Wednesday, August 24, 2016

LIST - Best of the Century(?) Thus Far, the internet did that thing it does at least once a year again the other day, when The BBC published a critics' list of the Top 100 films of the 00s. They say "The 21st Century", I say "the 00s", because they include films from the year 2000 in the list, which is objectively incorrect (the century technically began in 2001), but who am I to argue?

Anyway, it's an interesting list, made more interesting when you look at the individual lists and notice that everyone was only allowed to choose 10 films. 10? Really? That's IT? Which of course begs such questions as, "People really think Movie X is one of the 10 BEST films SINCE 2000?!?"

But of course, these things always even out in the end, and the Top Ten at any rate is pretty unimpeachable (actually, I would only question one), even though you may quibble with the order. And in case you haven't heard, that order is:

1. Mulholland Drive (Lynch, 2001)
2. In The Mood for Love (Wong, 2000)
3. There Will Be Blood (Anderson, 2007)
4. Spirited Away (Hayao, 2001)
5. Boyhood (Linklater, 2014)
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry, 2004)
7. The Tree of Life (Malick, 2011)
8. Yi Yi (Yang, 2000)
9. A Separation (Farhadi, 2011)
10. No Country for Old Men (Coens, 2007)

And of course, I looked at that list, said "Well, there's that. Everything seems to be in order here," and moved on with my day.

Except people wouldn't shut up about it, and I found myself in the position of feeling the need to come up with my own "corrective" Top Ten of the 00s just because everyone else was (jeez, peer pressure is really something, isn't it?). The shocking thing was, it came out rather easily. Almost too easily, actually. So I figured, why not post it on the blog and elaborate a bit? So strap yourselves in, folks! Here are my...


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - The Get Down (Episode 1)

I've been reticent to participate in the TV episodes of Nathaniel's Hit Me With Your Best Shot series. Often, a film's best shot won't become apparent to me until the whole thing is over, when the conclusion has been reached and all the film's themes have come fully into view. But an episode of TV is just one big piece of a whole - the show's most important themes may not fully snap into place until the very last episode, or at the very least the last episode of any particular season. So I always shied away from doing them. Until now, when our benevolent overlord has assigned us the first episode of Netflix's new series The Get Down. Why, you ask? Well, it just so happens the series was co-created by mad Aussie genius Baz Luhrmann (director of Strictly Ballroom, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, Australia, and of course, Moulin Rouge!), and he also directed the first episode. I will follow Luhrmann ANYWHERE, but if he's going to the Bronx in the 1970s to chart the creation of hip hop? DONE AND DONE. TAKE MY MONEY. FEED MY EYEBALLS NOW.

I don't think there's another filmmaker alive today who so gets the full-on rush of adolescence AND the act of creation on the same level as Luhrmann, and I have been dying to see what he would do in a more grounded, less fantastical setting. So I was very eager to watch The Get Down. Even after the very mixed reviews - Luhrmann tends to inspire love-or-hate reactions. But then I actually watched it.

There's no two ways around it: The Get Down is an unholy mess of a thing. BUT - and this is a VERY BIG but - somehow the mess feels right. It's been reported that production on The Get Down started before the creative team really knew exactly what it was, and the first episode especially reflects that. But on the other hand, you can see exactly WHY it was so difficult for them to get a handle on just what it was they were creating. Music - and hip-hop in particular - is so tied to the culture of its creation that you can't just make it about the music. You have to also explore the community in which it was created. And hip hop - as far as I understand it - was basically birthed in 1970s New York, one of the wildest, most sprawling, multi-faceted communities ever. So by necessity, you have to have all these additional elements - cultural, political, economic, religious - because they are embedded in the very fabric of the story you're trying to tell. And given the amount of time you have to tell a story in a TV show, you can actually delve into all those elements.

So The Get Down may be a mess, but it's a necessary mess, and it is BEAUTIFUL within that mess.

But I had the exact problem I had predicted with attempting to choose a Best Shot from the 90-minute pilot episode: Which of the show's myriad elements is going to really take off after this first episode? Is it going to be the young love story between young poet/nascent rapper Ezekiel and daughter of a preacher man/wannabe disco diva Mylene? The political corruption subplot with Jimmy Smitts? The criminal underbelly of the world headed by Lilias White's Fat Annie? The coming-of-age story that connects all the teenagers? Or the magical realism that spreads throughout the pilot but is most apparent during the scenes with hustler/sometime graffiti artist/aspiring DJ Shaolin Fantastic?

I've now watched three episodes of The Get Down, and it's still a bit of a mess, but I think I know where the heart of the series lies, and what makes it special. The Get Down is completely unlike anything else on TV, and what contributes most to that is the show's elements of magical realism. They're spread out throughout each episode, but they're important. Music is what connects most of the main characters (if not all of them), and it mainly serves as an escape from the oppressive nature of their world. Their community is basically a ghetto, with buildings burning down and funding for firefighters disappearing, plus it's summer, when the city gets hot, sweaty, sticky, and cramped - when nature itself is at its most oppressive. Music provides an oasis of cool and calm, and when it appears, the series becomes something new, something different. The feeling of those sequences is unlike anything else I've ever seen, but I couldn't find one shot in the pilot that sums them up. But there is this shot:

It's a little hard to tell in this screengrab, so click and make it bigger. This is the main crew (dubbed The Fantastic Four Plus One by Shaolin Fantastic) walking home late, late at night. Past a burnt-out vacant lot, by the light of various solitary streetlamps. It almost looks like something out of a fantasy, except it's not. This is all too real. But the magical feeling of making music together at an underground DJ session/rap battle infuses the very air with something extra, making the might feel magical, maybe even a little beautiful. Finding something deep in your soul like that, connecting with others when the world outside is unfriendly and harsh and hot, can make even the deadest of dead end streets look like the most beautiful place in the world, and Luhrmann (and DP William Rexer) captures that to perfection in this shot.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Crime Gone Wrong

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 telling us a bit about them!

Well, what a week to forget what day it was last night! "Crime Gone Wrong" is the theme for this week, and my first thought this morning as I logged into my email and sat and stared in shock horror at the day of the week and proceeded to Wanderer's sight to get the theme was "....doesn't that describe MOST crime movies?" I'm sure it doesn't, but having to think quickly before the work day technically starts and I have to jump on a conference call it certainly felt that way! Because where's the drama if the crime doesn't go wrong? AH, but there are OH SO MANY WAYS a crime can go wrong that each film feels so different. Let's start with...

Four Lions (Christopher Morris, 2010) ...incompetency. You wouldn't think it would be possible to make a comedy about terrorism in the post-9/11 world, but leave it to Brit genius Chris Morris to prove you wrong. Four Lions is about a group of British jihadists who probably couldn't find their way out of a paper bag if they had to, let alone carry off a massive-scale bombing. The film is deeply, DEEPLY funny despite being about such a nauseating subject, but doesn't completely shy away from that nauseating aspect either, and therein lies its genius. It also features Riz Ahmed, so if you're really enjoying The Night Of, you definitely owe it to yourself to check this out.

Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992) Well, what doesn't go wrong with this crime? Although it probably all starts with the undercover cop right in the middle of the merry band of pop-culturally savvy robbers. Tarantino's first film features nearly all the stylistic flourishes he would return to and refine over the years: a gleefully anarchic pop soundtrack, chapter divisions, deliriously smart and quotable dialogue, tension-building long takes, and of course, bursts of hard-to-stomach violence. It almost feels like he arrived fully formed as a filmmaker, except we know he only got better and better from here on out.

Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955) Moving on now to that other old chestnut, "the dead body that may not be so dead after all." Christine and Nicole are the wife and mistress, respectively, of the headmaster of a second-rate boarding school. He treats both women awfully, in addition to the children, so the women conspire to murder him. Except when the body doesn't stay where they left it to be found by the police. And what follows is a film so perfectly taut and thrilling that no less a personage than Alfred Hitchcock was jealous of it. So jealous of it, in fact, that he pre-bought the movie rights to the next book by the authors of the book that inspired this movie, before it was even written. Which turned out to be a pretty good thing, because that movie turned out to be his masterpiece: Vertigo.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Writing/Writers of Novels

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join in the fun  - and it IS fun - by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and writing a bit about them!
AH writing. Sometimes the muse is with you. Sometimes it is not. Of course, there is more drama when the muse is NOT with you, so that explains why most of the movies about writers (both fictional and non-fictional, but for the rules of this week we're sticking to the fictional) are about writers dealing with writer's block.

Young Adult (Jason Reitman, 2011) One of the best movies of the '00s, Young Adult follows Mavis Gary, a writer of a once-popular series of young adult novels that is now being cancelled. Living a rather lonely existence in Minneapolis after a bad divorce, she goes back to her home town after receiving an invitation to the naming ceremony of her old high school boyfriend. And... well... things don't go so well. What's so amazing about Diablo Cody's script and Jason Reitman's direction is just how much of that story I just described is told in the background. But when you have Charlize Theron giving an unbelievable performance of one of the trickiest characters seen on screen in ages, you can afford to let the story simmer on the back burner. Theron gives an absolutely tremendous performance as the acidic Mavis, and she brings the best out of scene partner Patton Oswalt as a crippled former high school classmate.

The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, 2010) Perfectly cast and designed, and directed with Polanski's typical chilly precision. Only with this story, chilly precision is EXACTLY what's called for: A ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) is brought in to write the memoirs of a shady politician (Pierce Brosnan). Scandals start to swirl and before long, the ghost writer starts to think he may be marked for death because of what he knows and what he's seen. Perhaps not a brilliant thriller, but a really goddamned great one, with a flat-out brilliant, perfect ending.

Stranger Than Fiction (Marc Forster, 2006) Well, I mean, it's all right there in the trailer, isn't it? Emma Thompson is having a particularly nasty case of writer's block while writing her new novel. AND it turns out, through a metaphysical twist, that the character she's writing - IRS agent Will Ferrell - actually exists in the real world, and what she's writing is having a direct effect on his life. Perhaps a little too clever for its own good, Stranger Than Fiction is still enjoyable thanks to the sly performances of Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman, as a professor of literature whom Ferrell contacts to try to figure out what's going on, an the surprising chemistry between Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal, as a baker he's auditing.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Some Like it Hot

One of the things that it's easy to forget about Billy Wilder's comic masterpiece Some Like It Hot is that it's actually a bit of a gangster movie. In fact, the opening minutes are so good at it that you'd be forgiven for thinking someone mixed up the reels and put on a Warner Bros. picture instead.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Gambling

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. If you don't know the deal by now, join us by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and writing a bit about them! If you do know the deal by now, then why aren't you playing along yet?

This week on Thursday Movie Picks, we're going gambling. True story: I love gambling. When I was at summer camp, there was always one Casino Night per session, and I always killed at craps. In college, friends held a monthly poker night and had we been playing for actual money I would have made a very healthy sum. On my thirtieth birthday, I went to Atlantic City and doubled my money playing Roulette (granted, I didn't put out a whole lot of money, BUT it paid for a really nice dinner, so there's always that)! Like anything else, gambling can be a lot of fun in moderation. If you go to far, well.... let's just say things don't always turn out so well.

21 (Robert Luketic, 2008) One game I'm not very good at is Blackjack. Maybe it's because I never figured out how to count cards, like this team of MIT students did. Yes indeed, this film is based on a true story of college students who beat the casinos at their own game. Pretty impressive! The film is fun, especially whenever Kevin Spacey is onscreen, but mostly forgettable (Jim Sturgess is a nothing, #SorryNotSorry). I remember the basic plot and that I mostly enjoyed watching it, but nothing else.

The Cooler (Wayne Kramer, 2003) William H. Macy is what's known in the Vegas lingo as a "cooler" - a man so unlucky that he turns people's good luck into bad just by standing near them. Turns out, that's because he's a sad-sack lump of a man. But when Maria Bello's cocktail waitress takes an interest in him, his luck starts to turn, and his abilities as a cooler with it. The three central performances (Macy, Bello, and Alec Baldwin, Oscar-nominated for his role as the casino boss Macy works for) really make the film (which is not nearly as much of a comedy as this trailer suggests).

Croupier (Mike Hodges, 1998) Clive Owen is the hotness, and that's all I will say about this excellent film, which has a plot so twisty and weird that it deserves to be seen as unspoiled as possible.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - World War I

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. If you don't know the deal by now, welcome! And why if you do, then come on in and join us! The water's fine!

Busybusybusy this week.

Let's do this quick and dirty style.

All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930) Still one of the greatest Oscar Best Picture winners, over 80 years later.

Sergeant York (Howard Hawks, 1941) The beginning of my love affair with Gary Cooper.

A Very Long Engagement (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2004) Audrey Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel, Jodie Foster (speaking French), a very young Marion Cotillard, and Oscar-nominated cinematography. What more could you ask for?