HBO Throwback Thursday: Raging Bull

Raging Bull tells the true story of Jake La Motta, whose temper and aggression caused him trouble in his personal life but made him a fierce boxer in the ring. Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro as Jake, this film beautifully weaves through both the personal and professional life of the flawed man.

Filmed completely in black and white, this beautiful film really shows the reach and talent of Robert De Niro. He carries the whole film, weaving between impossibly aggressive to suave and charismatic (even if it’s a scummy kind of charisma) to show the instability of the great boxer trying to become a champion and the subsequent fall from grace that comes when you hit the top. Martin Scorsese is clearly a fantastic director, as just the final fight alone against Sugar Ray would prove. It’s graphic and horrific but remarkably cinematic. The second standout star has to be Joe Pesci as his brother/manager Joey. Their onscreen chemistry is engaging and makes their later fallout so heartbreaking.

De Niro is unrecognizable as the older version of La Motta at the end of the film, gaining a record amount of weight to play the role. The acting chops of both Pesci and De Niro are at an all time high in this film as well as the direction of the legendary Scorsese. The choice to film in black and white was credited to trying to distinguish it from Rocky that came out four years prior. However I think it was the right choice regardless, offering a gritty feeling of noir that isn’t usually associated with boxing films. Rocky was cinematic, yes, but it was primarily a boxing film. This film reads more of a character study of a flawed, and often problematic man that happens to take place within the world of boxing. Through years a physical and mental abuse, his wife Vicki (Cathy Moriarty) plays another powerful character that has to hold her own with a neurotic and abusive husband. As Rocky paid homage to the poorer parts of Philadelphia this film also takes an interesting look at the Bronx and the people who made up the borough during the 1940s and 50s.

This film is gritty and rough, but a beautiful story of how far a champion can fall. It is a cautionary tale, exposing the sad truth that even sports legends and stars can be deeply troubled people, veiled by the mask their wear in public. Scorsese proves his legendary directing through some gripping shots, fantastic characters, and a new and creative way to approach the sports film genre. De Niro is a powerhouse and even if no other character lasted the test of time, this performance alone would have cemented him as one of the true acting greats. It is no surprise that he won Best Actor for his portrayal of the troubled sportsman. This movie is a must watch.

Amy Recommendation: 10/10

HBO Wildcard Wednesday: Sin City

In this graphic novel adaption of the same name, Sin City is anthology film that develes deep into the violent underground of Sin City. An underground filled with excessive violence, murder, and prostitution.

These days I’ve been reading a lot of graphic novels, primarily the grittier kind like Alan Moore’s Watchmen and marveling at the artistic endeavor it must be to put one together. Comics and graphic novels have been an overlooked art form for a long time, often mistaken as a medium only for the nerdiest and primarily male market and not admired for their ability to convey incredibly complex stories within an artistic medium.

However, my love of graphic novels aside, this movie I find a little problematic. I must say first that I admire the way this film is shot. Cinematically it truly feels like you are within the pages of a graphic novel, not an outsider watching the story being presented to you. This film doesn’t shy away from sex and violence; often amping up both as far as it can go but stylizing it in a way that feels new and innovative.

I love the shift towards R-rated comic films. Logan, Deadpool, V for Vendetta, and Watchmen all prove that making an R-rated comic/graphic novel based film can be refreshing and add to the depth of the story. Violence-wise I think that this film is fine in how far they went, often being what I (and A Clockwork Orange) love calling a bit of ultraviolence. The artistic way they approached violence is actually quite beautiful, even if the subject matter is dark. The selective coloration and the ultra-contrast between blacks and whites add to this beautiful homage to comic book violence. It looks incredible.

Here’s where I find Sin City problematic. Comics and graphic novels written by men often have a reputation for misogyny. The women are sexualized and delegitimized to the point where they are only there to propel the plot through their deaths or their sexuality. They are drawn to impossible physical standards to please the often male audience that make up their primary market. However, this is taken to great extremes in this film. All of the women in this film are either prostitutes, exotic dancers, or victims. Men take advantage of them constantly, or they are at the mercy of a man to rescue them from trouble. The prostitutes do get a nice arch, primarily with the badass Miho being extraordinarily awesome and even saving a man once or twice, but they are still all prostitutes who have to wear basically nothing on a daily basis. Even protecting their turf their main duty is to serve as a sexualized visual for the male-gaze fueled audience. Even the most gratuitous nudity comes from a lesbian parole officer for no reason, she’s just naked for some reason. All of the women in this film are sexualized in such a way that it distracts from their capability to protect themselves and fight for each other.

Overall, this film is a feat of cinematography. It looks incredible and has a new approach on the graphic novel genre that had never been done before. Moving through the alternating stories and characters you feel genuinely connected to the original medium in which it was produced. Still, perpetuating the stereotype that this medium is made by men fore men is detrimental to the overall progression of the genre.

Amy’s Recommendation: 8/10

Tearjerker Tuesday: Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a religious pacifist, who goes off to join the army in the Second World War. His religious obligation to pacifism and aversion to violence lands him trouble with his peers and officers, but his resilience drives him to the battlefield as a medic.

Desmond joins to become an army medic and to save lives instead of taking them. Let this be a warning, with a movie about an army medic, there are some pretty nasty injuries. If you have a weak stomach (like I do unfortunately) this might be a tough watch. There’s graphic war violence throughout including some pretty rough war injuries including limbs being blown off and graphic gunshot wounds.

Still, if you can stomach the gripping and tense war imagery, the story is really an extraordinary one. The true resilience of the human spirit is incredible, but few are as resilient as Desmond Doss. Equipped with no weapons, he saved 75 men from Hacksaw Ridge without ever touching a rifle or killing a man. His obedience to his beliefs and his religion brought him a lot of suffering, but in the end he proved that his God made him feel brave and heroic, not weak or any less of a soldier.

This film is cinematic as it is harrowing, with the war and battle scenes being shot creatively as well as extremely graphic. Andrew Garfield is a bone fide star in this film, and his sheer charisma and fortitude make Desmond such a likeable character. He plays the underdog well, and he has played the underdog/awkward guy before, but this take on the character is impressive. It can be daunting to play a certified hero (even if Doss constantly refused to call himself a hero and attributed all of his strength to God), but Garfield plays the character exceptionally. The movie at it’s core is about him. The war is happening, but you are invested in this one character for the duration of the film, and Garfield never loses his grip on your heartstrings for almost two and half hours. Hugo Weaving gives a great performance as a tragic father and Teresa Palmer plays a fantastic role as his love interest, but Garfield really steals the show. The film was nominated for six Oscars, winning two for sound design and film editing. The story is admirable and incredible to see, even if it is an emotional roller coaster filled with some graphic gore. I must say it deserved to be nominated for Best Picture, as it is truly an incredible story that brought out an incredible performance in its lead actor.

Amy’s Recommendation: 9/10

HBO Monster Monday: They Live

In this interesting and original take on horror by the classic John Carpenter, They Live chronicles drifter Nada as he suddenly is able to see the truth of his own reality after finding special sunglasses. Discovering aliens have brainwashed us all to be obedient pawns to the ruling class, he joins the resistance. However in this reimagining, the rich and ruling class just happens to be undercover aliens.

Radiating the political sentiment of Orwell’s 1984, Carpenter’s film seeks to make a political stance on the nature of money, advertising, power, and greed. Of course in true Carpenter fashion, he envisions Big Brother not as fascist people but as “formaldehyde-faced” aliens bent on controlling society.

This movie is wacky, but at its core it’s quite smart. As Nada looks through his shades he sees paper that says “This is your God” instead of money and the words “Obey” and “No Imagination” on Magazine ads. Sure Roddy Piper as Nada is a pretty campy acting experience and some of his lines are pretty random and his delivery is sometimes pretty weird, but still he manages to deliver one of the most iconic lines in cult classic history. As he steps into a bank wielding a shotgun and a pistol he casually drawls:

“I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubble gum”

Do grown men say these things? No. But god did I get a kick out of it. This movie has silly moments that make it feel like a camp hit.For example, this film contains the longest fistfight in cinema history over whether or not to wear the sunglasses. Just put the glasses on Frank. Seriously this fight is incredibly long and ends with him saying lines like “Life’s a bitch and she’s back in heat”. What? After the fact, I Googled Roddy Piper and like I suspected he was a wrestler during the 1980s when this movie was made. Hence the unnaturally long choreographed fight scene. I also Googled Frank, due to his very charismatic and familiar voice, and turns out he is played by Keith David, who voiced the villain, Dr. Facilier, in The Princess and the Frog. Just an interesting fun fact, but he sounds exactly the same in 1988 as he does now.

This movie is silly, and it screams cult classic, but Carpenter’s message rings harder than the poor acting quality. We are always being influenced whether wether we are aware of it or not by media and people in power. They might not be aliens, but everyone is always trying to get you to either buy something or conform to the normative values of that society. The second we stop questioning everything, the second they’ve won. Being aware of ulterior motives is key and learning to think for yourself is essential. This movie has a great message wrapped in a cheesy package. Its message may be serious, but this movie really is a lot of fun. Building on Orwellian ideas, this Carpenter classic offers a truly unique and interesting twist.

Amy’s Recommendation: 8/10

Favorite Film Friday: Lion

This six-time Oscar nominated film tells the story of Saroo Brierley (Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel) and his struggle to reconnect with his family. After being separated from his biological family, Saroo finds himself in a totally new environment and raised in a completely different culture than his own. As he grows up, he obsessively begins to search for the family he left behind.

This story is tragically beautiful and heartbreaking, and provides a heartfelt performance by both Sunny Pawar (who adorably plays the young Saroo) and Dev Patel (who plays his older self). Saroo works alongside his mother, who lives in a very poor village and moves rocks. Although poor, he loves his family and finds comfort in his mother and brother. After a tragic accident he finds himself miles from home, lost, and pushed into the dangerous streets of Calcutta. As the authorites refuse to help him return home, due to his mispronunciation of his hometown, he finds himself in worse and worse conditions until he is adopted by an Australian family.

The now adult Saroo (Dev Patel) struggles with his loyalty to his adopted family and the family he lost in India. He tries to track down his family in secret out of love for his adopted mother, who is already worried about his adopted, troubled brother, Mantosh.

This story had me sobbing on the Megabus back to school, and honestly its beautiful and horrible to watch at the same time. The struggles that little Saroo had to deal with at such a young age is horrible to witness, and he’s just so adorable that you can’t help but just love him. His journey is tense and harrowing and if you go into the film knowing none of the backstory you never know how or if he’s going to get out of these dangerous situations.

The continuing story after Saroo becomes an adult is equally tragic as he suddenly feels compelled to find the family he left behind. His Google Map hobby turns into an obsession as he searches desperately for home.

A compelling and tragically gorgeous story, this film is one of my favorite of recent years. Not only is it a true story, it is a heartbreaking tale that examines the real definition of family and culture. Saroo has to question if he is really Indian or Australian and what family he identifies with and as he does he must struggle with core questions of the human existence. A story that is guaranteed to bring you to tears, this gripping story is a must watch on any Netflix list.

Amy’s Recommendation: 10/10

P.S. You will love Sunny Pawar. Don’t fight it. He is the cutest little kid I have ever seen.

Throwback Thursday: Police Academy

Police Academy is a 1980s screwball comedy that tells the story of a group of outcasts that all (expect one) want to become police officers. After a law is passed that gets rid of height, weight, and intellectual qualifications these ordinary people flock to training. As this rag tag group of misfits try to pass the academy they face the fierce opposition of their instructors.

I would like to start this whole thing off by affirming that this is movie is a pretty dumb dude flick and some of the jokes don’t age well (especially the misogynistic ones). That’s my negative side of the review, but I’m not going to lie, I actually think overall this movie is pretty funny. It’s a simple comedy, mostly focusing on reoccurring bits that define all of the characters. The gung-ho gun nut (David Graf) is always over-the-top and always doing something with a weapon. There’s the guy that is always making sound effects (Michael Winslow). The main character is always pulling some kind of prank (Steve Guttenberg). The huge black guy (Bubba Smith of NFL fame) is constantly excelling in everything by just being massive. There’s the girl that only speaks in a whisper (Marion Ramsey). One guy is fat and timid (Donovan Scott). One guy gets all the ladies (Andrew Rubin). Essentially, everyone’s central character is made up by the bit they’re supposed to be playing.

Now obviously that sounds pretty basic, and that’s because it is, but it still quite funny. Bubba Smith’s character Higgins is this loveable giant that you can’t help but root for, and he’s actually really funny playing an ex-florist who joined the police force because he was bored. The main character is this likeable jerk who has a few pretty funny pranks in him. And most of the bits hold up. Michael Winslow always made me laugh with the sound effects. It’s not profound, but I really thought he was the funniest and most underrated bit they had going. The lead commander is a little shrill and annoying, being that his only character trait is to be a total asshole the whole time. We literally have no reason to ever root for him, and so the final confrontation at the end kind of loses any impact. Not like there was going to ever be any serious drama in this thing anyway, but still you usually want the guy rescued.

Now this film is definitely dated, and has spawned about a million sequels that steadily rated lower and lower on Rotten Tomatoes, ultimately hitting rock bottom with Police Academy 4-7 earning a whopping 0% approval rating. I think I found this movie funny because it was a pretty original idea and had some decent bits that usually landed. I loved Smith. I loved Winslow. Some jokes were a little much, especially with anything involving women, but it wasn’t offensive enough for me to switch it off. It’s a silly movie, but if you aren’t expecting an Oscar-nominated classic, it really is quite fun.

Amy’s Recommendation: 6/10

Wildcard Wednesday: Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes tells the story of Rick Santoro (not Rick Santorum as I hilariously thought they were saying for a little too long), a corrupt Atlantic City cop that finds himself in the middle of an assassination plot during a highly anticipated boxing match.

The film opens on Nicholas Cage going full out Nick Cage, overacting and being wild, but it’s all in good fun. Then it kind of loses the fun as the film progresses. Cage finds himself unwittingly in the middle of the action as the Secretary of Defense of the United States is shot right next to him. He then finds himself investigating the shady underground world of gambling and corruption that evolves into a much greater mystery than he was prepared to handle. As he is pushed farther and farther into the depths of conspiracy he is forced to discover the lines even he isn’t prepared to cross.

Now, that synopsis sounds great. However, the overall movie leaves a lot to be desired. The first half isn’t terrible, and it sets the scene for an interesting mystery. 14,000 people are locked in this massive arena/hotel/casino, one person isn’t who they seem, and there happens to be a hurricane outside. Meanwhile only Nick Cage is investigating this high stakes murder when everyone could be a suspect.

Then it kind of goes off the rails a bit. I mean to be honest, the villain is really obvious, so the ultimate reveal really isn’t that satisfying. The final fight scene is so ridiculous that it kind of undermines the whole set-up. The villain although predictable is still pretty good at being evil. The female lead starts out as a likeable character, but then they literally lock in her in a room for a huge chunk of the film. The actual ending is tacked on and irrelevant. The film just kind of goes through the motions without having anything interesting or new to add. There is also the most eye-roll inducing title drop possibly in all of movie history. It wastes it’s potential for a good Nick Cage movie (back when good Nick Cage performances were even remotely expected. Pre-bankruptcy. This was the year after Con Air people!) and offers a bland movie-by-numbers experience that doesn’t deliver on a potentially interesting set-up.

Amy’s Recommendation: 4/10

Tearjerker Tuesday: The Break-Up

This aptly named movie charts the break up of Gary (Vince Vaughn) and Brooke (Jennifer Aniston). However, the break up gets messier and messier as they try and decide who keeps their upscale condo.

Most of the movie is a generic romantic comedy, but since the whole subject is a break-up there are some pretty sad scenes too. Watching a once successful, happy relationship devolve is always sad, regardless of the antics they both get into to in order to out do each other. Unfortunately, the antics themselves really aren’t funny and are pretty dull and depressing. Vince Vaughn plays the typical prick character that made him famous, and honestly I can’t believe they got together in the first place.

There are some comedic characters. Brooke’s acapella loving brother, Richard, is pretty funny, played by the loveable John Michael Higgins who also plays an acapella nerd in the Pitch Perfect films. Her gay coworker/receptionist Christopher is always enjoyable to watch, played by Justin Long (with a ponytail!). I stand by the fact that the funniest bit in the whole movie is that Vince Vaughn would score Jennifer Aniston in the first place and then have the audacity to not adore her.

Anyway, this movie isn’t Oscar-worthy, it’s barely that good, but I don’t hate it. I don’t want to ruin it, but its that final scene gets me every time. I can promise it’ll get you too. I can’t complain that Vaughn and Aniston have no chemistry, because for the most part they’re trying to get at each other. Still I can’t ever picture them dating. And he’s such a jerk most of the time that you really never root for them to get back together. The worst part about this movie is that we don’t even see their relationship. We get a shitty montage for two minutes in the opening and then an awkward dinner scene. That’s the extent they are together. So who honestly cares about the break up?! We don’t even know if they were ever good together. Still there are a couple scenes that are honestly pretty depressing, but its all because Jennifer Aniston is such a good actress. Vaughn just looks confused most of the time. By the end of this whole charade you aren’t routing for them to get together anymore. You are almost rooting for the opposite. You deserve better Aniston.

Still I don’t hate this movie, even despite it’s flaws. There are some moments that are truly sad and the ending is heartfelt and offers a decent conclusion to the plot. It’s simple, but its acceptable, and it hits home to anyone that has been dumped, the dumpee, or has called it quits together. It’s not the best movie in the world, but its a simple wine and movie night watch that’s probably been sitting in your Netflix list for a while now. Break ups unequivocally suck, but surprisingly this movie doesn’t. As long as you’re in for a simple flick that has a few good scenes to get you teary, this one will probably do the trick.

Amy’s Recommendation: 5/10

Monster Monday: Haunter

Haunter tells the story of a family caught in a Groundhog Day level time loop, and the only person who can see through the charade is the eldest daughter Lisa. She reveals in the first two seconds that she and her family are dead, but she is the only one aware of it. She then slowly begins to feel a presence in the house, and it begins taunting her as she delves into the house’s history and what really happened to her family.

This movie is pretty terrible. Abigail Breslin is a great actress, but this is a horrible way to waste her talent. The plot is essentially incoherent. At first it seems like its going to be a typical story of a family finding out they’ve been dead the whole time, but they give up that bombshell in the first two minutes of the movie. It’s not even a spoiler, they reveal it that early. Then you have to figure out who is haunting her, but that’s given away pretty early on too, even if you don’t really know what he is. Then its some serial killer thing. It’s very confusing, and it has no idea what storyline it wants to pursue, so it just half pursues all of them at one time.

All of the scares are exactly where you’d expect them, so honestly even though they are made up of entirely jump scares, they still don’t get to you. All the moments you expect something will probably jump out at you, it will. There’s really no surprise in it. There’s maybe one good jump scare in the whole thing, and even that is forced due to the dumbest decision ever by Breslin’s character.

The only cool effect is during the first part of the finale, and it looks exactly like the opening sequence of a season of American Horror Story. And that’s pushing it, some of the openings of AHS have better story lines than this. Even the finale is weak. The movie has a few tense moments, but overall it’s a pretty decent waste of time.

Haunter wants to be way too many things at one time. It’s a possession movie. It’s a ghost movie. It’s Freaky Friday for a hot second. It’s a serial killer/slasher flick. It’s a female revenge flick. However it’s none of these done well. It overreached and didn’t hit the mark. The plot is muddled and unfocused. Abigail Breslin is given a horrible premise and never gets her chance to really act. The pale man is creepy, but he’s just stand-in Willem Dafoe when it comes down to it. If you want an interesting new horror flick, this isn’t the one for you.

Amy’s Recommendation: 2/10

Favorite Film Friday: Manhattan

Manhattan tells the story of a group of dysfunctional Manhattanites who grapple with love in the big city. It also contains some of the most beautiful opening lines in cinema history. When I was younger I used to try and memorize them.

“He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion…no make that romanticized it all out of proportion. To him no matter what the season was this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the tunes of George Gershwin.”

It’s simply beautiful, and it’s paired with a stunning montage of the city with a sweeping score. Its close to perfect. I am almost certain this black and white collection of the New York atmosphere is the driving force that brought me here. For the utter romanticism of the city. “It’s really a great city, really a knockout” (Allen)

Besides Annie Hall, which of course is a masterpiece, this is by far my favorite Woody Allen film. It was also my first entirely black and white film, and it created such a beautiful and new way to look at such a normally colorful city.

Although marred by the later scandal involving younger women and his proclivity for them, including his adopted stepdaughter, this movie still carries artistic value. Still, this film’s central romantic angle is between an older Woody Allen character, Isaac (42) and a high school girl, Tracey (17). Meanwhile he has to deal with ex-wife who is writing a book about their marriage and an affection for his best friend’s mistress. His ex-wife also happens to be played by an absolutely ethereal Meryl Streep.

Still the scenes shared by young Tracey and Allen’s character (who is literally just Woody Allen being peak Woody Allen) are awkward in their own way. She sounds too young, and whenever they interact she always reflects her age. Like asking who Rita Hayworth is or using modern slang while he is musing over some abstract and elitist concept. In the scene where they both meet Diane Keaton’s character, Tracey can’t hold her own in the art conversation and just agrees with whatever Allen says. She’s smart and charming, but she simply hasn’t had the experiences that come with age that her counterparts have.

Cinematically the black and white amplifies the romantic and nuanced aesthetic that Allen is trying to bring the the borough. The lighting is beautiful and often striking, with some scenes looking like they should be still works of art. The most iconic scene, and the featured image of this post, is cemented in cinematic history as Allen and Keaton gaze romantically at the Queensboro bridge.

The film as a whole comes off as a satirical approach of elitism, while also aligning itself in that typical Woody Allen elitism that makes him so famous. But whenever he and Keaton team up, they make for fantastic dialogue and true chemistry. She’s so funny, and she can quip just as fast as Allen’s snarky sense of humor. She keeps up with him while providing a more cool foil for his over the top neuroticism. And this film is bitingly funny. Allen’s one-liners are fantastic and the script is expertly crafted. Allen is charming in his weird neurotic sort of way, and the city has never looked better. Against the magnetic backdrop of the scenic city, this film delves deep into the dysfunctional relationships of the people who call it home.

Amy’s Recommendation: 10/10