Saturday, July 22, 2017

JRO's #72: Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, 1978)

Starring: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reineger
Director: George A. Romero
Writer: George A. Romero
Release Date: 1 September 1978 (Torino)
The release date isn't terribly clear considering the multiple cuts of the film. I chose the release date for the first version, since as far I can tell there is no release date info for the Director's Cut (It was cut in '78 for Cannes but wasn't actually publicly screened anywhere). I could probably find if I spent some time digging around, but I don't feel like it.

IMDB Synopsis: Following an ever-growing epidemic of zombies that have risen from the dead, two Philadelphia S.W.A.T. team members, a traffic reporter, and his television executive girlfriend seek refuge in a secluded shopping mall.

Availability: Youtube (

First Time
August 2009 - documented on the old film blog:

Why it's on the List
What can I say? It stuck with me. This is one of a handful of films on the list that I had only seen once.

As of the recent re-watch, I can say that it holds up completely.

Re-watching this, I'm all the more saddened by the recent passing of Romero. He did zombies first and he did them best. There is more real humanity AND devastating social commentary in Dawn's 140 minutes than there is in all seven seasons of Walking Dead to date (to be fair, I've only seen a handful of episodes from the first season). I've only seen Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. I need to track down and watch Romero's other zombie films.

I'd like to write more (you know, actually about the film itself), but I won't. I'm not feeling it right now. And right now the only thing that I want to write about is the ending, which of course would entail pretty huge spoilers. I won't leave you hanging like a severed limb, though.... The end? I dig it.

Additional Notes/Stats
  • This is one of very few horror films on the list.
  • I don't like the remake.
  • Sorry this post is so lame.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Chris' #72: Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)

Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham, Katy Mixon, Tova Stewart, Lisa Gay Hamilton
Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Release Date: September 30, 2011

IMDB Synopsis: Plagued by a series of apocalyptic visions, a young husband and father questions whether to shelter his family from a coming storm, or from himself.

First Time
All right, the first CR5 Film Club Event to make my list! I believe it was me, Jeff, and John at the Art Mission Theater...right??

Why it's on the List
This was a late addition for me, but I do love the movie and I even own a DVD copy. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it did leave enough of an impression on me to include in my top 100. Jeff Nichols was also a bit of a CR5FC favorite; I believe we were all fans of the guy, and of this film in particular. Midnight Special is probably Nichols' greatest cinematic achievement to date, but I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for Take Shelter.

At the surface, there's a lot of simplicity to the story; the plot can be summed up very easily and the setting and characters add a real cracker-barrel vibe. Nichols makes the most of the script, however, adding psychological complexity, thick tension, and horror elements. I would also argue that Nichols gets the most out of his budget as well; there's some impressive CGI in Take Shelter. Two CGI moments that really stick out are the product of Curtis LaForche's (Michael Shannon) dreams: 1) Curtis walks into his living room and suddenly all of the furniture is launched into the air and hangs there, as if gravity is lost. 2) Curtis walks into the street in front of his house and it starts "raining" dead birds. Curtis' dreams are all very intense nightmares, and Nichols does a fantastic job capturing the horror; it'd be interesting to see him in dabble in that genre in the future.

LaForche's nightmares are the result of two very realistic problems, a family history of paranoid schizophrenia and extreme weather. Curtis is also motivated by the desire to protect his family. One way or another, the audience can relate to the character; even if you're a climate change denier who doesn't understand mental disorders, you're still probably someone who wants to protect his/her family. Connecting with Curtis is key because the audience needs to be on his side, despite all of the reckless decisions that he makes. His wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), has been trying for years to schedule cochlear implant surgery for their daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart). Luckily the health insurance benefits through Curtis' job allow the LaForche's to make this expensive procedure possible.

There is a lot on the line for Hannah. Samantha explains to her husband that, because Hannah is deaf, she's struggling to connect with the other kids in the neighborhood. With a communication barrier in place, Hannah chooses to isolate herself from her peers. Thanks to his nightmares, Curtis, too, begins to pull away from his friends and family. Red, the LaForche family dog, is given away to Curtis' brother; and after family friend and co-worker, Dewart (Shea Whigham), harms him in a dream, Curtis asks his boss to give him a new partner at work. Samantha is also hurt by her husband's refusal to communicate honestly with her.

The marriage between Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain is very believable. They fight and don't always listen to each other, but they have great chemistry, and when there is love, it's very sweet and genuine. I also appreciate the way Nichols wrote Chastain's character. Oftentimes, men will write wives who don't understand the motivations of their husbands as being very naggy and confrontational. Obviously there is some onus on the audience to realize that, if they were in the wife's position, they would react the same way, at best. Many Breaking Bad fans hate Skylar White, which is unfortunate and easy to do, since they don't get to be in her shoes. Samantha LaForche is a similar character in that she is forced to watch her husband put his life, their child's life, and her own life in uncompromising positions. When Curtis' actions cost him his job and long-term health care benefits, Samantha fights through her anger and frustration and comes up with a level-headed plan for how the family will make ends meet. Chastain is amazing in this film, and I really like her character.

Michael Shannon won many Critics Association awards for this performance, and rightfully so. There are many levels to Curtis, and Shannon breathes a lot of life into the role. There are subtle moments that he plays very well and then bigger, more emotional scenes that he's always been able to master. In terms of the subtle moments, I love when he walks down into the tornado shelter for the first time in the film. Even though the tornado shelter is on the LaForche family's land, he sort of stumbles upon it and walks down into it as if he was unaware of its existence. It's as if the shelter is his own manifestation. I also love the moment when Curtis walks into his counselor's office at a free clinic in town and discovers that his counselor, Kendra (Lisa Gay Hamilton) has moved on to another job at OSU. Curtis' new counselor essentially asks him to start from the beginning. You can really sense the anger, frustration, and betrayal in Curtis' eyes before he decides to get up and leave without saying a word.

Then there are the bigger, more emotional scenes. The Lion's Club dinner is very memorable and authentic--partly because the IMDB trivia reveals that all of extras in the scene has no idea what was about to happen. After Curtis and Dewart are punished for borrowing equipment from work without permission, Dewart confronts his former friend and co-worker and asks the LaForches to leave. The two get caught up in a physical altercation, and after that ends, Curtis begins to get in the faces of some of his neighbors. I have to imagine that some of those extras got goosebumps from Michael Shannon's intensity. This is Curtis at his lowest point in the film, and I pity him every time. I also get emotional every time I see Tova Stewart's face as she becomes afraid of her father's instability; it's heartbreaking.

The tornado shelter sequence at the end of the film is one of the more intense scenes that I've ever witnessed. Watching it in the theater was amazing; it was one of those moments where I took a second to think, "I can feel the silent captivation of everyone around me." I also remember thinking at the time that that sequence could make for a great episode of The Twilight Zone. I honestly wasn't sure what Nichols was going to do this moment--how dark was he going to go with this? At one point, I thought to myself, "Holy shit, is Curtis going to trap his family down there forever?" As Curtis, Samantha, and Hannah stand below the hatch of the shelter, Samantha pleads with her husband to let them out. In that moment, you fear for Sam and Hannah but you also feel bad for Curtis, since he feels so alone in this. Eventually, Curtis extends the key to his wife, but she demands that he open the door himself. "This is what it means to stay with us," she explains. Curtis now has a choice to make--crippling obsession or family.

On a more personal level, I can definitely relate to the struggle that Curtis goes through. Granted, I don't identify with the mental illness aspect to his story, but lately I've been feeling as if I am sabotaging my own relationships thanks to a newfound obsession. We've seen this in many films and TV shows before--the quality that exists in people to create drama when things are going well. Curtis chooses family in the end, and as a family, the LaForche's decide to get him some professional psychiatric treatment.

I have some mixed feelings on the very last scene. I really enjoy the shot of the storm being revealed in the reflection of the beach house windows. I also accept the fact that major storms like the one in the movie will probably be a reality someday, but I'm not sure that Curtis' obsession needed to be validated. At the same time, I like the message of, "We're completely fucked but at least we're together."

Additional Notes/Stats
  • This is it for Jeff Nichols. Midnight Special definitely belongs in my top 200. I like Mud and Shotgun Stories but don't necessarily love them yet.
  • There is one more Michael Shannon movie on my list.
  • This is it for Jessica Chastain. She's one of the best actresses working today, and I enjoy her in everything I've seen her in.
  • This is it for Shea Whigham, and mostly I've just seen him on the small screen. He was very good on Boardwalk Empire and season 3 of Fargo.
  • Phenomenal job by Tova Stewart. This is the only movie credit to her name, and she probably doesn't care about acting, but she has a ton of talent.
On a personal note, as Jeff was in a state of upheaval a month ago, I, too, am about to encounter a big life change. I'm moving to Los Angeles to pursue writing and comedy. I'm sorry to say that we'll soon be running out of opportunities to hang and see movies together. But maybe after I become homeless in LA, I'll have Jeff pick me up and get me back in time so that the four of us can see Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle together.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

JRO's #73: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch, 1999)

Starring: Forest Whitaker, Henry Silva, John Tormey
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Release Date: 19 May 1999 (Cannes)

IMDB Synopsis: An African American mafia hit man who models himself after the samurai of old finds himself targeted for death by the mob.

Availability: DVD

First Time
2000? I don't think that I saw this in any theater, but maybe I saw it somewhere in Buffalo. Maybe it was a DVD rental. Or maybe I bought the DVD immediately. I know that it's one of the oldest DVDs in my collection (bought my first DVD player in '97!).

Why it's on the List
By 2000, I was a Jarmusch fan. Stranger Than Paradise had been one of my favorite films since '93 or so and I watched Dead Man when it came out on VHS in late '95. I had also spent at least a year in the mid-90s getting high and listening to various Wu-Tang Clan solo projects. What I don't think I had done was seen any of the samurai and hit men movies that Ghost Dog references and builds on. Though maybe I had already seen some Kurosawa. And I had definitely seen enough gangster films to enjoy the gangster/samurai mash-up happening.

Ghost Dog is formally exciting. It is held up by excerpts from Hagakure, channeling an ancient text into a living motion picture representation of a dying code.
It is bad when one thing becomes two. One should not look for anything else in the Way of the Samurai. It is the same for anything else that is called a Way. If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all Ways and be more and more in accord with his own.
Since I was reading a lot of Ebert in 2000, I'll go ahead and quote him at length here:
It seems strange that a black man would devote his life to doing hired killing for a group of Italian-American gangsters after having met only one of them. But then it's strange, too, that Ghost Dog lives like a medieval Japanese samurai. The whole story is so strange, indeed, that I've read some of the other reviews in disbelief. Are movie critics so hammered by absurd plots that they can't see how truly, profoundly weird "Ghost Dog" is? The reviews treat it matter of factly: Yeah, here's this hit man, he lives like a samurai, he gets his instructions by pigeon, blah . . . blah . . . and then they start talking about the performances and how the director, Jim Jarmusch, is paying homage to Kurosawa and "High Noon." But the man is insane! In a quiet, sweet way, he is totally unhinged and has lost all touch with reality. His profound sadness, which permeates the touching Whitaker performance, comes from his alienation from human society, his loneliness, his attempt to justify inhuman behavior (murder) with a belief system (the samurai code) that has no connection with his life or his world. Despite the years he's spent studying The Way of the Samurai , he doesn't even reflect that since his master doesn't subscribe to it, their relationship is meaningless.
I think that Ebert's reading is mostly right, but wrong exactly in the one specific way that he thinks unlocks the film for him. Ghost Dog is definitely not insane. The world around him has gone insane. He has adopted a Way that gives him purpose in the world.

"Sometimes you have to stick to the Ancient Ways. The Old School Ways."

Besides being a lot of fun in mixing up genres, it's a film about self-discipline and about authority structures. What I wrote about The Sopranos a while back is applicable here. Both gangster films (white or black) and samurai films deal explicitly with morality and rule of law. They are always about how we are governed from within and from without.

Additional Notes/Stats
  • Edelstein: The problem is that Jarmusch panders to his left-wing art-house audience the same way Clint Eastwood panders to his right-wing audience. The African-American hero is meant to be a pure, noble warrior in spite of the fact that he lives by murdering unarmed men. It's easy to overlook that fact, though, since the only men he kills on screen are representatives of the vicious white patriarchy. Ghost Dog is largely a meditation on the death throes of that enfeebled ruling class. The Italian gangsters are either skeletal (Henry Silva, as the boss) or grotesquely obese, and they're broke, too—hounded by creditors and living in houses that carry "For Sale" signs. (The real-estate company is called Alighieri Properties.) Still, there's enough life in their arthritic bones to mow down innocent African-American bird-keepers and female cops and other threats to their dying white-male hold. Jarmusch can't contain his hatred. He throws in a sequence in which Ghost Dog encounters a pair of cretinous hunters toting a dead bear—just so the hero can invoke Native American lore and shoot two white people on principle. At the end, a little African-American girl fingers his big gun and his samurai manual. Am I the only one who finds the substance of this movie repulsive? 

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Chris' #73: The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013)

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Terence Winter (screenplay), Jordan Belfort (book)
Release Date: December 25, 2013

IMDB Synopsis: Based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, from his rise to a wealthy stock-broker living the high life to his fall involving crime, corruption, and the federal government.

First Time
I remember this vividly because it was one of the worst movie theater experiences I've ever had--though it was much worse for Jeff. Jeff and Brent were up from Philly for Christmas and the three of us went to see this together. It was a sold out, evening show at AMC in Vestal. We purchased our tickets in advance, and because AMC has assigned seating, we thought we'd be okay showing up around the time that the trailers would start. We took our seats in the middle of a row--I was the closest to the middle; there was a dude seated to the left of me, Brent sat to my right, and Jeff sat to right of him. In the time between the trailers ending and the movie starting, several people walked over to Jeff and told him that he was in their seat, so he kept moving to an open one (I believe?). Eventually, all of the seats were full, so Brent got up to get help from an usher.

At this point, we know that the dude to the left of me is in Jeff's seat and Brent directed the usher to that area of the theater. The usher walks over to the dude and asks to see his ticket. Dude pulls out his ticket and shows it to him. The movie has already started, so the only light source in the room came from the project film. The usher literally looked at the ticket for a split second. There was no way in hell that the usher matched the seat number to where the dude was sitting, but he just assumed it correct because he was handed a ticket. Then the usher begins to wander over to the row ahead of us. People are getting annoyed at this point--they're trying to watch a movie and this usher is timidly asking them to check their tickets and make sure they're in the right spot. The usher is ignored by everyone. Instead of persisting and doing his job, the usher just gives up and leaves. Jeff is left without a seat.

Feeling frustrated and pissed, Jeff comes over to us and says that he's going to go to Brandon's and hang out there until the movie is over. It was weird as hell sitting there for the rest of the movie. Brent and I talked about leaving, but because Jeff had someplace to go, we decided to stick it out. After the movie ended, Brent confronted the dude; I don't remember the exchange but I believe he maintained that he was in the right seat. For what it's worth, the manager at AMC was very helpful and issued Jeff a refund.

You'd think that assigned seating would help to avoid issues like these, but I suppose the lesson for moviegoers is to still try and show up early, and the lesson for ushers is actually do their jobs.

Why it's on the List
Moving from an injustice on smaller scale to an injustice on a much larger one, The Wolf of Wall Street presents the life of Wall Street stock-broker and notable douchebag, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). While I do love this film, I need to acknowledge the coked-out elephant in the room. The story is repugnant and vile, and many people (including John) can't enjoy this film on any level. I can see where those people are coming from; there's no defending Jordan's behavior, and given Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter's efforts on this, one could make the case that the film glorifies depravity.

The Wolf of Wall Street is like a Rorschach Test--morally bankrupt scumbags will watch this film and aspire to be next Jordan Belfort; innocuous dumb-dumbs will laugh at the jokes and jerk off to Margot Robbie's scenes, without taking much else away from the experience; others will see a film that is well-acted and adeptly written, shot, and edited.

Not only do I fall into that last camp, but I also appreciate the fact that The Wolf of Wall Street actually causes me to feel angry. Good films elicit strong reactions, whether negative or positive. It's infuriating that Belfort was able to get away with his crimes for as long as he did--though, honestly, I feel his personality is more of an affront than his "penny stock" scheme. I'm just not too beat up over the fact that he made his wealth from scamming other rich assholes.

Regardless of my own moral compass, Belfort's actions were illegal and caught the attention of the FBI, specifically Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) in the film. I hadn't seen Chandler in anything before this and I never thought much of him as an actor. He completely won me over here; his performance is very understated and brilliant. I love the way Agent Denham toys with Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) during their first meeting on a yacht (which is my favorite scene). As a cocky kid who's gotten away with a lot already, Belfort tries to charm the Feds and thinks that he's successfully manipulating Denham. Chandler is perfect for the role because he has a real "average joe" vibe. Given the way that Chandler plays the scene, it's very understandable that Belfort would be lulled into a false sense of security. Jordan ends up saying too much and Denham seizes that moment to show that he's also capable of being a wolf. I love the turn, as the conversation quickly shifts from congenial to caustic. This was the moment when I knew I loved this movie.

Matthew McConaughey's performance in Dallas Buyers Club beat out DiCaprio's performance in this at the 86th Academy Awards. McConaughey was great in DBC, and I can understand wanting to honor a person like Ron Woodruff over someone like Jordan Belfort, but Leo was robbed. Not only is DiCaprio perfect in this, but I feel it's the best performance he's ever given. Belfort became something of a cult leader at Stratton Oakmont, and given Leo's charisma, it's easy to see why.

One of my favorite examples of Stratton being a cult occurs when Jordan gives "farewell" speech at the firm. About a minute and a half into it, Jordan turns his attention to one of the Stratton's first brokers, Kimmie Belzer. He explains to his cult members that when Kimmie came to him, she "didn't even have two nickels to rub together." Kimmie was behind on rent and asked Jordan for a five thousand dollar salary advance so that she could pay her son's tuition. Instead of offering her five grand, Jordan gave her twenty-five thousand dollars. This nostalgia prompts Kimmie to tell Jordan that she "fucking loves" him and the other cult members are whipped up into a frenzy. I'm coming at this scene in a very sardonic way, but I do love the complexity and emotionality of that moment. We can feel Kimmie thinking back on her old life, a time when she truly struggled; it's very palpable and always makes me think back on a low point in my life when I had to borrow money from my mom just to put gas in my tank. In response to Belzer's "I fucking you's," Jordan tells her that he loves her too. That might be the only moment in the film when Jordan says that he loves anything. I'm sure there are many reasons for Belfort to tell this story in that moment, and while it doesn't redeem him, it adds a human element to this story. The brokers at Stratton Oakmont were living, breathing people who weren't born into wealth, and the film does an exceptional job at shining the occasional spotlight on that fact.

Jonah Hill's performance in this is also amazing. I love the commitment to the role; it's a true transformation. Other than being eye candy, Margot Robbie doesn't have a lot to do in this, but her performance is very authentic; I was surprised to learn later that she's Australian. The deteriorating relationship between Jordan and his second wife give us the true consequences of this greedy, drugged up, and unfaithful stock broker's actions. Belfort reaches his lowest point when he attempts to kidnap his daughter and drive off with her. Luckily for everyone involved, the kidnapping is not successful and Jordan's child is not harmed in the process. I don't know of many people who would watch that scene and think, "This is the life for me!" With The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese and Winter give us an unabashed, unflinching look at substance abuse in both a literal and figurative sense.

Additional Notes/Stats
  • There are two more Scorsese movies on my list; it'll be a while before I write about them.
  • This is it for Leo. I do love his work as an actor. It was nice to see him finally win an Academy Award, but should've been for this. Funny enough, watching Leo as Belfort was the way I wanted to feel when I watched Leo playing Calvin Candy. His performance in Django Unchained had a lot of promise but was underwhelming.
  • I considered adding Superbad to my list, but it'll have to crack my top 200--this is it for Jonah Hill. He's had quite the career #HotTakes
  • Speaking of unorthodox careers, it's funny how the McConaissance has changed the way many of us view Matthew McConaughey. Count me among the people who root for the guy, but this is it for him in my top 100.
  • Shea Whigham has a cameo in this, and I'll get to talk about him more with my next pick...