Ranking the 50 Movies Project 2014: #50-26

Last year, I embarked on my annual 50 Movies Project using a “contemporary” theme (films from the 1980s to present day). Overall, it was another successful edition of the project, and it was great to finally tackle some films that I might not have otherwise seen. Today and tomorrow I will be ranking the selections, concluding with my favorite film of the group. Here we go, starting from the bottom:

#50 – Armageddon [1998]
Armageddon [1998]
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Movie Project #45-50: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Godfather: Part III, Miller’s Crossing, Pretty Woman, Thelma & Louise, Armaggedon

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford [2007]
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford [2007]
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford moves at a very slow pace (and I mean *very* slow), but it’s infinitely rewarding for those with the patience to see it through. This could very well be the most beautifully shot film I have come across in this year’s project. From Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography to Nick Cave’s equally enchanting score, this is a monumental audio/visual experience. The cast is terrific as well, led by Brad Pitt as the outlaw Jesse James, and Casey Affleck as the weaselly Robert Ford (not to mention memorable supporting roles from Sam Shepard, Paul Schneider, Jeremy Renner and Sam Rockwell, among others). This is a film that has grown on me the more I reflect upon it, and I can see why it has a loyal following to this day. 8/10
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Movie Project #40-44: Dirty Dancing, Being John Malkovich, A Christmas Story, Dances With Wolves, and Gomorrah

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

Dirty Dancing [1987]
Dirty Dancing [1987]
I can see how this would be a “guilty pleasure” for some. I was honestly quite surprised by how much I enjoyed this film. It’s cheesy in all the right ways (“Nobody puts Baby in a corner!”), the performances from Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey are infectious, and the dancing is oddly alluring. I do have to say it was a bit strange that raising money for an abortion was a central plot point, as that’s not something I would have expected from such a wildly popular movie like this. I wouldn’t call Dirty Dancing a great movie by any means, but it’s fun, and sometimes that’s all that is needed. 7/10
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Movie Project #36 and #37: Run Lola Run [1998] and The Orphanage [2007]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

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Run Lola Run [1998, dir. Tom Tykwer]
Oh, this was good. Tom Tykwer’s stylish film is like a shot of adrenaline with its frenetic techno soundtrack and its stop-start videogame-like structure. By the end of it, I had so much energy that I wanted to run until my body gave out. Yeah, it has that kind of impact.
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Movie Project #32 and #33: JFK [1991] and The Untouchables [1987]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

JFK [1991]
JFK: Director’s Cut [1991, dir. Oliver Stone]
In Oliver Stone’s JFK, damn near everyone is to blame for the assassination of our 35th President — the CIA, FBI, Mafia, LBJ, Castro, the Dallas Police Department, and Southern anti-Communist radicals. These targets are all linked together by New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner). The film follows his obsession with the case and his desperate attempts to uncover possible conspiracies.

Whether or not any of the theories presented in the film are true is irrelevant because JFK is simply a masterclass in the art of storytelling. So many different threads are successfully weaved in and out, and once you go down that rabbit hole, there’s no turning back. Our country will never truly know who all was involved in the shooting, but considering the fallacies in the “lone gunman” argument, I wouldn’t be surprised if the film held more truth than the government’s own Warren Commission.

For a film in which the director’s cut encompasses a whopping 206 minutes, time sure does fly by. Part of that is because the mystery regarding the assassination itself is so riveting, but a large part can be attributed to an absolutely stellar cast. Costner anchors the film, but just take a look at some of the other big names involved: Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci, Kevin Bacon, Michael Rooker, Jack Lemmon, Walter Mattheau, Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek, John Candy… Every single one of them delivers a memorable performance, all crucial to the plot in some fashion.

The film’s length is what put me off from watching it for so long, and that’s a damn shame. JFK still has me thinking to this day, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it near the top of my project at the end of the year. 9/10

The Untouchables [1987, dir. Brian De Palma]
The Untouchables [1987, dir. Brian De Palma]
Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables is a real crowd pleaser. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s got a sharp script courtesy of David Mamet, an Oscar-nominated score from the legendary Ennio Morricone, and it’s stacked with memorable setpieces featuring an all-star cast. Set during 1920s Chicago, the film follows the famous Prohibition agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and his group of “untouchables” (including a tough Irish bastard played by Sean Connery) as they seek to take down Al Capone (Robert De Niro) and his illegal bootlegging operations.

There’s a lot to like here, and it starts with the characters. Ness is a straight-laced agent, but there’s something admirable about his dedication to the law. His righthand man, the local beat cop played by Connery, is a real highlight, providing a certain energy to balance out the dry Ness. De Niro isn’t given a whole lot to work with as Capone, unfortunately, though there is one unforgettable scene where he does his best Babe Ruth impression with a baseball bat (except not on a baseball, if you know what I mean..).

Since this is a De Palma film, it is beautifully shot, and it makes brilliant use of its Chicago setting. In arguably the film’s most famous scene, a staircase inside the Union Station is used as an homage to the famous Odessa Steps sequence in the silent classic, Battleship Potemkin. Although the climax is a bit too over the top for my liking, on the whole The Untouchables is a highly entertaining film that still holds up today. 8/10

Music Box of Horrors 2014 — A Recap

Music Box of Horrors 2014Music Box Theatre

This past weekend I was able to cross another item off my movie-related bucket list — to finally attend a horror movie marathon. Every year for the past ten years, the Music Box Theatre (the best cinema in Chicago) hosts the Music Box of Horrors (formerly the Massacre), a 24 hour horror marathon from noon to noon. The selections are always eclectic and cover the vast spectrum of the world of film, everything from silent features to modern day favorites. While I unfortunately did not make it through the entire event (more on that later), I definitely got my money’s worth.

The Phantom Carriage [1921]

I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the festival than seeing the silent classic, The Phantom Carriage, accompanied by a live organ. Widely considered one of the greatest silent films of all time, it certainly lived up to the hype in my eyes. Its innovative use of double exposures to show the ghosts (including the “phantom carriage”) was a remarkable achievement for its time. Yet for a movie in which ghosts, the grim reaper and other spooky entities appear, the most frightening aspect is alcoholism; specifically, one man’s descent toward the bottom of the bottle and his struggles to move away from it. The film shares a lot of similarities with A Christmas Carol in that it looks back at moments where the main character’s life went wrong, and it’s actually quite depressing. The experience of seeing it on the big screen with live organ accompaniment was enough to keep things from getting too dour, however.

The Man They Could Not Hang [1939]

Next up was the lesser-known Boris Karloff sci-fi/horror flick, The Man They Could Not Hang. Karloff, entertaining as always, plays a scientist who has developed a mechanical heart which he hopes will bring the dead back to life. When he gets charged for the murder of one of his patients, he is sentenced to death, only to come back to life thanks to the very procedure he invented. He becomes a man out for revenge, trapping those who found him guilty while attempting to kill them off one-by-one. It’s a good bit of b-grade fun that doesn’t take itself seriously. At just 64 minutes long, it doesn’t overstay its welcome either.

Cat People [1942]

Another short-but-sweet low-budget classic was to follow, the original 1942 film Cat People. This one had a bit of a goofy premise — a young Serbian woman (a playful Simone Simon) believes she will turn into a panther when aroused, all because of an ancient tribal curse — but it works because of a terrific sense of atmosphere. We never see the woman physically change, but due to some creative camerawork and use of shadows, we can sense her threatening presence. Fun fact: director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca later collaborated on one of the all-time great noirs, Out of the Past.

The Curse of the Werewolf [1961]

I was really looking forward to the next screening, The Curse of the Werewolf, because I had somehow never seen a Hammer film before. Unfortunately, I found it to be disappointing. The story was all over the place, and too much time was spent building up to such a small payoff. The werewolf itself didn’t make an appearance until the final ten minutes or so, and by then it was too little, too late. The makeup and special effects were major highlights, but the film itself didn’t do much for me.

The Borrower [1991]

The centerpiece of the marathon was arguably John McNaughton’s fairly obscure 1991 film, The Borrower, presented on Laserdisc (!) from the director’s own personal collection. McNaughton and a few others involved with the film were at the screening, and they did a Q&A session afterward. Originally the plan was to screen the director’s most popular work, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but he offered to bring in The Borrower, a film that he hasn’t “discussed to death.” From the sound of it, the filming process was a real bitch, but the end result still holds up quite well. This was a crazy, over-the-top sci-fi/horror hybrid that was a real crowd pleaser. An alien serial killer is charged with murder and sent to live on Earth in human form as its punishment. It spends its time “borrowing” the heads of humans, acquiring new ones whenever its current head randomly explodes. Rae Dawn Chong (Commando, The Color Purple) stars as the police officer who is trying to figure out just what the hell is going on. It’s all utterly ridiculous, but also a total blast.

Nosferatu the Vampyre [1979]

At this point during the marathon, I was dealing with some really bad back pain (the seats at the Music Box aren’t especially conducive to long-term sitting, and I have on-and-off back troubles anyway) so I decided to take a break after the next film: Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, starring the inimitable Klaus Kinski. This was another one I was eager to see, as I had really enjoyed another Herzog/Kinski collaboration from a past 50 Movies Project: Aguirre, the Wrath of God. It did not disappoint. Kinski’s portrayal of Count Dracula is downright frightening, and the film excels at building up a sense of dread. There is death and filth everywhere (so many rats…), and the film is about as dark as it gets.

Nosferatu the Vampyre turned out to be the end of my marathon, as I biked back home, passed out and didn’t get up in time for any of the morning screenings. I missed out on Dead Snow 2 (which I already saw and reviewed this summer), Nightmare, Shakma, Don’t Look in the Basement, Just Before Dawn and Audition (which I was hoping to revisit). Alas, I had a great time even though I only made it through half of the event.

Line of the night: “The law is quite explicit, one cannot divorce an insane person.” (Cat People)
Runner-up: “My dear Mr. District Attorney, your law is shockingly bad. I have the perfect alibi. I am legally dead. Your business is with the living.” (The Man They Could Not Hang)

Final rundown:
The Phantom Carriage [1921] - 8/10
The Man They Could Not Hang [1939] - 7/10
Cat People [1942] - 7/10
The Curse of the Werewolf [1961] - 5/10
The Borrower [1991] - 7/10
Nosferatu the Vampyre [1979] - 8/10

Movie Project #30 and #31: Apollo 13 [1995] & Philadelphia [1993]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

Apollo 13 [1995]
Apollo 13 [1995, dir. Ron Howard]
Ah yes, “Houston, we have a problem.” Ron Howard’s spin on the near-disastrous real-life Apollo 13 mission certainly has its place in pop culture history. It also serves as an intriguing history lesson, especially for someone (i.e. me) who somehow had not seen this over the last nineteen years.

Apollo 13 tells the story of what should have been America’s third Moon landing mission, one that ultimately put the crew’s lives in danger due to a mechanical defect. Even though I had known at the very least that the crew would survive, the film remains a mostly suspenseful ride. The three men aboard the spacecraft, Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), frantically work together with Mission Control back in Houston (led by a flight director played by Ed Harris) in order to make it home alive. Naturally, there’s quite a bit of tension, and the moments where everyone is able to come up with possible solutions feel like genuine triumphs. By all accounts, the film is also technically accurate, and this really enhances its overall presentation.

The cast here is terrific, though I wish characters other than Hanks’s Lovell would have been fleshed out more. I felt bad for Bacon’s Swigert, as he gets little to no development after being selected as a last-minute replacement for an astronaut with possible impending measles (played by Gary Sinise). Paxton’s character is also lacking in depth, which is surprising since these three men are essentially considered equals on the same team, yet only Hanks is given proper attention. Still, regardless of these character flaws, Apollo 13 does remain an engaging account of a mission that could have been an awful tragedy. 7/10

Philadelphia [1993]
Philadelphia [1993, dir. Jonathan Demme]
Philadelphia has its place in history for being one of the first Hollywood films to tackle HIV/AIDS and homophobia, and for that, it certainly deserves some praise. It helps to have two powerhouse performances from two of the best actors in the business as well.

Tom Hanks plays Andrew Beckett, an AIDS-stricken lawyer who is fired solely because of his condition. He enlists the help of Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), the only willing attorney in Philadelphia to file this wrongful dismission suit. Miller is homophobic, and the film makes sure to remind us this over and over again. Some scenes meant to establish this are laughable (such as one where Miller is hit on at a pharmacy by a football-carrying man), but Washington is so good that he transcends the sometimes cringe-worthy dialogue. Hanks won an Oscar for his performance, and perhaps deservedly so — this is among his best work.

Philadelphia has its heart in the right place — the fact that it helped deconstruct so many myths about AIDS is fantastic — but it fails in other accounts. For a film in which its main character is a gay man in a loving relationship with another (played by Antonio Banderas), I can’t recall seeing two men kiss at all during its run time. Perhaps the world wasn’t ready for this at the time, but it seems like a glaring oversight. Philadelphia is still a captivating watch, as well as a solid courtroom drama, but its issues are more noticeable today. 7/10