Year 2, Day 208
Movie #288~1,004: Transsiberian (2008)
No matter what your dream in life, no matter what your goal, keep your eye upon the doughnut and not upon the hole.
Plot: A Transsiberian train journey from China to Moscow becomes a thrilling chase of deception and murder when an American couple encounters a mysterious pair of fellow travelers.
Review: This is a wonderful thriller that is driven by both characters and action. It is a complex story but not a confusing one and the characters seem realistic, making it easier for the audience to connect with them, especially the American tourist couple - a refreshingly goofy Woody Harrelson as Roy and Emily Mortimer as reformed bad girl Jessie. After meeting another traveling couple (Kata Mara and Eduardo Noriega), they find themselves mixed up in a sinister plot that quickly unravels out of their control.
The setting of the film, both on board the claustrophobic train and in the exotic yet ominous Russian villages, allow the audience to really feel the growing tension and unease. I felt as uncomfortable as Roy and Jessie, strangers in a strange world with hostile and dangerous locals. The film’s atmosphere is cold and menacing and with twists that would impress Alfred Hitchcock, the script matches the setting’s intensity.
Transsiberian is a wonderful suspense movie that cleverly utilizes its unique characters and locations in the best possible way. There are scenes of violence and action but they each serve a plot purpose and aren’t used just for effect. And like most successful suspense films, it starts off slow, allowing us to get introduced and connected to the characters before shifting the story into high gear. And once the action starts, it never stops.
Returning to our international cinematic trek, the next theme will be movies that take place in Eastern Europe.
Year 2, Day 206
Movie #287~1,003: 3096 Days (2013)
You’re just as tied to me as I am to you.
Plot: A young Austrian girl is kidnapped and held in captivity for eight years. Based on the factual case of Natascha Kampusch.
Review: Based on Natascha Kampusch’s book detailing her harrowing eight year ordeal, 3096 Days is a haunting movie. It is a slow burner that is broken up with horrific bouts of violence and I think captures the mindset of both the kidnapper (who committed suicide the same day Natascha escaped) and Natascha herself.
Taking place primarily in the claustrophobic cellar that Natascha called home from age ten to eighteen, the movie has a creepy, voyeuristic tone. We watch as Natascha grows from a scared little girl to a jaded teenager. Physically, the actress that plays her looks haunting, her emaciated body and tired face clearly shows the toll years of solitude and abuse has on a person.
What I found most interesting is how Natascha was portrayed as being both strong and submissive. She is a fighter that stands up to her captor a few times and survives a suicide attempt but is also hampered by fear every time she is brought out in public. She still feels like a prisoner even when left alone in the middle of a crowded store or in a public bathroom.
3096 Days is an intriguing movie but it is not the kind of movie that I could watch again and again because of the depressing subject matter. And while it couldn’t be helped, I found that knowing the ending of Natascha’s story put a damper on the film’s climatic ending. However, I found this to be a great example of a movie that shows the strength and perseverance of the human spirit and even though it’s not one I would rewatch any time soon, I would highly recommend it, especially to people who are familiar with Natascha Kampusch’s brave story.
Year 2, Day 205
Movie #286~1,002: 1941 (1979)
This isn’t the state of California. This is the state of insanity!
Plot: Hysterical Californians prepare for a Japanese invasion in the days after Pearl Harbor.
Review: Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring some of Hollywood’s most talented comedians, one would think 1941 would be a slam dunk. And while I found it entertaining and fun, I can see why it would also be seen as divisive and why many people call this Spielberg’s worst picture.
However, I found the over-the-top antics (starting with the opening scene that parodies Jaws) amusing. Even if you don’t particularly enjoy this movie, you definitely can’t say you were bored by it. There are enough famous faces (basically the entire cast of Animal House in addition to John Candy and Dan Akroyd) and silly slapstick moments to keep the interest of the audience. I think it is a wonderful (and unique) mixture of low-brow Animal House-esque humor and World War II era action, with a cheesy love story thrown in for good measure.
If you decide to give this one a try, stick with it until the climatic epic fight scene at the end. 1941 is a great mindless comedy that may not showcase all of the talents involved to the best of their potential but definitely delivers the laughs and enjoyment. Also, who doesn’t love a tough army guy crying and singing along to the Disney classic Dumbo?
Year 2, Day 204
Movie #285~1,001: 388 Arletta Avenue
I think you’re playing some kind of game with me. But I’m done. I’m not playing anymore.
Plot: A young couple find themselves in an unnerving situation with a mysterious stalker.
Review: This is yet another ‘found footage/hidden camera’ thriller and while there is a genuine feeling of tension and discomfort, 388 Arletta Avenue really doesn’t bring anything new to the genre and doesn’t have the satisfying conclusion that I was hoping for. And because of the restrictive nature of the story (having to explain how cameras can catch all the action), it gets kind of stale pretty quickly. Despite Nick Stahl’s impressive acting (and he deserves a lot of credit for carrying the bulk of the movie’s weight), I found myself getting bored as we watched him at his work computer or feeding his cat for the umpteenth time.
I also had an issue with the fact that the whole premise remains a mystery throughout the entire running time. All the audience sees is Stahl’s reactions to the cruel taunts of an unseen stalker. This works for about forty five minutes or so but at the halfway point, I became anxious for some clues or hints as to who this guy was and why he was mentally torturing this guy. And when there is the “big reveal” at the end (which I put in quotes purposely), I didn’t even really care because it came out of nowhere and really comes off as the easy, cheap way to end what could have been an intriguing, thrilling movie.
This isn’t a great movie but it isn’t the worst either. The unique camera angles give the audience the stalker’s perspective and I was genuinely creeped out for a vast majority of the film (I may or may not have checked my alarm clock to make sure some crazed weirdo hasn’t put a hidden camera there). Unfortunately, the filmmakers got lazy about halfway through the movie and aren’t able to keep up the interesting and eerie atmosphere through the end.
Year 2, Day 203
Movie #284~1,000: 99 River Street (1953)
There are worse things than murder. You can kill someone an inch at a time.
Plot: A former boxer turned cab driver has to hide from the police when his wife is murdered by the jewel thief she was having an affair with.
Review: If I had realized this was my 1,000th review, I would have picked a movie that had some meaning or importance to me but 99 River Street is a great film noir and I’m glad that my movie reviewing journey has brought such little-known and underrated gems to my attention. I’m not as well versed in film noirs as I would like to be but it is movies like this one that piques my interest in the genre.
The story itself is kind of ridiculous and unbelievable outside of Hollywood but I love how it all played out on screen. There are wonderful twists that keep the plot moving along at a nice pace without getting confusing or overwhelming. There is also a wonderful dark ambiance, complete with all the film noir staples - the sexy femme fatale, the down on his luck hero, the nice girl turned sidekick, questionable city locales, dark shadows, jewel heist, and double crosses, only to name a few.
99 River Street is a fabulous pulp story and really allows the audience to get lost in the 1950s noir settings. It is gritty and entertaining and a satisfying film that has near perfect acting and story telling. They really don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
Year 2, Day 202
Movie #283~999: 52 Pick-Up (1986)
There’s something about your face that makes me want to slap the shit out of it.
Plot: A secret fling between a man and his mistress leads to blackmail and murder.
Review: Aside from being delightfully 80s with the cheesy background music and dated technology (love that camcorder), 52 Pick-Up is a pretty decent thriller. Roy Scheider is a business man who is cheating on his wife (shocker, I know). Unfortunately for him, his mistress is not the most trustworthy and he finds himself at the wrong end of a blackmail scheme by three guys who at first glance seem menacing and clever. However, Scheider is able to get them all to turn on each other in rather clever ways and the various twists and turns of the story result in a satisfying (if somewhat predictable) ending.
The film is driven by the evolutions each of the characters go through. Scheider transforms from meek victim to strong hero. Ann-Margaret plays his wife, a woman intent on running for political office but who gets swept up in a blackmail plot involving her husband’s mistress (played surprisingly well by Kelly Preston). And the three guys blackmailing Scheider go from being tough and in charge to bickering cowards by the end of the film. The characterizations are believable and made the movie a lot more interesting.
52 Pick-Up is not going to referenced as the best thriller or neo-noir of the 80s but it is entertaining and fun enough. It is trashy with a backdrop full of strippers, nudity, and violence but it is so cheesy that it doesn’t feel gritty or cheap. It is a satisfying film that is sure to end up on a lot of guilty pleasure lists - it is certainly on mine now.
Year 2, Day 201
Movie #282~998: Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (2013)
I’ve got a certain amount of fame. I’ve got money. I wish I could fucking drive. Then I’d really be a menace.
Plot: The uncompromising Tony and Emmy Award-winner is showcased both on and off stage via rare archival footage and intimate cinema vérité.
Review: In honor of her recent passing, I decided to check out Elaine Stritch in all her glory in her recent documentary that chronicles both her several stage and screen accomplishments as well as the more serious aspects of growing older gracefully. The last third of the movie really takes on a different meaning now that she has passed; the scenes in which she talks about what kind of picture she wants to leave for the world is poignant, depressing, and uplifting all at the same time.
The film follows Stritch as she prepares for a new stage show, Elaine Stritch Singin’ Sondheim One Song at a Time, and the various health obstacles she must overcome to deliver her unique talent to the world. We also get a look back on her expansive career, both on Broadway, in films, and of course, a backstage look at her role as Jack’s mother on 30 Rock. Additionally, the cameras follow her around her daily life in New York as she struts in the streets, wearing her trademark black tights and fur coat, accepting the praise of fans as she goes on her merry way.
Some people may be turned off by her sardonic wit and somewhat demanding attitude but I think she has earned the right to speak her mind. As a conversation with John Turturro reveals, Stritch knows who she is and doesn’t make any attempt to hide it. She curses and complains and comes off as the cool grandma we all wish we had. When it comes down to it, she is a comedic genius who has lived a lifetime perfecting her craft and she knows what works and what doesn’t.
Shoot Me has a wonderful combination of laughs and drama and everything comes off naturally and organically. From Stritch reminiscing about her two dates with John F. Kennedy to how she dealt with her husband’s death from cancer, she holds little back, even when it comes to her health issues with diabetes and alcoholism. This is a fabulous documentary that serves as a fabulous introduction to a fabulous woman. I am interested in checking out more of her work now that I know her background and I now see how big of an impact she had on both Hollywood and Broadway.
Year 2, Day 200
Movie #281~997: Tammy (2014)
Muscle shirts are for muscles.
Plot: After losing her job and learning that her husband has been unfaithful, a woman hits the road with her profane, hard-drinking grandmother.
Review: I think it’s safe to say that if Melissa McCarthy ever loses weight, her career will tank because if you had a reasonably slim actresses playing the role of Tammy it would not have been as funny or enjoyable. It was McCarthy’s size that made Tammy’s antics work (although at this point in her career I wish she would stop going for the easy physical slapstick and be more like John Candy instead of Chris Farley).
Tammy isn’t unwatchable but it’s not nearly as funny as I was expecting or hoping it to be. Additionally, most of the genuinely hilarious scenes (the restaurant robbery, most notably) are spoiled by the trailers and commercials. Not to mention, McCarthy seems to simply be reprising her previous disheveled, awkward characters from Bridesmaids, Identity Theft, and The Heat. I find her to be a great comedian but I think she’s wasting her talents with these unchallenging roles. Susan Sarandon is well utilized as Tammy’s grandmother, serving as both a warning and inspiration to her aimless granddaughter but both she and McCarthy would have been better served with a less silly take on the traditional ‘road trip with crazy people’ plotline.
There are the requisite road trip tropes and lessons learned but for the most part this was an entertaining summer fluff. It is ridiculous and silly with enough impressive cameos, ranging from Allison Janney and Dan Akroyd as Tammy’s parents to Kathy Bates and Sandra Oh as lesbians who throw a hell of a Fourth of July party, to keep things interesting. Don’t expect the next great comedy with this one but fans of McCarthy’s previous works will find Tammy familiar enough.
Year 2, Day 199
Movie #280~996: The Brass Teapot (2013)
There is nothing evil about wanting more.
Plot: When a couple discovers that a brass teapot makes them money whenever they hurt themselves, they must come to terms with how far they are willing to go.
Review: This was a very entertaining movie with the perfect combination of light hearted humor and realistic drama. Based on a short story of the same name, The Brass Teapot is a wonderful modern fable with the added bonus of black comedy and a satire about our rocky economic times.
What really makes this movie work is the likability of the main characters. Juno Temple and Michael Angarano are Alice and John, a married couple who are down on their luck financially. They aren’t perfect people (and sometimes border on the annoying side) but they are believable and it is easy to imagine yourself in their position. We see them change from a loving, goofy couple to people who are blinded by money and power, doing things they would have never imagined doing before.
Some people may find the plot a little too nonsensical but I found the story of a magic teapot that dispenses cash in relation to the pain experienced in its vicinity to be interesting. There are numerous opportunities for humor (a quick spanking S&M session and numerous kicks to the groin of course) but things really get compelling when they realize that the teapot also delivers when there is psychological pain. You can see the big lesson learned coming a mile away but it still hits the sport and makes its point. The Brass Teapot is an entertaining movie that is fun and unique and really has the ability to make you think of how you would react in a similar situation.