead of the next four highest viewed entries, Prometheus, The Human Centipede, Star Trek Into Darkness, and About Elly - in that order. Yeah, I just can't seem to get rid of The Human Centipede.)

So here we go: my top 10 favorite opening credits sequences of all time, in alphabetical order:

1. Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese, 1991)

When it comes to opening credits, any favorites list would be incomplete without the name Saul Bass. He's created some of the most iconic title sequences in movie history, most famously for Hitchcock (Vertigo, Psycho, and Spartacus and Alien, to name a few), but one of my favorites is his work for Scorsese's remake of Cape Fear. Here, similar to Psycho, he uses lines through fractured words to imply the fractured mind of the movie's main character/villain. And even though Bernard Hermann (Hitchcock's usual composer) wrote the soundtrack for both movies, the effect here is significantly more menacing:

2. Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)

How can one talk about title sequences, without mentioning a James Bond movie? There must be many favorites out there, but when it came to Casino Royale, the plan was to redefine the entire franchise, and that included the opening credits. The movie uses the thrill of casinos and playing cards as its setting - watch here how they use spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs to tell a story. I never thought any of the Bond movie title sequences before this reached such heights:

3. Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)

Spike Lee has said and done weird things before, but this was one of his weirdest. Rosie Perez angrily dances (never thought you could use both those words in the same sentence) to Public Enemy's "Fight the Power". There are tales about how Lee intentionally tried to make Perez angry, by keeping up the heat in the studio and repeating the shots several times. You can see how frustrated Perez is - at one point it's almost as though she wants to quit. Watching this, you almost want to get up and revolt. In other words, the sequence works.

(Look for the name of a once-obscure actor, who more than twenty years later played the main villain in a famous TV series, and look at how the sequence at the end cuts to the lips of an unknown actor named Samuel L. Jackson.)

4. Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton, 1990)

I believe this sad Frankenstein love story is Tim Burton's best movie so far, this is Danny Elfman's best music ever, and this title sequence is the best such an heavenly collaboration can produce. It's intriguing when a movie's credit sequence somehow involves the studio logo also - you'll never forget Edward Scissorhands was made by 20th Century Fox. But feel the Gothic setting, and look at those words: they're all scissors. And look how the sequence ends with the dead face of one of horror's greatest actors.

5. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966)

Well, on this one, Ennio Morricone's music prevails. I mean, give the guy credit: creating an entire soundtrack based on the cry of a coyote, is legend material. Yes, articles have been written about the humbleness of its great director, who canon blasts his own name at the end of the sequence. But similar to how Walt Disney means cartoons, or Bill Gates means computers, just play those first few notes of music, and everybody knows it means "Western".

6. Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978)

What?! Grease?!!! Just watch. Doesn't this clip convey some good old hassle-free irresponsible days of the 50s? And isn't that what the entire movie is about? Oh, and that beautiful song, sung by Franki Valli, written by the great Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees. Perfect.

7. North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)

Again, Saul Bass, and again, lines. But this time, intersecting lines create a framework to imply the convoluted structure of the story. Or do they? Wait till the end. These are not just intersecting lines ... they're the United Nations building! Hitchcock had the common theme of "mistaken identity" in many of his best movies, and look how Saul Bass was able to convey that theme, even before the movie starts.

8. Se7en (David Fincher, 1995)

The images speak for themselves.

9. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

There are many great horror movies out there. But there are rarely horror movies that are creepy from the very first seconds. And Kubrick achieved that. A soundtrack of Berlioz' "Dies Irae", out-of-reach ascending credits, and "God's eye" swooping helicopter shots hovering over a tiny Volkswagen ... and passing over it. The passengers' situation is out of our control, and their fate is sealed. We know they're doomed.

10. Superman (Richard Donner, 1979)

This is a title sequence that never gets old. Just look at the names: Marlon BrandoGene HackmanMario Puzo. And of course, John Williams. Oh, that music. It makes the swooooshing names fly so gallantly into the infinite of space. What an incredible, powerful opening to a great movie. What an incredible start to the everlasting superhero genre. If I were to pick my all-time favorite title sequence, this would be it.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Smashed (2012)

Director: James Ponsoldt. Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Octavia Spencer. 81 min. Rated R. Drama.

Movies about alcoholism may boast award-worthy stars playing alcoholics (Meg Ryan, Nicolas Cage, Denzel Washington), but these characters live such dark and distant lives, it's difficult for non-alcoholics to sympathize. Here, we have a surprising turn from Mary Elizabeth Winstead (John McLane's daughter in Die Hard) who creates such an honest, believable portrayal of an alcoholic, it's difficult not to sympathize. Smashed helps one understand why to fight alcohol, a support system is critical - because the first day an alcoholic becomes sober, is when her family, workplace and entire environment makes sure that's the day she steps into hell.

Mo says:

Thursday, September 12, 2013

War Witch (Rebelle) (2012)

Director: Kim Nguyen. Cast: Rachel Mwanza, Alain Lino Mic Eli Bastien, Serge Kanyinda. 90 min. Not Rated. Canada. Drama/War.

Twelve-year Sub-Saharan Africa girl is forced by rebels to kill her parents, ceremoniously hired as a child soldier, and then discovered to have the ability to see ghosts - making her a valuable asset among rebels as a "War Witch". Another example of cinema portraying settings impossible to see in your own lifetime. As opposed to the somewhat shallow Blood Diamond (2006), this Oscar-nominated film astonishingly treats these murderous child soldiers as real human beings, capable of emotion, laughter, and even love. Strangely, you'll find yourself sympathizing with these children, and questioning how responsible one is for one's own actions.

PS #1: Done. All of this past year's Oscar nominees for Best Foreign-Language Film (Amour, Kon-Tiki, No, A Royal Affair, and War Witch) have been reviewed, and all but one got Mojos. See how I find good obscure films?

PS #2: This also just started streaming on Netflix two days ago.

Mo says:

Monday, September 9, 2013

To the Wonder (2012)

Director: Terrence Malick. Cast: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem. 112 min. Rated R. Drama/Romance.

The reclusive Terrence Malick is at it again. Creating dreamy vignettes using a constantly floating camera, flying through the story of people's lives. Women losing faith in men, and men losing faith in God, because they're disappointed of not being fulfilled of the high expectations they have of each. But even if the film had no story, Malick's hypnotic atmosphere and mesmerizing soundtrack is enough to rob his stars of their glamour, help you feel what they feel, and put you in a trance. This is beyond cinema - it's visual poetry.

PS: This movie got a feeble 43% on the Tomatometer, and some commentators say they wasted 2 hours of their life on it. Well, with all due respect, I really don't care. As also discussed here, Malick achieves levels of cinematic perfection with crude material other filmmakers rarely even bother to try. This was also the last film reviewed by Roger Ebert before his death in April.

Update (9/10/2013): I noticed the film started streaming on Netflix yesterday.

Mo says:

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Lords of Salem (2012)

Director: Rob Zombie. Cast: Sheri Moon Zombie, Meg Foster, Bruce Davison, Maria Conchita Alonso, Dee Wallace, Sid Haig. 101 min. Rated R. USA/UK/Canada. Horror.

I like Rob Zombie. Not only that any "rocker-turned-filmmaker" deserves respect, but also that he makes decent horror movies. No, not masterpieces; but his story-lines, editing, soundtrack, and production designs are all well thought-out, and create the mood for some very dark (and occasionally corny) horror. Lords of Salem, a modern Rosemary's Baby tale of Salem witches possessing a woman's body after 300 years to bear the son of Satan, is a good example, even though Zombie's wife in the lead is probably not the best casting choice. If you don't mind a lot of blood, follow this filmmaker's career.

PS: Who ever thought Elliot's mother was a witch?

Mo says:

Friday, September 6, 2013

Meteor (1979)

Director: Ronald Neame. Cast: Sean Connery, Natalie Wood, Karl Malden, Martin Landau, Henry Fonda, Trevor Howard. 108 min. Rated PG. Sci-fi/Action.

Five-mile meteor is set to hit Earth, and USA and USSR join forces to brag about their nuclear capabilities. On one hand, the mere presence of such an actor ensemble (especially Fonda as the President, acting so... presidential) make this film unavoidable; but then, the directing, the editing, the screenplay, and worst of all, the visual effects, are so deplorable, I can't bring myself to recommend it to my enemy. The fact that the same director had already made a pivotal disaster movie (The Poseidon Adventure), and Star Wars had already revolutionized SFX, makes this even more of a tragedy.

PS: Just watch the first few minutes here. You'll see what I mean.

Mo says:

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Bay (2012)

Director: Barry Levinson. Cast: Will Rogers, Kristen Connolly, Kether Donohue. 84 min. Rated R. Horror/Sci-fi.

Chesapeake Bay town is invaded by mutant parasites who eat human flesh... from inside-out. This ecological disaster movie, with the already well-trodden style of "found footage" compilation from shaking cameras (where somebody yells: "Can you turn the damn camera off?!!!", while someone's neck explodes), tries to inject fear into the viewer through grisly imagery; not realizing the short-term effect of preaching environmental morals (or any kind of morals) by using scare tactics. And similar to Contagion, it focuses on a single medical catastrophe, with no story whatsoever. I try to avoid bottled water, but not because of movies like this.

PS: What happened to the Barry Levinson who used to make movies like Rain Man, Avalon, Sleepers, Bugsy, and Good Morning Vietnam?

Mo says:

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Koch (2012)

Director: Neil Barsky. 100 min. Not Rated. Documentary.

I last visited New York City in my childhood in 1980. The city was a graffiti-strewn crime-ridden dump, where I tried best to avoid. Visiting it again 20 years later, it had become one of the loveliest cities on the planet. The reason for the change... was Ed Koch. During his 12 years as mayor, he struggled with the city's looming 70s bankruptcy, subway strikes, housing disaster, and a new epidemic called AIDS - and with his own faults a successes, kept asking: "How'm I doin'?" If you've ever been around the Big Apple, you'll love this documentary. I did.

PS: Ed Koch passed away this past February.

Mo says:

Monday, September 2, 2013

Sunshine (2007)

Director: Danny Boyle. Cast: Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Cliff Curtis, Mark Strong. 107 min. Rated R. UK/USA. Sci-fi/Thriller.

A space mission to re-ignite the sun which is darkening, via a nuclear explosion at its core. This might have been an interesting movie if it wasn't so heavily dependent on whatever made Alien successful: a crew in a claustrophobic ship that keeps dwindling in numbers, a not-very-trustworthy central computer, an alien-like predator, a possible betrayer among the crew, and a climactic ending involving a self-destruct countdown. Even similar to the 1979 movie, there's a bearded captain! Watching this in a theater must have been a hell of an experience, but Danny Boyle's shot at sci-fi is not very groundbreaking.

Mo says: