The Lady Vanishes [1938] (3/26/12 & 12/22/12)

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The Lady Vanishes was Alfred Hitchcock’s last film before his move to Hollywood. Featuring his trademark  sense of humor and mystery, it is undeniably Hitchcock and a great movie.

Admittedly, I am more familiar with Hitchcock’s later work, but The Lady Vanishes is a fantastic film that has held up tremendously well for being over 70 years old. The film takes place mostly on a train. A group of travelers are heading back to England from the fictional European country of Bandrika. As we meet the ensemble cast, Iris (played by Margaret Lockwood) and Miss Froy (May Whitty) become closely acquainted. Iris falls asleep and wakes to find Miss Froy missing but when she asks about her whereabouts, no one on the train seems to remember her ever existing.

The train is the perfect setting for a film like this; it creates a sense of claustrophobia and being trapped. Some of the characters are a bit over the top, but for the most part they are believable. The mystery will certainly leave you guessing and the conclusion pays off.

One thing to note, while The Lady Vanishes is available through the Criterion Collection (cover art pictured), I watched the version on Netflix Instant Watch. The Netflix Instant version is nowhere close to the level of quality expected from Criterion, so I’m fairly sure it’s a different mastering of the film. The picture is a bit fuzzy and the audio was a bit uneven and slightly muddy sounding at times. It doesn’t detract from the viewing experience unless you are a total purist, but it’s something to consider.

The Lady Vanishes put me in the mood for more Hitchcock films, and not just his later works. Hitchcock truly was a master at his craft. The Lady Vanishes is a fun mystery and a great film to boot.

I give it 4 Hitchcock cameos out of 5.

[Update] I recently watched the Criterion blu-ray and my suspicions of the picture quality are mostly true. There are still some scratches and dust present, but the picture quality is far and away superior. The audio was still a bit uneven but not to the point of having to have the remote handy to turn up and down as needed. While this is still a great movie, I would easily recommend the Criterion versions in every way. Plus, the special features are pretty solid

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Hoop Dreams (3/26/12)

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Hoop Dreams is a documentary I was not expecting to be interested in. Like all good documentaries, however, once I was hooked I had to see things through until the end.

Hoops Dreams is a film about two Chicago high school basketball players with aspirations of making it big in the NBA. The documentary film crew follows the students lives all through high school and their first year of college, as well as the lives of their immediate families. We see all the highs and lows that come with the dreams of being a superstar and every stumble the teens take we can’t help but feel for them. We want them to succeed. We want them make it big. At the very least, we want them to rise above what society expects of them; a life of gangs and drugs.

A word of warning, the film is long clocking in at just shy of three hours. I had to take a few breaks while watching it just to keep my interest from waning. That isn’t to say the material is dull or boring, but it can be. I would be very interested to see the special features that Criterion packed into Hoop Dreams since it has been close to 20 years since the film came out. Since I watched this on Netflix Instant Watch, the special features are obviously unavailable.  The two teens are adults now and I truly wonder what became of them.

Watching Hoop Dreams with Moneyball still fresh in my mind was also interesting since we see the same sort of tactics in recruiting. Knowing what Chicago is like puts the film in a fresh light since being a poor black teen in the city must be close to impossible to actually get out of. While the careers of the teens show promise, will the life of a basketball player only just be a dream? There is a reason Hoop Dreams has been called the best documentary of all time.

I give it 5 state champion victories out of 5.

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The Manchurian Candidate [1962] (3/24/12)

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I have yet to see the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, which I have heard good things about. If it’s even half as good as the original Manchurian Candidate it is probably an amazing film.

The Manchurian Candidate is a film that depends on cold war hysterics over communism. Sen. Joseph McCarthy likely played a large role in creating the story, likely unknowingly. The plot surrounds a group of POW soldiers returning from Korea. One is awarded the esteemed medal of honor (Laurence Harvey) and several others (one of which is Frank Sinatra) have the same recurring nightmare. The nightmare is about them being brainwashed by communists. We soon learn that the dream was reality and the soldier played by Harvey has been brainwashed to become an assassin.

Other than the communist angle, it’s amazing how little politics have truly changed in 50 years but I would hesitate to call this a political film. Without knowing anything about the Manchurian Candidate, I had always assumed it was a political film and was turned off by that. It wasn’t until I was reading a collection of noir short stories that The Manchurian Candidate came up and my interest piqued. A noir? Count me in.

I am interested in seeing the remake starring Denzel Washington in place of Frank Sinatra. I am curious how much of the communist witch-hunt is there or if that aspect has been more modernized. Still, The Manchurian Candidate has aged well and is highly recommended.

I give it 4 queen of diamonds out of 5.

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Moneyball (3/24/12)

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Moneyball is a movie I had little to no interest in upon hearing about it and I put off watching it. After the Academy Awards I felt like I might be missing out if I don’t watch it and I would have been right.

Moneyball is a film about baseball but it’s not what I would really consider a sports movie. When I think of sports movies I think of movies like Remember the Titans where the formula is: root for the underdog and even if they don’t win they are better because of it. Moneyball is not that film.

I didn’t realize the film is based on true events, or rather I didn’t realize the story in the film actually happened. I thought it was a totally fictionalized story based on the Oakland A’s baseball team rather than a fictionalized reality.

The plot of the film centers around Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) who is the general manager for the Oakland A’s, a team with one of the smallest budgets in Major League Baseball. He travels to the Cleveland Indians where he meets young Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) who instantly impresses him with his take on managing baseball teams. They use a statistical formula to completely alter the way they get players and ruffle the feathers of all the old-timers along the way.

In case you don’t know the history behind Moneyball, I won’t spoil the details but I will say that it makes for a very interesting film. Deep understanding of the sport of baseball is not required as the mechanics are largely not touched on. As long as you know what first base is you should be able to grasp the majority of what’s being said.

As far as the Academy Awards are concerned, I’m not sure if Moneyball really deserves all the accolades. Yes, it’s a very good movie but I wasn’t blown away by anything. If you are on the fence about seeing Moneyball, I will say “give it a shot”. The worst you can do is waste two hours of your time but if you’re like me you will be very entertained.

I give it Sabermetrics out of 5.

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Troll Hunter (3/23/12)

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Troll Hunter, at first glance, seems like just another “found footage” movie made popular by movies like Blair Witch Project. Fortunately, Troll Hunter is one of the few films to pull the genre off well.

The plot of Troll Hunter is most likely exactly what you think it is. A group of college students are filming about some strange bear attacks and then start following a man unknown by the other bear hunters. Turns out the strange ‘bear hunter’ is none other than a troll hunter! I know, it sounds stupid, but the suspension of disbelief is key. The characters don’t believe in trolls, they laugh at the idea of them. There is some believability built into the story that somehow makes the troll mythology more believable than say, ghosts.

The other key piece to what makes Troll Hunter work is the special effects. We are not teased with action that happens off-screen, we meet the trolls quite early on and then proceed to meet several other variety of troll. In addition to being out in the open, the special effects are quite impressive.

Troll Hunter is a really fun ride. If you are a fan of the found footage movies, I promise you will love it. If you are skeptical about the genre, or have been burned by crappy movies, I would give Troll Hunter a try. Also, if the Maelstrom ride at Epcot in Disney World was one of your favorite rides (it was mine growing up) then you should be pleased. There isn’t nearly as much shakycam footage as others and the characters are even more likable than I expected. Still, while it doesn’t break much new ground it’s fun. In the end, isn’t that the most important thing about watching films?

I give it 4 troll cgi out of 5.

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Moon (3/23/12) & Whistle (3/23/12)

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Moon was one of my favorites from 2009. Sam Rockwell is one of the most under appreciated actors of our time and Moon is also a severely overlooked sci-fi gem.

The premise of Moon is farming resources from the surface of the moon. We meet Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) in a deserted space station. We learn he is all alone with the responsibility to run the station and oversee the harvesters. We also meet the brains of the space station, Gerty 3000 (Kevin Spacey). Anyone who has seen 2001: A Space Odyssey will automatically distrust Gerty, and Spacey has the perfect  soothing voice with something sinister underneath. Sam goes out in a rover and crashes. He wakes up and then goes out to check on a malfunctioning harvester, only to save himself from the crash.

I won’t further spoil any of the plot, but at this point in the film you should remain on the edge of your seat. There is little action to speak of, but the isolation and tension is perfectly captured. Sam Rockwell is such a beast of an actor, and this movie is an amazing testament to that.

Moon is a film I would wholly recommend, and not just to sci-fi fans. The film deals with moral decisions, isolation, abandonment and several other issues that everyone will identify with beyond the sci-fi setting. One fun fact about the movie: the writer/director, Duncan Jones, is the son of David Bowie. Yes, that David Bowie.

I give it 5 smiling Gertys out of 5.

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Whistle is a short film that is a special feature on the Blu-Ray (possibly also the DVD) of Moon that was also written and directed by Duncan Jones. Thematically, it shares many things with Moon, but the execution isn’t nearly as taut and mature. It is about a man who uses a special satellite weapon to assassinate people and how he deals with the moral dilemmas surrounding this line of work. As a short film, it works quite well but some things were obviously sacrificed in order to keep it from getting too long. If you own/rent Moon, I would definitely recommend also checking out Whistle.

I give it 3 futuristic assassinations out of 5.

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Iron Man 2 (3/23/12)

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Iron Man 2 could easily be shrugged off as ‘just another superhero movie’ but it’s actually quite fun to watch. Surprisingly so, even.

The film picks up immediately where the first film left off, Tony Stark (perfectly played by Robert Downey Jr.) is feeling the backlash from the press conference where he declares himself to be Iron Man. The government wants his technology, but he is unwilling to just hand it over to them. A rival weapons technology company head, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) wants the tech as well. All of this while Russian rival, Ivan Venko (Mickey Rourke), has a bone to pick with Stark. Without knowing too much about Iron Man’s comic lineage, I found the plot easy to understand even if I didn’t get all the sly winks that Marvel likes throwing into these films.

The action in Iron Man 2 is great and the special effects are superb. The acting is actually mostly pretty good, though at first some of the casting seemed odd to me. Mickey Rourke seemed to speak with a weird mix of New York and Russian accents and Scarlett Johansson’s performance is largely lifeless. Luckily, RDJ steals the show and is a joy to watch.

With the upcoming Avengers film I have been trying to catch up with Marvel’s superhero films. While I enjoyed Captain America, I enjoyed this film more. After seeing Sam Rockwell in action, I decided to watch something of his immediately after watching Iron Man 2 (more on that later) and I wouldn’t mind reading a few comics as well.

I give it 4 Howard Stark is on Mad Men out of 5.

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