Iro's One Movie a Day Thread

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#729 - Ben-Hur
William Wyler, 1959

At the height of the Roman empire, the prince of the occupied region of Judea is made to endure many hardships following his rebellion against the Roman occupancy.

Ben-Hur is arguably the prime example of classic Hollywood at its most epic; almost sixty years later, it's still got plenty of marvellous quality to it. Of course, if there's one problem that threatens to undermine even the greatest of cinematic epics, it's that the plot and characterisation might just fail to live up to the awe-inspiring production value on display. After going through a prologue that details the birth of Jesus, the film skips ahead to a few decades later and shows Judean prince Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) reuniting with his childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), a Roman citizen who has just become a tribune. Of course, their friendliness is quickly worn down as their ideological differences are challenged by a series of unfortunate events. As a result, it's not too long before Ben-Hur is thrown into slavery, but his drive to seek revenge on Messala and reunite with his imprisoned family members grants him the strength to survive the most trying of circumstances.

On a technical level, Ben-Hur is quite the masterpiece with its deservedly award-winning art direction that shows in every aspect from the largest of sets to the least noticeable costumes, all of which are shot through with striking Technicolor cinematography. It's a shame that the film doesn't quite manage to provide a memorably definitive score to accompany the proceedings, though it's not noticeably bad so much as the least of a bunch of amazing qualities. The craftsmanship involved is most definitely on display during the elaborate action set-pieces - while one scene involving ship-to-ship combat is remarkable in its balance of colour and clever pacing, I really am amazed at the film's famous chariot race. It's one of those scenes that is hyped to the point where the high expectations threaten to work against it, but I was stunned at how well it delivered on its fearsome reputation. The fact that the film keeps going after it's over is virtually a formality, though the remainder doesn't become a lifeless dirge either. The story threatens to be a little too straightforward for its own good, but the acting is appropriately out-sized to fit the scale of the production. Heston's steely-eyed grand-standing works wonders in this context as he covers a wide range of melodramatic emotions ranging from righteous indignation to wordless awe, while other performers follow suit to debatable effect; Boyd's constantly-shifting interplay with Heston is a highlight, but I'm not sure what's going on with Hugh Griffith's boisterous brownface sheik. At least the seemingly ancillary romantic sub-plot with Haya Harareet's slave doesn't ring hollow.

While I can definitely respect the sheer scale of Ben-Hur, I'm still not entirely sold on whether or not I genuinely enjoyed it. The labourious nature of the production shows in just about every frame and, while I'm not entirely sure it really needed to be three-and-a-half hours in length, it at least manages to avoid descending into pure tedium. The film's infrequent references to Jesus, ranging from the opening sequence through to his own path intertwining with Ben-Hur's at several plot-relevant junctures, could have easily felt overdone and unnecessary yet they never do, and the ways in which his presence feeds into the film's main narrative never feel as forced or as cheesy as you might think. Even so, I definitely think that this has more on offer than the last couple of sword-and-sandal films I've seen and am willing to think that it's got room to grow on me. If nothing else, that chariot race definitely deserves to be seen by anyone with even the slightest interest in cinema.

I really just want you all angry and confused the whole time.
Iro's Top 100 Movies v3.0

I've long harbored a liking for anything about the Roman empire (5 years of Latin in school will do that to you) and Ben Hur gives you more visual fun, spectacle and running time than just about anything else set in that time and place until Gladiator came along. What I do find amusing, however, is it's heavily Protestant view of that time. The idea that Judah Ben Hur, a first century middle eastern Jew would have looked like Charlton Heston is amusing enough, but his whole family looked that way. After the ship wreck that changed Judah's fate, of course, we see him just jumping right into Roman high society after his adoption. Romans were really big on lineage and that would not work well either. His miraculous conversion at the end, of course, seems to be one of those plot devices intended to make the story comfortable for a nice, well behaved, protestant, post-bellum audience (Lew Wallace was a retired civil war general)...a good excuse to indulge all that Roman decadence that led up to Judah's conversion in the prudish Victorian era. Being able to satisfy that audience in print made the movie versions a no-brainer answer to Hollywood excess....sanctity AND spectacle, sin, paganism and Judaism culminating in Jesus.

Yeah, I love that movie's on my blue-ray shelf, but It really is somewhat strange.

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#730 - Warrior
Gavin O'Connor, 2011

A pair of estranged brothers - one a schoolteacher with debts to pay, the other a former Olympic hopeful with a mysterious past - unwittingly enter the same mixed martial-arts competition.

Though I've liked my fair share of sports movies in the past, I generally find each new one I watch to be a gamble regardless of how much acclaim it has earned. I could easily put this down to my general lack of interest in sports, but I still figure that if a film is really that good then it'll win me over in spite of my default state of disinterest. Even by my standards, Warrior seemed an unlikely sell - like several other films I've covered in this thread, my main motivation for watching it came from its earning a rather secure position in the IMDb Top 250. I've mentioned before how I don't automatically consider a film's placement on that particular chart to be an immediate indication of quality or enjoyment, but I have to admit that it seems like an unlikely contender. It works off an idea that is at once so simple and yet so oddly ingenious - namely, Warrior is focused around not one but two separate underdog stories. Not only that, but these underdogs are estranged brothers who both learned how to be formidable wrestlers under their abusive alcoholic father (Nick Nolte). As the film opens, one of the brothers (Tom Hardy) has suddenly shown up on Nolte's doorstep demanding that Nolte start training him again - it is around this time that he also joins a gym with the intention of getting into professional mixed martial-arts. Meanwhile, the other brother (Joel Edgerton) is leading a normal suburban life as a husband, father, and schoolteacher - however, when financial problems threaten him with foreclosure, he also starts to trade on his experience with fighting to earn money in MMA fights...

Another problem I tend to have with sports movies is how they often struggle to balance the quality of scenes involving the sport with scenes involving everything else, leading to one or both factors to suffer as a result. What really surprised me about Warrior above all else was how well it did at finding that balance. I think it might have something to do with fighting-based sports lending themselves to cinema a lot easier than many other sports, and having the sport in question be MMA certainly adds a tactile new dimension to things. There's very little concession to grandiose style, instead capturing any and all fighting in quick, rapid bursts. It keeps things equally low-key when it comes to depicting the interpersonal conflicts. Edgerton's own narrative is extremely familiar; concerned but supportive spouse (Jennifer Morrison), motivated by financial problems, difficulty with his day job, the overwhelming odds against his over-the-hill never was...the list goes on. At least Edgerton and Morrison are capable enough performers to properly handle some of the more clichéd developments. It also helps to provide a backbone for the film as it attempts something more intriguing with Hardy's side of the story, which delves into his complex relationship with Nolte, his mysterious motivations, and his machine-like focus on beating every opponent as quickly as possible without taking any apparent rejoicing in his increasingly significant victories. Nolte himself makes the most of his own archetypal role as the haggard mentor with a dark past who is torn between wanting to be a better person and being an effective mentor for the extremely resentful Hardy.

Warrior doesn't reinvent the wheel at all but it still proves a surprisingly watchable film. It takes a while to gather some momentum but once it gets rolling it's a constantly engaging piece of work. The film knows enough about the ins and outs of your typical underdog sports movies to know how to offer an interesting variation on it. The stock narrative involving Edgerton is lent extra nuance by the one involving Hardy, with both plots not quite being enough to sustain a single film on their own but together form a solid piece of work. It's definitely carried by the strength of both its leads - Edgerton is serviceable enough, but Hardy provides yet another distinctive performance as an extremely complicated individual whose depth extends far beyond the film's storyline. They don't often have moments together, but when they do they play off each other well. Between the solid (if none too distinctive) characterisation and the fight scenes that are rapid-fire without being incoherent, Warrior has proved an impressive piece of work that definitely rose above my admittedly skeptical expectations. It's not a classic, but it's still pretty impressive and will definitely keep you investing up until its final moments (not entirely suitable use of The National notwithstanding).

I'm definitely amused by the notion that the long-running Star Trek cinematic franchise has a curse of sorts that results in each odd-numbered installment being substantially weaker than their even-numbered counterparts (though this arguably went out the window with Nemesis, the tenth film in the franchise and also generally considered one of the worst).
I think without Tom Hardy it would have been – his presence alone made it a lot more watchable for me.

There's a memorably potent sequence where McCoy (DeForest Kelley) is made to confront his darkest secret,
I'm glad you mentioned that because it's probably one of the best moments in Star Trek. Apparently Kelley needed some time to recover after playing the scene, such was the connection he felt to losing his own father. I think he's excellent in this film.

The plot also feels a bit listless and stretched-out even as it is peppered with action sequences whose ambition is often beyond their reach.
That's true, but they still manage to be dramatic and exciting even though especially today we'd see them as virtually 2-D.

Add in an appropriately versatile score by veteran composer Jerry Goldsmith
His opening music, The Mountain, would actually be one of my Desert Island Discs. It brings me to tears.

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#731 - A Separation
Asghar Farhadi, 2011

A husband and wife are going through a separation pending the husband's agreement to a divorce, but things are complicated by a domestic dispute concerning his mentally ill father.

On the surface, A Separation is like just about every other foreign-language drama in its almost complete lack of external action and its focus on an almost completely interpersonal drama that has the occasional influence by the film's country of origin. As the title states, the film is about a separation between a husband and wife for reasons that aren't entirely to do with falling out of love; namely, husband Nader and wife Simin choose to separate because of mutual incompatibility. Simin wants to move out of Iran with the couple's young daughter, but Nader refuses to agree to a divorce on the grounds that he needs to take care of his Alzheimer's-afflicted father. As if this situation wasn't complicated enough, it gets even more complicated when Nader must find someone else to look after his father after Simin moves out. I don't think that going into further detail is especially necessary, especially considering how much of this film is based around slow-burning personal tensions erupting into emotionally charged diatribes, but there is definitely enough going on to fill two hours.

In keeping with the focus on personal drama, A Separation eschews visual flair in favour of quasi-documentarian camerawork with virtually no music whatsoever. Performances are appropriately naturalistic as players rattle off passionate arguments and contradictions while also conveying adequate amounts of depth to make this an above-average morality play. Nader is the ostensible protagonist of extremely debatable sympathy whose struggle to maintain his dignity and innocence in the face of the film's events is a compelling one. Meanwhile, the characters around him are at least given enough nuance to keep things morally complex and constantly keep you guessing as to how the various conflicts resolve. In addition to telling a fascinating story, the film also touches upon various resonant themes such as family values, mental illness, religion, economic strife, and so forth. It's not so much superficial examination as it is a natural extension of the various characters, and that only feeds into this film proving to be engrossing viewing up until its final moments.

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#732 - Source Code
Duncan Jones, 2011

A soldier is drafted into an experimental program that forces him to relive the same few minutes over and over again in order to prevent a terrorist attack.

Duncan Jones made a strong first impression on me with his minimalist outer-space debut Moon; however, as with far too many directors that left a good first impression, it took me a long time to follow up on any other work that they did. His sophomore effort Source Code may be an upgrade in terms of scale but the actual storytelling seems to have taken a bit of a backward step. While much of what made Moon so good was its palpable air of unpredictability and mystery, Source Code goes for something a lot more familiar with its Groundhog Day-like time-travel plot. It begins with a military pilot (Jake Gyllenhaal) realising that he is inhabitating the body of a civilian as he makes his morning commute on a train. However, after a few minutes a bomb goes off on board the train, killing everyone. It is at this point that Gyllenhaal finds himself inside a small room being talked to by a military liaison (Vera Farmiga). It turns out that the train explosion is the lead-up to an even greater terrorist attack. In order to foil the next attack, Gyllenhaal becomes the unwilling test subject for an experimental technology that allows him to fully inhabit his civilian doppelganger's last few minutes of consciousness (the "source code" of the title) and try to figure out who is responsible for blowing up the train.

Source Code at least builds a tragic storyline as Gyllenhaal becomes increasingly frustrated by his dire situation, especially as he gets to know and develop feelings for the acquaintance (Michelle Monaghan) who sits across from him. This much is borne out by the various little twists and turns in the plot, which do just enough to distinguish the film beyond its well-trod basic outline. Gyllenhaal is good enough as the constantly-conflicted and traumatised protagonist, while Monaghan does okay as the bystander who must contend with Gyllenhaal's increasingly frantic behaviour (though one will naturally question the effectiveness of the romantic sub-plot considering the loop's tight time-frame). Farmiga is decent as the calm yet conflicted mission control who must contend with Jeffrey Wright's duplicitous tech genius. The technical aspects are also pretty solid and don't distract from the plot, only occasionally giving way to ostentatious levels of style - this much is true of one of the film's final scenes, which is definitely a stand-out and really should have been the film's actual ending (though the ending we do get doesn't completely ruin matters). Source Code is hardly the worst follow-up to Moon, but its extremely samey nature does prevent it from leaving much of a positive impression and I definitely hope that Jones' next attempt at high-concept can improve on it.

250 guys walking down the road, just like that?
Been a very long time since perusing your reviews and played catch up on some very solid, analytical reviews that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Found one movie I've never heard of; The Lobster, which I am now on a quest to locate and watch. Thank you for that.

Agree with Source Code, and about Warrior, which I remember seeing on an impulse after seeing around 4 very high reviews within a few days here and was well rewarded by viewing it.

Locke has been on my watchlist and after reading your review, I do believe I need to bump it up a few and grab it from my library and check it out.

I also enjoyed, and on a number of points - agreed, with your analysis to some old favs; High Plains Drifter, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and Lethal Weapon.

F@ckin BRAVO

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#733 - Super 8
J.J. Abrams, 2011

In 1979, a group of schoolkids are working on an amateur film at the same time that their small town is thrown into chaos by a supernatural danger.

As of writing, Super 8 marks J.J. Abrams' sole cinematic work that is not based on an existing intellectual property - however, it does come with the caveat that it shamelessly wears its influences on its sleeves. The most obvious associations that the film conjures up are with the various works of peak Steven Spielberg (who also co-produced this film), especially in how it involves a Goonies-like collection of youthful misfits, though Abrams at least tries to offer a distinctive variation on E.T.'s plot about small-town kids dealing with the sudden arrival of a lone alien creature. The eponymous film format comes into play because the aforementioned misfits are busy working on their own homemade zombie movie at the same time that a passing train is derailed. From there, things get scary as an unknown entity gets loose and starts threatening the townsfolk and the unsurprisingly villainous military move in with the intention of handling the situation. Naturally, it soon ends up falling to the small handful of kids to resolve the situation when the grown-ups prove ineffective in one regard or another.

Super 8 isn't terrible so much as it is extremely passable. It offers virtually nothing of interest in its own right, instead trading off a certain degree of nostalgia thanks to its period setting and Spielberg affectations. Even the protracted teasing out of the film's extraterrestrial threat serves to remind one of the Abrams-produced Cloverfield but with a decidedly weaker handling of tension and scares. For a film that is primarily dependent on following a group of kids, things could have been worse - at least there's two or three kids who are interesting (especially the chubby director kid whose insistence on finishing his zombie movie at all costs does prove to be more engaging than the protagonist's grieving over his recently-deceased mother and awkward crushing on the zombie movie's lead actress). Otherwise, characters either get confined to stock characters or have no memorable definition whatsoever. This even extends to the technically decent effects that are nevertheless deployed in a substandard manner, creating a slick rendition of one very boring and forgettable alien creature. Super 8 had a somewhat promising concept in having its young heroes try to film a movie while a real monster ran amok all over town, but the overall execution is horribly bland for the most part. When the most entertaining part of your effects-heavy Hollywood blockbuster ends up being the deliberately poor footage taken from the main characters' amateur movie, then there's a problem.

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#734 - The Fugitive
Andrew Davis, 1993

A doctor is wrongfully accused of murdering his wife and escapes custody in order to clear his name.

I'd argue that The Fugitive is definitely one of the definitive thrillers of the '90s, though I'd also say that it doesn't quite manage to transcend the genre to become an outright classic in the style of, say, The Silence of the Lambs. This doesn't automatically make it a bad film - if anything, I'd definitely hold up this film as an example of how a film being dependable is not a bad thing. The Fugitive is not especially ambitious from a narrative point of view - it provides just enough of a twist to the well-worn "wrong man" narrative to keep things consistently thrilling. Harrison Ford plays a wealthy surgeon who is given the death sentence following the brutal murder of his wife (Sela Ward), though he constantly protests his innocence. When circumstances allow him a chance to escape, he takes it - however, it's not long before a team of federal agents led by a no-nonsense U.S. marshal (Tommy Lee Jones) pick up on his trail and launch a massive manhunt in order to find him. Instead of simply outrunning the law, Ford opts to launch his own secret investigation into his wife's murder and must rely on his wits in order to not only evade the law but bring the true criminals to justice.

The high concept is a solid one and the accompanying plot is paced well enough to keep one from growing bored. Ford once again plays a vulnerable civilian whose resolve to do the right thing not only helps him fight off strong feelings of torment but also provides a believable weakness as he often risks capture in order to do the right thing. While Ford provides a great centre to the film, it is definitely the righteously antagonistic Jones who delivers a true stand-out performance. Though a film as simple as this one seems like a very unlikely contender for Oscars, Jones definitely earns a Supporting Actor win as the relentless investigator who initially comes across as an unlikable villain in his indifference to whether or not Ford is actually guilty but who definitely charms the audience with his sharp-tongued commandeering of every scene in which he appears. Both of these men are good enough to carry both sides of their story as they start to approach the truth of the matter from two very different angles. The supporting cast has their work cut out for them stacking up against these cinematic titans, but they do alright. Jeroen Krabbe brings a familiar European smarminess as Ford's trustworthy colleague, while Joe Pantoliano gets put through the wringer as Jones' beleaguered deputy. This even extends to smaller roles such as Julianne Moore popping up briefly as a hospital staffer or Andreas Katsulas as a man whose ties to the plot ends up being quite significant.

The Fugitive may come across as incredibly dated thanks to factors such as its embossed title font and heavily synthesised score, but it still proves quite re-watchable even in the face of shameless imitators (*cough*Taken 3*cough*) and easy parodies (*cough*Wrongfully Accused*cough*). It doesn't have much depth beneath its cat-and-mouse surface (not even when Ford discovers the awful truth about why he was framed), but that's hardly a major strike against the film at large. If anything, the relatively superficial nature of the film's conflict might just be a point in the film's favour as it aims to provide an entertaining story above all else (and it definitely succeeds for the most part). Even some of the admittedly sillier moments (such as the film's iconic dam sequence) fit the film's intentions and rhythms well. Ford and Jones work well not just on their own but also during their sporadic clashes with one another, plus they are backed up by some decent performers. I don't really consider The Fugitive to be an especially amazing piece of work on the whole, but it still holds up just fine and I am definitely not averse to the prospect of seeing it again despite it having a relative lack of nuance that can and does sink lesser films in the genre.

250 guys walking down the road, just like that?
been ages since I've seen this one, great write up. Will have to do a revisit.

I do remember liking Jones' character a lot in that one

Stop doing one a day It is hard to catch up sometimes
Health is the greatest gift, contentment the greatest wealth, faithfulness the best relationship.

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Stop doing one a day It is hard to catch up sometimes
At the rate I'm going, I'm pretty sure I'm averaging about two movies a day rather than one.