Movie review: Meru directed by Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi


I am not afraid of heights. I’ve always had a hard time understanding what skeeves people out about being up high, or seeing things from a tall perspective. Sometimes I take my ability to deal with heights to the next level and think about what it would be like to be a mountain climber. Meru proved to me that I probably don’t have what it takes.

The film follows Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk as they attempt to be the first to reach the Shark’s Fin peak of Meru, a 21,850-foot mountain in the Gharwal Himalayas of India. It’s not the tallest mountain in the world by a long shot, but the Shark Fin is one of the most difficult peaks to summit.

The first part of the film covers their first attempt in 2008. A storm kept them off the top of the mountain, and they decided to go back again years later. A series of accidents before the second attempt even started almost derailed the entire thing. I don’t want to give away too many details to ruin the story so I’ll just say that it’s amazing they even made a second attempt after what happened.

The most wonderful part of the movie was its discussion of death and the risks these climbers take. They are out there in some of the harshest and most unforgiving places in the world — day in and day out. And they love it. There was no shying away from reality during the interview scenes of the documentary: They knew death was always just above the next handhold and they embraced it.

It takes a special kind of person to climb mountains, so I think I’ll just continue to enjoy from afar. The stunning imagery and bravery on display vie for a spot in the place I keep my favorites, but in the end I think the terrible and wondrous hubris of the human race wins out.

Meru rates 8 out of 10 stars. You can see it in theaters now. If you don’t share a love of heights with me you might have to suffer through sweaty palms throughout (I’ve heard that’s a thing that happens to you other types). It will be well worth it.

Other movies I saw this week

Movie review: Lolita directed by Stanley Kubrick


I love Stanley Kubrick. I’m sure that bias comes into play when rating/reviewing, but I don’t care. What’s not to love? Kubrick started out as a photographer, and it’s the visual splendor of his films I love so much. Couple that with his meticulous attention to detail in everything and you can see why so many consider him one of the best of all time.

I could go on, but we’re here to talk about Lolita. The movie follows Professor Humbert Humbert, played by James Mason, as he lives out his infatuation with the young woman Lolita, played by Sue Lyon.

The movie opens with a scene between Humbert and a man named Clare Quilty, played by Peter Sellers. Quilty is quite drunk, and keeps making light of the situation even when Humbert pulls out a gun. Humbert eventually accuses Quilty of corrupting Lolita and shoots him to death through a painting of a young woman. The film then moves to a flashback to four years earlier and tells the story from there.

Humbert first sees Lolita when he is considering renting a room from a widow named Charlotte Haze, played by Shelley Winters. It’s clear that Humbert is annoyed and isn’t interested in spending any more time with Charlotte than he has to — until he sees her young teenage daughter Lolita lounging in the garden in a swimsuit.

Even if you don’t know anything about the film or the book by Vladimir Nabokov it’s based on, you probably have an idea of where this is going. Humbert ends up taking the room and even marries Charlotte so he can be near Lolita. He suggests to Charlotte that she might be too liberal with Lolita when it comes to boys, which prompts the decision to send Lolita to Camp Climax for girls. The name is hilarious, and was one of my favorite comedic bits in the film.

Humbert finds himself forced to spend time alone with Charlotte, a task he can only manage with the help of a stiff drink. He is miserable without Lolita. Humbert is a professor of literature so he considers himself a writer, which all professors of literature are wont to do. Of course he can’t help but write about his fancies for Lolita. Charlotte finds his diary and runs into oncoming traffic — and her death — in her grief, just after Humbert considered murder by way of the late Mr. Haze’s pistol.

Humbert visits Camp Climax to pick up Lolita, telling her that mother is simply sick and they will go to the hospital to see her. They end up at a hotel in the same room with a single bed because of a police convention. Humbert goes off to see if he can find a cot to sleep on, even though it’s clear he would prefer not to. This is followed by one of the best scenes in the movie, where a untowardly stranger acts like he is a policeman and keeps bringing up how he considers Humbert to be “normal” in a way that makes Humbert nervous about what he is contemplating in his relationship with Lolita. We know the man from earlier in the movie: he is Quilty.

The scene is amazing because of it’s randomness, and because it sets up the relationship Humbert has with his eventual nemesis quite well. Humbert makes it back up to the room just as a cot is being delivered, so they don’t sleep in the same bed. It doesn’t take long for them to start their sexual relationship, however, as it is intimated that they have sex the next morning. This is one of the areas where I wish the film was more explicit because I think it would have been more striking. As it was the film was already dealing with censorship issues because it was shot in the early 60s and dealt with the touchy subject of a sexual relationship between a young teenager and a much older man, so that’s probably asking too much.

Humbert and Lolita continue the relationship, although it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. The best scene in the film comes when Quilty shows up again, this time playing a German psychologist from the school. The scene foreshadow’s Sellers’ performance in the future Dr. Strangelove and it is wonderful for that alone. Quilty is there to convince Humbert to allow Lolita to perform in the school play as an extracurricular activity. He threatens to have a team of psychologists come to the home to address the “issues” that young Lolita is having, so Humbert acquiesces.

As it turns out, Quilty is producing the play and just wants to have time with Lolita so he can have his own tryst with her. The rest of the movie leads us back to the first scene, where Humbert murders Quilty because of the “improper” relationship he had with Lolita. It’s quite the sarcastic twist, considering the relationship between Humbert and Lolita.

Lolita is a hilarious and dark look at teenage sexuality and middle-age lust. I highly recommend it, especially if you enjoy Kubrick for his wonderful cinematography and photographic eye. Lolita rates 9 out of 10 stars. You can buy Lolita on Amazon if you want to start or add to your Kubrick collection.

Other movies I saw this week:

Movie review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari directed by Robert Wiene

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

My life is something of a contradiction. I love horror when the primary mode of consumption is via reading. I will read almost any vampire, werewolf, zombie or other tired story tropes of the genre. I hate most horror films.

Many consider The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to be the first horror movie ever made. It wouldn’t be a familiar horror to the moviegoers of the modern day despite its truly scary premise. The film starts out with a man complaining about “spirits” that made him leave his home. Francis, the protagonist, listens to the man and commiserates that he and his fiancée have also suffered from a similar malaise.

The movie then slips into a flashback, where it stays until the very end. Every scene in the flashback is quietly off-putting because of fantastical tangled backgrounds and unrealistic perspectives. Characters walk down twisty hallways lined with crescent-shaped doors. Chair backs grow to absurdly tall heights. Entire tents lean precariously over their neighbors at the fair. The overall effect leaves your subconscious constantly thinking about how wrong everything feels.

The story itself is scary in its own right. We learn about Dr. Caligari and his traveling show, which features a somnambulist named Cesare. Francis and his friend Alan go to see the show, where Cesare awakens and tells Alan of his demise by dawn. The prediction comes true by way of murder in the night, which sets off a frantic search for the butcher. It leads back to the doctor and his patient with a few interesting twists. The story ends with a flourish that I saw coming and still enjoyed. I won’t ruin the surprise for anyone here.

I kept thinking about how much more I enjoyed the subtle horrors of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari than any modern-day equivalent. Showing the underlying madness of the universe with wonderfully nonsensical backgrounds and proportions entranced me more than a jump cut to a mad killer’s grotesque face ever could. I also marveled at the pure suspense achieved with none of the ridiculousness of present-day horror films. I recognize there is a kind of suspense in waiting for the next violent image to jump on the screen unexpectedly. It’s a cheap suspense that gets old after a while, which is probably at the root of my dislike for the horror movies of my lifetime.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari rates a 9 out of 10 stars. Buy The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari on Amazon if you’re looking for a classic. Thanks in advance if you decide to buy through the link above. Every purchase made from an Amazon link on this blog helps support my movie watching habit.

Other movies I saw this week:

Movie review: American Ultra directed by Nima Nourizadeh

American Ultra

I never thought I would be writing this review, but here we are. As a reminder: The movies I review each week are determined by the ratings I give them. So American Ultra is the highest rated film of the week.

The movie tells the story of stoner Mike Howell, played by Jesse Eisenberg, who happens to also be a super secret agent. His girlfriend Phoebe Larson, played by Kristen Stewart, helps keep him alive as he goes through all kinds of ridiculously violent scenes. The plot is deeper than that — perhaps not by much — but I don’t want to get into any more detail for fear of spoilers.

I’m not usually one for comedy, but it turns out when you mix it with loads of gratuitous brutality I enjoy it quite a bit. I don’t know if that says more about me or the film. I suspect many of the elements I enjoyed might be the reason why some don’t enjoy the film. Where else can you see a graphic depiction of death-by-spoon-in-neck with stoner jokes?

I also watched quite a few Hitchcock films this week. Hitchcock’s work includes suspense and violence, of course, but nothing even approaching American Ultra. If I had a time machine I would go back and show this film in a theater with an audience expecting Hitchcock just to see how fast everyone would rocket out of the place. I would have to figure out a way to convert the digital projection to film first. Surely a digital to analog transmogrification would be no big deal if I already figured out how to break the space-time continuum, right?

I’m a sucker for weirdness, which is probably the reason I guiltily enjoyed this film so much. American Ultra rates 8 out of 10 stars and is in theaters now. Go see if if you want to experience a slightly off putting mix of comedy and violence.

Other movies I saw this week:

Movie review: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. directed by Guy Ritchie

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

First off, you should know these things about me: I’m not the biggest James Bond fan but I like the films, I love the look and feel of the 1950s & 60s, and I think Snatch is the best film Guy Ritchie has directed. With all that in mind, perhaps it’s not hard to imagine why I enjoyed The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Ritchie films always have a particular look and feel I enjoy. Combine that with the particular aesthetic of the early 1960s when the film is set, and you have a wonderful result. I was just as excited about the costuming and furniture as I was about the composition of certain shots, which is unusual for me. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good design when it comes to the look and feel of the physical space of films. I’m typically much more concerned about the cinematography layered on top of it than anything else, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. delivered on all counts.

The film follows two secret agents as they transition from foe to friend while working on a mission to stop nuclear war. Napoleon Solo, played by Henry Cavill, delivers witty one-liners in almost-too-perfect diction as they fight their way through various schemes and adventures. Illya Kuryakin, played by Armie Hammer, bashes his way through scenes and barely keeps his “psychotic episodes” of anger in check, all the while reminding us of the “Russian way” of doing things. Together they make an odd couple, which ads to the raucous fun. Gaby Teller, played by Alicia Vikander, is the perfect foil at just the right times for each character. I enjoyed the acting very much, which is not something I expected going into the theater.

Ritchie is up to his (by now) familiar tricks throughout the film. Split screens and interesting ways of dealing with the passage of time made the film more enjoyable than the James Bond flicks of yore it references. My favorite time sequence in a Ritchie film is definitely the “I’m coming to London” scene from Snatch:

There wasn’t anything quite that great in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but there were some interesting car chases in the third act that used space and time in novel ways.

If you enjoy Guy Ritchie, James Bond or laughing out loud you should probably make the time to see The Man From U.N.C.L.E. It rates 8 out of 10 stars and is in theaters now.

Other movies I saw this week

Movie review: The Great Beauty directed by Paolo Sorrentino

The Great Beauty

I’m a sucker for a beautiful movie. If the aesthetic of the movie has that certain something, I am almost always drawn to forgive any other missteps. It’s that attitude that made me enjoy The Great Beauty so much. What a gorgeous film.

Jep Gambardella is a writer, journalist and nighttime man about town — and definitely not in that order. Jep’s life has been in decline for many years, when his first true love was still intertwined in his arms and he had just published his one and only novel. Now Jep spends his days sleeping to prepare for the nightly raucous festivities that make up his life. Sorrentino introduces Jeb at a 65th birthday bash, which is one of the most interesting and gorgeous opening scenes I’ve seen.

Every luxurious shot in the film exposes not only Jeb’s partying and inconsequential lifestyle, but his frequent recollections of a life in decline. You don’t have to look very hard to see the story about Italy that Sorrentino wants to tell through Jeb’s life. The juxtaposition backgrounds made up of some of the greatest art in the world with trivial nightly amusements tells you everything about the Italy Sorrentino sees. A country that once brought the pinnacle of human achievement and arts into the world is now known as a place to party and socialize.

Thoughts of whether the story explores modern-day Italy in a nuanced and interesting way are made almost irrelevant by the sheer beauty of the film. Almost every scene had me exclaiming over the optical extravaganza on display. A simple tracking shot over Jeb’s balcony just before sunset lit up the visual cortex of my brain just as much as a scene set in a strip club. I could not have been more satisfied with the cinematography and mood of this film.

I found myself sympathizing with Jeb as a human instead of relating to the larger ideas Sorrentino explored, and I think that’s just fine. If you want to see a slice of humanity in an absolutely stunning format The Great Beauty delivers.

The Great Beauty rates 9 out of 10 stars. You can get The Great Beauty on Amazon if you’re interested in seeing the film and supporting this blog.

Other movies I saw this week

Movie review: Argo directed by Ben Affleck


I have a confession. I’ve heard from multiple people and sources that Argo is a great film and I just now got around to watching it. I was actively avoiding it because of a preconceived notion about Ben Affleck as a director (and and actor, if I’m honest). Turns out I was wrong.

The film is Affleck’s second as director, following The Town. I can’t comment on his first film either, although that might change in the near future. I’ve always been somewhat put off by Affleck as an actor, so I just assumed the same would be true for his entire vision for a film.

Argo is based on the 1980 U.S. hostage crisis in Iran. Six Americans fled from the American embassy after it was taken over by Iranian revolutionaries. They ended up in the Canadian Ambassador’s house after their escape, and were forced to stay there for months. The U.S. government was very keen on getting them back, but didn’t have a great plan for how to do so. They cycled through several terrible ideas, including one where everything hinged on a 300-mile unsupported bike ride in the middle of winter.

Tony Mendez, played by Affleck, makes his way to a meeting and subsequently shoots down every terrible idea. It takes a while, but eventually he devises a plan to remove the Americans from the country by helping them pose as a film crew scouting locations for a science fiction movie called Argo. The plot includes some interesting digressions into the particulars of filmmaking before making its way back to the hostage issue at hand.

I was impressed with many aspects of the film, but the one that stood out the most had to be the suspense building. I was not expecting to get so emotionally involved in the situation, especially since I pretty much knew how it would turn out in the end. Nevertheless I found myself truly worried about whether everyone was going to die. The crescendo of tension came at the perfect time, when Mendez and the rest of his “crew” were trying to fake their way through the airport that was the last obstacle in the way.

Argo unexpectedly swept me away in its glory, despite the few stylistic quibbles I had. I recommend it if you’re looking for great film to watch. Even if you don’t really like Ben Affleck.

Argo rates 8 out of 10 stars. You can buy Argo on Amazon if you’re interested in seeing the film and supporting my movie watching and blogging habits.

Other movies I saw this week:

  • Z | 7 out of 10 stars | Buy Z on Amazon
  • Crafted (short film) | 6 out of 10 stars | Buy Crafted on Amazon
  • Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation | 7 out of 10 stars
  • Ant-Man | 6 out of 10 stars

Movie review: The Gold Rush directed by Charlie Chaplin

Editor’s note: This is the first post in Motion Picture Monday. Check out this post for more about my daily writing schedule.

Before we get to the review, I think it would be helpful to explain a bit about the films I see and how I’m thinking about this weekly post.

I recently started making my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. I’ve seen 118 of the movies on the list, and I hope to see all of them eventually. I also have MoviePass so I see 1 to 2 movies in theaters every week.

The main part of my weekly Motion Picture Monday post will review the best movie I watched in the previous week. I will also include a list of the other movies I watched during the week with a rating for each, similar to what I do for Fiction Friday. So now that we’ve got all that out of the way, on to the review!

The Gold Rush Directed by Charlie Chaplin

I watched The Gold Rush on Hulu. The version I watched is from the Criterion Collection, and seems to be the most true to the 1925 original. The beginning of the movie explains how the movie was saved from a 35mm version of the film after every copy of the original film was thought to be destroyed, which explains why some of the scenes are much better quality than others.

I’m a pretty big film buff, but I’ve restricted my viewing to mid-century pieces and newer for the most part. This was my first foray into a silent film, and into Charlie Chaplin’s work. I came to the table with some knowledge of the Tramp character, mostly from pop culture references and a few YouTube clips.

I regret not seeing Chaplin’s work sooner because it was masterful. I’m not a huge fan of most comedy, and I certainly didn’t go into the movie thinking I was going to laugh as much as I did. The story of a bumbling gold prospector and his path to success in love and business seemed like an unlikely backdrop for hilarity, but I was also proven wrong on that point.

My favorite part of the film, and perhaps the entire silent film era if it is embodied by films similar to Chaplin’s work in The Gold Rush, came from the interplay between clever miming and title cards. I followed the somewhat complex story with no problem, and as a result I could focus on the acting.

Chaplin is certainly a master when it comes to getting across emotion, thoughts, feeling, and anything else he wants without the crutch of dialogue. I’ll likely never prefer my films without dialogue (who knows?) but if I did it would be because of visionaries like Chaplin.

If you consider yourself a fan of the art of film even a tiny bit then it’s worth going back into time to see what led us to the place we are now. Whether you use something like the 1001 Movies book or any other way, I highly recommend going back to pieces like The Gold Rush.

The Gold Rush rates 9 out of 10 stars. You can buy The Gold Rush on Amazon if you’re interested in seeing the film and supporting my movie watching and blogging habits.

Other movies I saw this week: