Thursday, January 19, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Movies Featuring an Actor/Actress that Passed Away in 2016

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join in the fun by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and writing a bit about them. It's fun... promise!

Well, we all know 2016 was a bit of a downer on the whole "celebrities dying" front. So let's start celebrating them!

I'll be honest, I kind of want to make this just a celebration of mother-daughter duo Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, but that would be somewhat unfair to everyone else who passed away last year. And there were some great talents among them.

The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006) I ask you: Is there an actor better suited to play Nikola Tesla than David Bowie? He has the perfect presence for the enigmatic mad scientist, and he perks up Nolan's dour tale of dueling magicians something fierce. This is probably my favorite Christopher Nolan film, a perfectly realized vision of the male psyche and the way jealousy can consume your life and fester into something ugly. Top of the line performances from Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, and Michael Caine in addition to absolutely gorgeous cinematography make this one of the best, most memorable films of the '00s, with one of the most brilliant endings.

Dogma (Kevin Smith, 1999) Honest to God, this may be my favorite Alan Rickman performance. As the sardonic, exasperated, perpetually soused angel Metatron, he is an absolute riot in Smith's assault against all things holy. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are perfectly cast "against type" as bad-boy fallen angels trying to get back into heaven, Chris Rock is a hoot as the forgotten thirteenth apostle, and honestly, Alanis Morissettte gives what is perhaps my favorite portrayal of God ever put on screen. Dogma is a sick dirty joke of a film, but it's one that makes me laugh EVERY TIME.

The Producers (Mel Brooks, 1967) One of my All-Time Favorite movies, with one of my favorite performances. That performance being, of course, Gene Wilder's as the unbelievably neurotic accountant Leo Bloom, who offhandedly comes up with the perfect idea to make money on a flop Broadway show, which faded producer Max Bialystock (a brilliant Zero Mostel) takes completely seriously. The problem? Well, in their effort to make all the wrong choices, they inadvertently make all the right choices to create a camp classic: Springtime for Hitler. I just CAN'T with how funny this movie is.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Awards Contenders In Brief - Moonlight

There's been a lot of talk of representation in the movies this year, especially in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite. It initially seemed like Nate Parkers' Birth of a Nation would be the film carrying the flag all the way to the Oscars, but in its place has been Barry Jenkins's Moonlight. Which is fitting given how important LGBTQ issues have been recently.

Moonlight is the story of a young black man growing up in Miami. His mother is a crack addict. He's constantly beat on at school. So one day, when drug dealer Juan finds him hiding out in an abandoned crack house, he doesn't speak much. Juan and his girlfriend Theresa become like surrogate parents as he grows up. Moonlight is told in three parts, each titled for one of our main character's names: Little (his childhood nickname), Chiron (his given name), and Black (the name he adopts as a young adult). The structure is important, as the film is basically about Chiron's search for identity, his quest to become who he is.

Alongside Chiron's story, we get the story of his best friend Kevin, who mirrors Chiron in a lot of ways. Where Chiron has difficulty expressing himself, Kevin is super talkative. Where Chiron is insular, Kevin is outgoing and seemingly friends with everybody. While Chiron is still figuring out who he is, Kevin has, and knows enough to be able to repress it when he has to.

Moolight is easily the most beautiful film of the year, and not just visually. Thematically, this is one of the most impactful films of the year, and the screenplay (adapted from an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney) deals with it beautifully. The first time I saw Moonlight, I worried that the character of Juan was a bit too idealized in how he responds to Little, but this recent second time through revealed how fully realized the surrogate father relationship between the two of them is. The screenplay has some beautifully written scenes, but the final scene of the first part, where an outburst from his mother has prompted Little to ask Juan the dreaded "what's a faggot?" is as perfect as it gets.

Moonlight is a perfect three-act play, but it's given gorgeous cinematic life by director Barry Jenkins and his team, especially cinematographer James Laxton, who crafts each image with uncommon care. Seriously, every frame of this could hang on the wall in an art gallery. And the score by Nicholas Britell gives perfect voice to Chiron's character and journey. And I haven't even said anything about the cast, who give the greatest ensemble performance of 2016. Yes, Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali have gotten the lion's share of the awards attention, but the performances of the three Chirons and Kevins are just incredible, somehow feeling like one character instead of three. Together, the three actors playing Chiron give the performance of the year.

I don't have enough words in my vocabulary to describe how beautiful this movie is, how meaningful it is, both in general and to me personally. Moonlight is everything the movies should be: In telling the story of people we rarely if ever get to see onscreen, it can mean the world to so many, and give understanding to so many more. It is, no exaggeration, a film that has the power to change and even save lives.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Fashion World

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join in the fun by picking three films that fit the week's theme and writing a bit about them!

Lights, camera.... FASHION!

Yes, darlings, this week on Thursday Movie Picks we are going to that place where everyone is beautiful on the outside and usually ugly on the inside: The World of Fashion.

Fashion has always played a part in the movies - in the early days, there would often be a fashion show just inserted into the middle of the film for no reason at all other than to offer the audience something beautiful to look at. Since then, there have been many films that have taken place in the world of clothing designers, models, and photographers (and their long-suffering assistants). These are three of my favorites.

Funny Face (Stanley Donen, 1957) Think Pink! Say what you will, but Kay Thompson is the REAL star of the show here, despite my love for headliners Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire. Thompson is the publisher and editor of a fashion magazine, and Astaire a famous photographer. Wanting new models who can "think as well as they look", they go downtown to Greenwich Village and coerce intellectual Hepburn to model for them, with a trip to Paris as bait. Well, I mean, who WOULDN'T take them up on that offer?!? Audrey's go-go dance in the club is maybe my favorite thing she's ever done, and really all the musical numbers here are superb.

The First Monday in May (Andrew Rossi, 2016) Every year, on the first Monday in May, there is a Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for the new Costume Institute exhibition. The Met Ball, as it has become known, is one of the biggest events of the fashion world, and this is your insider's view into what goes into making it all happen. I'll admit: I had flashes of PTSD watching this, because a large part of my job for five years was planning the Gala for the theater company where I worked. That was stressful enough. THIS is on a WHOLE other level. That the film also sparks conversations on what is "art" and what is controversial, and what is beautiful, is just icing on the cake.

The Dressmaker (Jocelyn Moorhouse, 2016) The Fashion World Meets The Backwoods. Myrtle "Tilly" Dunnage was ran out of her backwoods Australian town years ago for something unspeakable. Somehow, she ended up becoming one of the world's foremost designers, and she has finally returned home, ready to win over the townsfolk who drove her out and cast her mother aside... WITH FASHION! So much of The Dressmaker is ridiculous, but it is one of my favorite movies of the year for how purely enjoyable it is. Kate Winslet is just fabulous beyond words as Tilly, Judy Davis is a hoot as her aging crone of a mother, and Liam Hemsworth has never been more swoon-worthy as the town hunk. And, of course, the fashions are just BEYOND.

*                    *                    *

And, just in case you wondering, my picks for last week's Legal Thrillers theme would have been: The tense, forgotten Fracture, starring Ryan Gosling and Anthony Hopkins; and the Laura Linney double feature Primal Fear (with a never-better Richard Gere and tremendous debut from Ed Norton) and The Exorcism of Emily Rose (which is FAR smarter and better than it has any right to be).

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Awards Contenders In Brief - A Monster Calls

Look, a boy's best friend is his mother, so when your movie is about a young boy whose mother is dying of cancer, that's pretty much a guaranteed tear-jerker from my perspective. But even still, J.A. Bayona's A Monster Calls is a film of such uncommon beauty that it deserves praise. I don't even really particularly care how well the film holds together because it does an absolutely tremendous job of earning the tears it so effectively rings in the last fifteen minutes or so.

A large part of that is due to the great performances from Felicity Jones (as said cancer-stricken mother) and Lewis MacDougall. MacDougall in particular is just perfect, getting the frustrated, conflicted heart of this kid who only fully comprehends what is going on (both within and outside of himself) subconsciously. Jones is heartbreaking; her fragile beauty has never been put to better use, and the strength she manages to project from her increasingly weakened body makes it all the more emotional when she finally has to tell her son that she isn't long for this world. It is an absolutely heart-wrenching scene, and couldn't possibly be better written or performed. I was an absolute puddle from that point on.

The basic story is this: Young Conor's mother has cancer. Unable to cope with the constant pain and upheaval (Dad has moved to America, Grandma is cold in that traditional English way, and Mum is constantly sick), he brings to life a monster out of a yew tree situated on a nearby church graveyard. The monster (perfectly voiced by Liam Neeson) says he will tell the boy three stories, and that in exchange, Conor must tell him one - his own. The visual effects work and animated sequences for the monster's stories are some of the most stunningly imagined scenes in recent memory - the raw beauty of this film is just out of this world. Bayona is perfectly attuned to Patrick Ness's story, choosing the best way at every level to film it. Maybe I'm being a bit overly complimentary because of the emotion the film wrung out of me (at the end of my screening, I cried out to no one in particular, tears streaming down my face, "Give it ALL THE AWARDS, dammit!"), but that it managed to do so so effectively and honestly is something worth celebrating.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Awards Contenders In Brief - Fences

Sometimes, films are just performance pieces, and that's okay. Such is the case with Fences, Denzel Washington's adaptation of August Wilson's stage play. Plays do not always have to be "opened up" for the screen, especially when the material is strong and you have great actors tearing up the screen in every scene. This film version of Fences is dynamic and engaging thanks to the script (credited posthumously to the playwright himself) and the performances, especially those at the center.

Viola Davis and Denzel Washington create an entirely believable relationship that is thrillingly alive in every moment - there is never even one second where you don't want to be watching them. This is the best work Washington has done in ages, breathing fiery life into the character of Troy Maxson. And Davis is every bit his equal, taking everything we have seen of her in various roles on screens large and small and mixing them together into the most incredible performance by an actress this year (just don't let the campaign fool you - SHE IS A LEAD, and deserves recognition as such).

All told, this is easily the finest acting ensemble of the year, but thankfully Washington is no slouch in the director's chair, either. The direction here isn't flashy, but it's still smart and restrained, constantly emphasizing how the characters are either boxing themselves (and others) in or breaking out. And the few instances where the play has been "opened up" are well-chosen and beautifully shot. This is as ideal an adaptation of this play as one could hope for, containing a superb cast doing career-best work all around. And that's nothing to sneeze at.

Thursday Movie Picks - Coming Home

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Come on and join in by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and writing a bit about them!

Well, here we are again, one last edition of Thursday Movie Picks before the end of the year!

And what a year it's been, huh?

My biggest thanks to Wanderer for hosting this, and for continuing to do so in 2017! This has been a great way for me to get in the habit of writing weekly, and I'm FINALLY starting to write for real here (Jesus that took forever lol)! And it really is all due to this little project right here. So thank you.

ANYWAY, on to the matter at hand. The theme this week is coming home, which can be a very emotional thing for people, especially after a long time away.

Manchester By The Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016) I'm pretty open about how I do NOT understand the INSANE critical praise for this, but it's still very, VERY good. Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler, a sullen janitor in Quincy, MA, who has had A Traumatic Event (TM) in his past that pushed him away from his home town (the title, duh). Now, his brother has died, and he has to go home to make arrangements, including serving as guardian for his young nephew (the fantastic newcomer Lucas Hedges). As a film about grief, how if we leave it unchecked it can eat away at us slowly until it leaves us completely hollow, this may be unparalleled, and it's pretty funny to boot. Add in Michelle Williams's brief, devastating turn as Lee's ex-wife (their scene together at the end is one of the best scenes of this year, or indeed the past few years), and it should be a recipe for great success. But instead, for me, this one unfortunately ended up being less than the sum of its parts.

Garden State (Zach Braff, 2004) I don't care what anybody says, I love this movie. So much about it is unique, and it's very moving. It also contains one of Natalie Portman's greatest performances, as the free-spirited weirdo who gets Braff's too-heavily-medicated Andrew (back home for his mother's funeral) to finally feel something. And that soundtrack, even when calling attention to how great it is, is pretty damn great. I defy you to not get at least a LITTLE emotional when Frou Frou's "Let Go" comes up in that perfect last scene.

You Can Count On Me (Kenneth Lonergan, 2000) Sammy and Terry Prescott lost their parents in a horrific car accident years ago. Now, Sammy (Laura Linney) is still living in their hometown in upstate New York, and Terry (Mark Ruffalo) is a drifter, coming home because he needs money. These two people could not be more different, but familial bonds are strong, and they would do just about anything for each other. Linney and Ruffalo are beyond fantastic here, and Lonergan gifted them with one of the greatest scripts of the '00s, one that is beautifully attuned to sibling relationships in a way that few films are. I love this beautiful movie so much.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Awards Contenders In Brief: Jackie

Natalie Portman is a great actress, but even in her best roles she is often highly mannered, very tightly controlled. Which in many ways makes first lady Jacqueline Kennedy the part she was born to play. Thankfully, the film Pablo Larrain has built around her is a true marvel, rising to heights most biopics can only dream of.

I don't think I've seen a biopic that is so on the wavelength of its subject AND so in tune with the time in which it was made. This is a film that could only have been made right now, and indeed, it is in many ways a film that NEEDED to be made right now, ruminating as it does on just what (or, indeed, who) makes a President's legacy when so many just want to push right on past him into the future, and also commenting on what the press demand of our public figures and why, and where exactly public figures will draw the line in their use of the media.

It is a fascinating film on many levels, all swirling around Portman's downright astonishing central performance. She gets the overly manicured voice and stiff mannerisms of Jackie down pat, going through every mix of emotions under the sun as she feels, suppresses, and works through her grief. But Chilean director Pablo Larrain doesn't let her do ALL the heavy lifting. He knows how to frame her to emphasize the loneliness even among many people, the fragility among such strength, the woman under the public face. Noah Oppenheim's smartly written screenplay provides the foundation, and Larrain constructs a mausoleum of American politics around it, with the White House as ground zero. And then he brings in Mica Levi for the score, providing the perfect notes for the despair, determination, and rage of a woman in mourning.

It's all too much to talk about. It must be seen, must be experienced on a big screen to fully comprehend how brilliant it is. This is one of the finest films of 2016, no doubt about it, and it deserves to be remembered for much more than its great leading lady.