Thursday, April 19, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Meltdowns

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Participation is easy: Just pick three movies that fit the week's theme and write a bit about them. It's fun - promise!

This week on Thursday Movie Picks: Meltdowns. These can be lots of fun or very scary to watch, depending. But the greatest ones are the ones we watch happen in slow motion, not necessarily knowing what we're watching until it's too late. Ones like...

Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) The fall of Norma Desmond, Greatest Film Star Of Them All (TM) is a true horror story, and Gloria Swanson's tremendous portrayal is a thing to behold. That famous final scene has become iconic for a reason - the direct address to the camera implicating all of us, the little people in the dark, in creating the monster she became and the pitiful thing she's become. One of the most brilliant films Hollywood has ever produced.

American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999) "I'm just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose," says Kevin Spacey's Lester Burnham. And, well, he actually does have something to lose: his life. This takedown of the seemingly perfect suburbia of America at the turn of the millennium is pitched VERY high, but the moments that work are all-timers: Mena Suvari doing the cheer routine, Lester serving his wife and her lover at the drive-thru window, Annette Bening singing "Don't Rain on My Parade", and that KILLER dinner table scene, a perfect meltdown from both husband and wife. And of course, there's also the video of that damned plastic bag, which you either love or hate.

Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011) Annie is having a rough go of it. In the downturn of the economy she had to close her bakery, and now she has no money and is working at a job she hates. Oh, and her best friend is marrying an apparently pretty wealthy guy. AND wants Annie to be her maid of honor. And the pressure, well... let's just say it gets to her. Kristen Wiig's performance brilliantly toes the line between making us laugh with Annie and laugh at her, often at the same time. The entire cast is phenomenal, but none more so than Rose Byrne's delicious take on the wealthy, effortlessly likable (and effortlessly bitchy) Helen, and scene-stealer Melissa McCarthy, in the role that won her a well-deserved Oscar nomination.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Movies About Movies

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. You can play along by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and writing a bit about them - it's fun!

This week on Thursday Movie Picks, we are covering one of my favorite topics: Movies About Movies. It's always fun when Hollywood turns its lens on itself, allowing us to see the inner workings of how our favorite pieces of entertainment get made. Some of my favorite movies are about movies, but I've used them already for this series, so I decided to eschew those in favor of ones that I really like but haven't talked much about here.

Bowfinger (Frank Oz, 1999) Bobby Bowfinger is a movie producer who has finally saved up enough money to direct a film of his own - just north of $2,000! The only problem is, he needs a big company to handle the distribution. He gets one executive to agree, but only if he gets Kit Ramsey, the hottest action star around, to star. When that doesn't happen, Bobby decides to film the movie guerilla-style without Kit knowing. The problem is, Kit is already paranoid, and the film's alien invasion premise makes things worse, so he goes into hiding, forcing Bobby to hire a look-alike to finish the film. This very funny satire features Eddie Murphy as both Kit and his look-alike Jiff, Steve Martin as Bobby, and Heather Graham and Christine Baranski as two of the actresses working on the film. Bowfinger mostly forgotten now, which... honestly feels about right. It's not one of the greats. But it is REALLY funny, and more than worth a watch.

For Your Consideration (Christopher Guest, 2006) Leave it to Christopher Guest and his bitingly funny repertory troupe to make one of the most cutting satires about the film industry. No one is safe in this scathingly hilarious movie about a small, slightly overly self-important independent film that gets turned into the talk of the town because of one blogger's comment about it maybe being in the hunt for an Oscar. All the Guest regulars you know and love are there: Parker Posey is again a stand-out as the ambitious younger star on the rise, and Eugene Levy, Jane Lynch, Fred Willard, and John Michael Higgins reliably steal every scene they're in. But the genius Catherine O'Hara gives the performance of her career as the steadily working but un-famous character actress Marilyn Hack. She gives a completely vanity-free performance, exposing every nook and cranny of Marilyn's psyche as she is suddenly thrust into the spotlight. It's a brilliant performance in a killer movie.

Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller, 2008) The novelty may have worn off a bit on this one, but I still laugh at pretty much anything, from Ben Stiller's maniacally committed action-hero posturing to Tom Cruise's delicious flights of fat-suited cursing to, above all, Robert Downey Jr.'s demented comic genius as an Australian method actor playing an African-American. Tropic Thunder may be a little bit stupid, but it's goddamned COMMITTED to it, and it plays like gangbusters for me, every single damn time.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Best of 2017 (Part Four)

AT LONG LAST!

PRESENTING!

DAN'S TOP TEN FILMS OF 2017!

10. Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino) After seeing this for the second time, I kept trying to write a review and couldn't. The best review, I think, was my reaction on first seeing the film: I had found the first half or so a little too slow for my tastes, but when the lights came up at the end of the credits, I realized that I had been physically holding myself together so as to keep from falling apart in the crowded cinema. The cumulative power of this film is incredible, thanks to the patient observations Guadagnino makes and the stunning performances from the leads, especially Timothée Chalamet.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Underground

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. You can play along by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and writing about them!

This week on Thursday Movie Picks, we're going underground! Which either means literally below ground OR "under the radar". I'm going with the more direct interpretation this time, but only so I can include...

Journey to the Center of the Earth (Henry Levin, 1959) This Jules Verne adaptation is tons of fun, especially if you can deal with the slightly cheesy 1950s special effects... although, honestly, they're a large part of the fun! James Mason is a delight as he leads a team of intrepid explorers into a volcano and to the center of the earth, encountering all manner of prehistoric goodies along the way. Remade in 2008 with Brendan Fraser, and that version isn't too bad either, but I prefer this one.

The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005) Exploring caves can be fun. But not after you see this movie. After you see this movie, you'll never want to go underground ever again. The Descent is horror at its finest, using the screen to trap us right alongside our poor heroines as they find themselves in a cave they can't get out of.

Buried (Rodrigo Cortés, 2010) Another movie you shouldn't watch if you get at all claustrophobic, even if it does a lot with the restrictions of having your entire movie take place in a coffin. And even if it does feature a terrific performance from Ryan Reynolds. This is a one man show, and Reynolds is pretty damn great in it.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Best of 2017 (Part Three)

And finally, we are here! My Best Films of 2017 list! KIND OF.

I tend to judge a year in film by how many films I saw that I want to own on DVD/Blu-Ray. 2017 was not as strong as 2016 in that regard, but there were a lot more movies that I really liked (but didn't love) this year than in years past. In other words, my Top Ten was really easy to come up with, but my Top Twenty was VERY DIFFICULT. I kept moving things around and trying things out in different slots, and ended up deciding the agony just wasn't worth it.

But I still wanted to pay tribute to all the films I saw last year that I felt deserved it. So here is my way of doing that - a VERY expanded list of "Honorable Mentions" and "Runners Up" (in roughly ascending order) to my Top Ten. That list will be posted next week. Promise.

THIRD TIER


The Lost City of Z - So much more thoughtful than most other adventure epics. Gorgeous cinematography and a much better than expected performance from Sienna Miller.

The Lure - A bit slow, but few movies this year could match the creativity on display in this horror-fantasy musical drama, and the songs are actually pretty great.

A Ghost Story - Gorgeous and original, even if it didn't have the emotional impact on me it clearly wanted to have.

Wonder Wheel - Kate Winslet's barn-burner of a performance is more than enough to recommend this.

Stronger - Touching, raw portrait of PTSD with fantastic performances from Gyllenhaal, Maslany, and Richardson.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - TV Edition: Non-English Shows

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

Look, I'm cheating this week. I am fully aware of that. But it's only because I don't watch foreign-language TV shows. #SorryNotSorry

Fanny & Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, 1982) This Swedish miniseries is absolutely gorgeous, a testament to what a master of the visual form can do even on the small screen. The plot certainly doesn't sound like something that is worth watching for five hours: Fanny and Alexander's father dies, and their mother remarries a prominent bishop who naturally doesn't take too kindly to the boy's active imagination. But what Bergman does with that is just jaw-dropping. Some of the most beautiful sequences I've ever seen in movies or on TV are included here. There's a sense of childlike wonder that shows up in small doses that is just unmatched by anything else I've seen. There's a shorter film-length version, too, but the miniseries is absolutely worth your time.

Scenes From a Marriage (Ingmar Bergman, 1973) As epically intimate as Fanny & Alexander is intimately epic, Scenes From a Marriage is another Bergman miniseries that was later edited for a theatrical release. This one is pretty much a duet between the great Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson as Marianne and Johan, a couple that is not-so-slowly disintegrating before our eyes. These are two of the greatest performances in the history of the medium, captured in uncompromising detail. It's a tough sit, but pays off in spades.

French in Action (1987) Now this one actually was a TV series, shown on public television to teach French in an immersive program. There's a running romantic comedy story interspersed throughout the lessons about a French girl, Mireille, and an American student in France, Robert, that has developed a bit of a cult following over the years. I was introduced to this when I was really young through my father, who was a high school French teacher. And then when my own high school French teachers started to show it, I knew the storylines and lessons already, which was kind of fun.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Nostalgia

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!

I had a hard time coming up with movies for this week's theme, nostalgia. I'm assuming we're talking movies ABOUT nostalgia, not movies that evoke a sense of nostalgia within us. Although even if it were the latter, I still might have trouble. But anyway, here's what I could come up with.

Peggy Sue Got Married (Francis Ford Coppola, 1986) Peggy Sue is pretty unhappy in her marriage, and at her high school reunion, she passes out and wakes up back in her senior year of high school. Is she really there? Is it a dream? Would she do anything differently? The major conflict of the film, beautifully acted by Kathleen Turner in the title role, is whether Peggy Sue's nostalgia will overcome her so much that she will make the same decisions and fall into old patterns, or if she will be bold and blaze a new path for herself. Viewing this movie now, I was somewhat unsatisfied with the ending, but upon reflection it's a bit more complicated than I initially gave it credit for. It probably doesn't help that Peggy Sue's beau is played by Nicolas Cage at his most grating (on purpose, but still). But the cinematography is gorgeous, and the cast is an embarrassment of riches: In addition to Turner, who is brilliant, there's Helen Hunt, Joan Allen, and Jim Carrey! Which brings us to...

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004) Sometimes, you're not nostalgic for a time or place, so much as a person. The problem for Joel Barrish is that he realizes he's nostalgic for his ex-girlfriend Clementine while he's undergoing a procedure to have her erased from his memories. So he decides, along with the version of Clementine in his memories, to hide her. Charlie Kaufman's script is dazzling, and Michel Gondry's direction even more so, but the real draw here is the ensemble cast, especially the performances of Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet as Joel and Clementine. Carrey was never used better in a dramatic role, his expressive face getting quite the workout as Joel goes back into memories of being a small child. And Winslet's performance is even more mind-blowing when you realize that for most of the movie, she's not actually playing Clementine, but rather Joel's memory of her. It's an incredible film all around, probably the best film since the new millennium. Truly a work of staggering genius.

Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011) Owen Wilson is engaged to Rachel McAdams. The two of them are visiting Paris with her parents on a business trip. He's a writer, and is naturally taken with the historical city. But at midnight, when he's wandering about, he ends up in the 1920s, in the salons of some of the greatest artists of the 20th century. Will he try to stay in the earlier time period as he becomes more and more infatuated with it? I won't spoil that, but I absolutely will spoil some of the rogue's gallery of an ensemble, who are the true reason to see this lovely little film: Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali, Tom Hiddleston and Allison Pill as the Fitzgeralds F. Scott and Zelda, Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway... Allen clearly had a blast writing for these characters, and the actors pay him back with all they've got. Unfortunately, the present day characters are pretty much insufferable. But that's not near enough to take the fizz out of this champagne cocktail of a movie.