January 24 - BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

[NOTE: SquareSpace is a complete trash service for many reasons, and until now I've mostly kept my frustration to myself; swallowing my rage and only releasing it in the privacy of those closest to me. Its latest crime must be acknowledged, however. After watching BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, I wrote a relatively contemplative analysis of what separates good dumb movies from bad dumb movies, BTILC being a paradigmatic example of the former. Unfortunately, upon publishing, my post was deleted without recourse for recovery. Because I don't feel like trying to rewrite what I lost, I'm going to try something different. Bear with me, we'll see how it goes.]

"You people sit tight, hold the fort, and keep the home fires burning. And if we're not back by dawn... call the president."

  Image credit: wrongsideoftheart.com

Image credit: wrongsideoftheart.com

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is a good dumb movie. A great dumb movie, in fact. It was initially conceived as a western before being rewritten for modern times, but Kurt Russell does a high-octane John Wayne impression the whole time anyway. SNAKE EYES (1998) is also a dumb movie, although it isn't nearly as good (here's my review if you want to hear my thoughts). What is the difference between a good dumb movie and a bad dumb movie? After some consideration, I think dumb movies are still subject to whatever strange laws we place on "serious" cinema.  John Carpenter clearly pours a lot of effort and creativity into BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, and as an artist with considerable talent, his craftsmanship goes a long way.

This may seem obvious. Good _____ movies still need to be, well, good. But when the dumb factor is introduced, it seems like oftentimes some films throw out basic principles of storytelling in favor of cheap gags that are self-parodic enough in nature to provide some sort of protective distance between the idiocy and the artist. This isn't in itself bad, necessarily, but there's a certain aesthetic difference between a movie that leans into its dumb core with genuine care and attention.

 The biggest issue I had with BTILC is that it's going to be really hard for me to choose which version of Jack Burton to be for Halloween.   Image credit: avforums.com

The biggest issue I had with BTILC is that it's going to be really hard for me to choose which version of Jack Burton to be for Halloween.

Image credit: avforums.com

This is where I want to try something new. What do you think separates a good dumb movie from a bad dumb movie? What does "dumb" actually mean? Post in the comments and if there's enough feedback, perhaps we can have a conversation about stupid but excellent movies, from BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA to THE ROOM.

Tomorrow's category: the Fantastic.

January 23 - PEOPLE PLACES THINGS (2015)

"Are you okay?" "Yeah, I'm fine. I'm just having a bad life. I'll be over it eventually."

  Image credit: cloudfront.net

Image credit: cloudfront.net

PEOPLE PLACES THINGS is hella indie-movie. The protagonist is a graphic novelist, there's a scene where his twin daughters practice cello in the woods while camping, and another scene where he has a conversation with his ex wife in her dining room while she wears a wedding dress. It has all the trappings of being a horribly depressing and pessimistic characterization of dealing with a family after a divorce, but PEOPLE PLACES THINGS refrains from indulging in excess pain and distress.

The film certainly deals with sadness and despair, but in actionable, narratively-useful ways. It's quite a funny movie as well, and I found myself laughing loudly throughout. Jemaine Clement is endlessly watchable and hilarious, even when he's dealing with real problems - PEOPLE PLACES THINGS manages to be simultaneously entertaining and insightful. The only knock against the film would be some third-act rom-com tropes, but I guess this kind of movie has to pay its dues in some way. Jessica Williams's Kat is remarkably well-written and acted, which isn't a surprise (Jessica Williams is obviously quite funny and talented) but her character could have easily been a huge weak point in another version of this movie. PEOPLE PLACES THINGS is definitely worth seeing; Clement is on quite the hot streak, with this film and WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (one of my favorites of 2015) both being excellent. He's becoming an indie-comedy powerhouse, and I'm looking forward to seeing his next projects.

 I got some flashbacks to a junior-year Aesthetics course during the classroom scenes.   Image credit: blogspot.com

I got some flashbacks to a junior-year Aesthetics course during the classroom scenes.

Image credit: blogspot.com

Tomorrow: Classics.

January 22 - LÉON: THE PROFESSIONAL (1994)

"I want love, or death. That's it."

  Image credit: tumblr.com

Image credit: tumblr.com

Wow. What a movie. This is one of those classic films I missed for whatever reason, and I can see why it's so beloved. LÉON: THE PROFESSIONAL feels like a very special movie that doesn't seem aware of how special it actually is. Léon and Mathilda are excellent characters and I genuinely cared about their relationship. One exchange in particular really highlights Léon's vulnerability and sheds light on the dynamic between him and Mathilda:

Léon: You need some time to grow up a little.
Mathilda: I finished growing up, Léon. I just get older.
Léon: For me it’s the opposite. I’m old enough. I need time to grow up.

Jean Reno plays the titular Léon sensitively and lovably. He's... affected... in some way, which is a good choice on Reno's part because it successfully grounds his relationship with Mathilda in complete innocence. Speaking of Mathilda, this was Natalie Portman's first role in a feature film and she killed it. [NOTE: THIS IS ABOUT THE POINT WHERE MY COMPUTER CRASHED AS I WAS WRITING, AND I'M NO LONGER MOTIVATED TO RE-WRITE MORE THOUGHTS NOBODY READS ANYWAY. THE MOVIE IS GOOD.]

Tomorrow: Free

January 21 - IRIS (2015)

"I don't have any rules, because I'd only be breaking them and it'd be a waste of time."

  Image credit: traileraddict.com

Image credit: traileraddict.com

Supposedly, you need to do something daily for twenty-one days for it to become a habit. Watching a movie every day this year should now be second nature to me, which makes my 11:00pm realization of "aw [fiddlesticks], I still need to watch a movie today" all the more embarrassing. Luckily, I had a documentary in mind so there was little additional time wasted before IRIS began. IRIS is about Iris Apfel, a nonagenarian fashion icon, and gives a picture of her day-to-day life instead of a holistic biography.

I don't know anything about fashion. An embarrassingly large portion of my wardrobe is comprised of t-shirts I got from events I attended in high school. Watching IRIS was an interesting look at a world that's completely alien to me. There's not a lot of context to IRIS, but that's fine. The most interesting parts of the movie (to me) come in the second half, when Iris meditates on her age and the important things in her life. She's remarkably aware - and I don't mean "aware for a 93-year-old." She's whip-smart and quick-witted and it's easy to see how her personality had just as much to do with her success as her sense of style. If you're looking for an upbeat, easy-to-watch documentary about an old woman who is woke as hell, look no further than IRIS.

Tomorrow: Recommended

January 20 - IN YOUR EYES (2014)
  Image credit: IMDB.com

Image credit: IMDB.com

IN YOUR EYES is a funny, touching rom-com with a compelling supernatural trick. Something about its direction feels like a network drama, though. The pacing and frequent use of montage feel like they’re straight out of a 30-minute NBC program, but a very good 30-minute NBC program. The success of this movie rides on the ability of its two leads to sell the aforementioned trick: two people have an unexplained connection with each other and can see and hear what the other sees and hears. They communicate with each other across the country and as their relationship develops, they each begin to realize that neither of the two are in the right place.

Both Zoe Kazan and Michael Stahl-David are charming and believable as their respective characters, and pull off Joss Whedon’s script handily. No character or situation feels entirely realistic, but I don't think that was necessary to enjoy the movie. IN YOUR EYES is frequently funny and I had a good time watching it.

Tomorrow: On the Record

January 19 - MISSISSIPPI GRIND (2015)
  Image credit: comingsoon.net

Image credit: comingsoon.net

Today's category is "B-sides," which is supposed to highlight lesser known movies from higher profile actors/directors/writers, etc.. Ryan Reynolds never really got the "A-list leading man" status for which he seemed destined (yet), but somehow remains supremely recognizable and likable. It seems like MISSISSIPPI GRIND has been mostly passed over for whatever reason, slipping by audiences and academies alike. That's a shame, because MISSISSIPPI GRIND is an excellent film with two phenomenal performances from its leads, Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds.

I was first introduced to Ben Mendelsohn's work through the Netflix original show BLOODLINE, where he plays a sympathetic deadbeat with a dark past. In MISSISSIPPI GRIND, he plays a very similar character, albeit with a touch more desperation brought on by his gambling addiction and less menace. Mendelsohn's performance is captivating - he simultaneously elicits sympathy, disgust, and fascination, as Ryan Reynolds counteracts him with charm and charisma. The two seem to effortlessly play off of each other, and the script is so well-written that MISSISSIPPI GRIND flies by. I loved the setting of the movie, too - a midwest roadtrip movie that isn't condescending to its environment (something I'm sensitive about as a native Iowan) is rare enough these days. I even learned something about my home state from Ryan Reynolds: "Iowa is the only state whose name begins with two vowels." Thanks, Ryan. MISSISSIPPI GRIND is a great movie that goes some dark places but grounds itself in the emotional journeys of its two main characters.

Tomorrow's category: Under the Radar.

January 18 - CONSTANTINE (2005)

"I don't believe in the devil." "You should. He believes in you."

  Image credit: movieposter.com

Image credit: movieposter.com

I remember seeing CONSTANTINE years ago and thinking it was cool, so when I saw that it was streaming on Netflix I figured I might give it a go to see how it held up. Whoa. CONSTANTINE isn't good. No matter how hard Keanu Reeves tries to growl his lines, they just aren't nearly as badass as the writers probably thought they were. Despite the simplicity of its plot, CONSTANTINE is remarkably difficult to follow. From scene to scene, characters' motivations seem to flip flop and most connective tissue is either eschewed entirely or mercilessly hammered home.

The Lord of the Rings film trilogy had just wrapped up two years before CONSTANTINE's release with RETURN OF THE KING (2003), and its influence on CONSTANTINE's VFX direction is obvious. The Hell sequences are basically a less-interesting rip of the wraith world in LOTR. I remember CONSTANTINE being much more metal, but it's the softest R I can remember: "Screw the balance!" shouts Keanu Reeves, shortly before apologizing to make sure nobody's feelings were hurt. The only time I thought the 'tude of the movie actually hit what it was going for was when Keanu flips Lucifer the bird as he slowly ascends to heaven. That was pretty much the only satisfying moment in the entire movie. The rest of it wasn't offensively terrible by any stretch, but none of it really did anything for me.

 Keanu's ink was cool, I guess.   Image credit: pintrest.com

Keanu's ink was cool, I guess.

Image credit: pintrest.com

Tomorrow (today, really. I'm traveling and I'm on a weird sleep schedule): B-sides.

January 17 - PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE (1985)
"There's a lotta things about me you don't know anything about, Dottie. Things you wouldn't understand. Things you couldn't understand. Things you shouldn't understand."
"I don't understand."
  Image credit: walter.trakt.us

Image credit: walter.trakt.us

Today's category is Classics. This is a purposefully vague category, intended to be versatile enough to encompass everything from CITIZEN KANE to my favorite movie in high school (DONNIE DARKO). PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE is a classic because I grew up in a family who constantly quoted "There's no basement in the Alamo!" and "I LIKE you, Dottie! LIKE!" at each other. I remember watching this movie with my family years ago and enjoying it fine, but I didn't realize how influential it was on my sense of humor until I watched it again for this challenge. Tim Burton goes to extraordinary and elaborate lengths for the dumbest of payoffs, which really makes this movie a collection of memorable excuses for punchlines and gags, loosely connected by the story of Pee-Wee's quest to find his bicycle.

The best part of PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE is that it doesn't bother with grounding any of its jokes or bits. Wouldn't it be funny if Pee-Wee befriended a biker gang and immediately crashed his motorcycle into a billboard? Yeah, sure, he'll wake up in the hospital but there aren't any doctors around and he's fine - he'll just get up and leave. There's no point in explaining the nonsense that's happening here, just roll with it and enjoy the expertly-crafted sequence of idiocy. PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE holds up, and it's a lot of fun.

 "Can't you remember anything?" "I remember... the Alamo."   Image credit: ytimg.com

"Can't you remember anything?" "I remember... the Alamo."

Image credit: ytimg.com

Tomorrow: the Fantastic.

January 16 - SICARIO (2015)

"This is a land of wolves now."

  Image credit: ew.com

Image credit: ew.com

SICARIO is directed by Denis Villeneuve, who also directed ENEMY (2013) and PRISONERS (2013), both of which are phenomenal, tense movies in their own right. SICARIO isn't quite as stressful as PRISONERS, but the tension here is kept simmering throughout the movie, always threatening to strike. The music does a lot to help that perpetually ominous feeling (as does the Drug War™ setting, obviously) and the sound design coupled with the wide aerial photography hits all the same menacing notes as an episode of True Detective Season 1 (and the poster above has some TD echoes itself). It's sleek, it's vicious, it's riveting, but I don't think I liked it.

Emily Blunt plays an "idealistic" FBI agent who wants to do things by the book when she's recruited to a special task force designed to take down a high-ranking member of a Mexican cartel. She's effectively a stick in the mud for Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro to alternately tolerate, intimidate, physically threaten, and exploit for their own goals. This is where I run into issues with SICARIO. Brolin and Del Toro are presented as extremely competent, badass action heroes with a big-picture view of the good, while Emily Blunt protests their methods and *nags* at them. There's no resolution to this dynamic, either. I don't mean to posit that happy endings are always desirable (they seem to be rare in Villeneuve movies, anyway) but it simply doesn't pay off narratively in a way that feels anything other than quasi-sadistic. Perhaps I need to let SICARIO settle for a while before I cement my feelings on it -- I get the whole "viciousness of war / there's no fairytale ending for anyone" notion -- but despite its impressive production, I left somewhat sour on SICARIO.

 This is my favorite shot from the movie. There's some really great cinematography work in SICARIO.   Image credit: loganbushey.files.wordpress.com

This is my favorite shot from the movie. There's some really great cinematography work in SICARIO.

Image credit: loganbushey.files.wordpress.com

Tomorrow: Classics

January 15 - A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (2014)
  Image credit: aintitcool.com

Image credit: aintitcool.com

I didn't know what to expect from A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT. All I knew heading into it was that it was received quite well. Immediately, the movie struck me as extremely stylish and confident, even though it took me a while to fully engage with it. Once I bought in, though, I was fully on board. A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT is a remarkable film with a distinctive tone that really, really works.

The music in this movie is incredible. I had to pause it several times throughout to look up specific songs from the soundtrack and add them to a "dope tracks from movies" playlist - maybe I'll share a link to that playlist at some point and edit it as the year goes on. That could be fun. In addition to the music, the cinematography and direction were deeply affecting. There were so many visually interesting scenes throughout the movie that it's hard to pick a favorite, although the scene that stuck with me the most was the bedroom / disco ball scene:

  Image credit: dailygrindhouse.com

Image credit: dailygrindhouse.com

I'd recommend A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT if you're in the mood for a unique, eccentric vampire movie set in a place called Bad City. Tomorrow: Free.