Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Origin Movies

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

HAPPY THANKSGIVING, EVERYONE! My favorite holiday is here once again. A time where we have to focus on nothing but the good things in life: namely food and all the things we're thankful for. And dear reader, I have to say, I'm thankful for you. Yes, YOU. Whoever you are that's reading this. Because there's something unsatisfying and slightly sad about writing a blog post that no one reads. So thank you for taking the plunge and reading these posts. I know I don't post as often as I probably should (follow me on Letterboxd for more frequent, albeit short, movie reviews), but I do want to post more often. It's just that life doesn't always allow for it. And every time I think I'm turning a corner and will be able to devote more time to this here little blog, something else pops up. But it's okay! Because when I can, I post, and when I post, we can have a conversation in the comments - and that's REALLY why I do this. To have conversations with people about movies. Movies we love, movies we hate, and movies we're mixed on.

This week on Thursday Movie Picks, we're talking Origin Movies. Which I guess just has the "superhero" implied, as I can't think of anything else that might have an origin movie. I welcome others to challenge that notion with their picks.

Frankly, the recent spate of "origin stories" has been mind-numbing to me. They're pretty much all the same, and of generally similar (low) quality. But that could just be my annoyance with superhero movies rearing its ugly head. There are just too many of them nowadays, and none of them have left me completely satisfied. That said, I do generally like these particular films more than I dislike them.

X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn, 2011) I make no bones about the fact that I much prefer the X-Men movies to any of the other Marvel movies, but that's because I have memories of the Saturday morning cartoons, and because there is a HUMONGOUS cast of characters. Yes, it sucks that according to the movies the only ones worth a damn are Professor X, Magneto, and Wolverine, but the constant team dynamic is always engaging - don't like the main character in this scene? Don't worry, your favorite will have a big moment in 5, 4, 3, 2... And these characters are just more fun to watch than the (surprisingly) sullen Avengers. Plus, this particular movie takes place in the swinging '60s, and makes fantastic use of that in moments. Plus, there has never been a better superhero pair than James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Professor Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, here seen when they meet and take on a crew of youngsters who have mutant "powers". First Class is surprisingly fun, even for a series that always was fun, but more importantly handles Big Issues with the importance they deserve while still keeping a light touch. As a bonus, it features the greatest use of the one PG-13 F-word EVER.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011) There was NO reason to ever expect that this was ever going to be anything but crap - was anyone clamoring for a prequel to the Charlton Heston classic Planet of the Apes? Much less one starring James Franco? But whoever was behind this did two things right: They gave the story an undeniable, emotional storyline (a baby chimp is given a potential Alzheimer's cure that increases his brain function, by a well-meaning scientist whose father is suffering from the disease), and they hired Andy Serkis to play that chimp, named Caesar, and digital effects house WETA to bring Caesar to life. Serkis works wonders in the role, and while skeptics and naysayers may discount his performance as all digital trickery, there's no denying that the film's most powerful moment - Caesar finding his voice - is all him. This is one of the most thoughtful, well-constructed blockbusters of the '00s.

Monsters University (Dan Scanlon, 2013) No, this one isn't really great. The story is rote (jock and nerd are roommates, compete against each other and then together for a common goal), and a lot of the jokes are surprisingly stale. But this is a world you just want to savor, with something new and creative lurking in every corner of the frame. You really get the feeling watching this that the Pixar animators were just given carte blanche to do whatever they wanted, and they played around with EVERYTHING. Character design, set dressing, sound design... there is a sense of unbridled creativity coursing through every frame of Monsters University. Which makes it even more of a pity that the story itself is so been-there-done-that.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Strong Female Characters

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

What a topic! And since it was planned a year (or so) ago, there was no telling then just how timely it would be, so kudos to Wanderer for her foresight! But it begs the question: What IS a "strong female character"? Is it a well-rounded, real-feeling character, as opposed to a one-dimensional caricature or one-note "supportive" wife/mother/girlfriend - someone who has their own agency and makes their own decisions? Or is it more literal, a female character who displays strength of character, whether mental or physical? For me, it's the former moreso than the latter. And since we are in such a timely place with this topic, I've decided to go full-on current. Thursday Movie Picks: 2017 Edition.

Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd, 2017) Florence Pugh gives a magnificent, star-is-born performance as the title character in this austere tale of a woman scorned. Katherine is married off to an unfeeling, uncaring husband who would rather jerk off looking at her backside against a wall than make love to her, and insists that she stay indoors despite her love of the moors. But though she was bought/sold like property, Katherine is a person with needs and desires, and one day she ventures out and happens upon the farmhands abusing her maid Anna. She feels an instant attraction to the newest farmhand, Sebastian, and before you know it, the two of them are having a full-blown affair. I won't give away any of what happens after that, but suffice it to say this gives Katherine a form of strength and autonomy that makes her resent her lot in life even more, and takes steps to live a life of her own making. The film grapples with what it means to be strong woman, and asks an interesting question: At what point in asserting oneself does a person become a danger to those around them? It's the tensest movie of the year, keeping me on the edge of my seat for the entire back half - and occasionally eliciting laughter that it then made me regret not so much as a minute later. Lady Macbeth is brilliant.

Atomic Blonde (David Leitch, 2017) A strong woman in every sense of the word, Lorraine Broughton is the best spy MI-6 has to offer. And her latest assignment in Berlin just before the fall of the wall will put her to the test. Charlize Theron literally kicks ALL THE ASS in the biggest and best shoulda-been blockbuster of the year. The moment New Order's "Blue Monday" kicked in on the soundtrack in the opening scene, I was sold. Atomic Blonde is smart, stylish, and super sexy... a total blast that I can't wait to watch again. Read more in my full review here.

Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017) If we had to wait this long for a Wonder Woman movie just to get Gal Gadot as the lead, then the wait was well worth it - Gadot is a PERFECT Wonder Woman, and she's perfectly matched with Chris Pine as the male romantic lead. And the film gains so much from its World War I setting (that no man's land scene is undeniably, impossibly righteous). So it's a shame about the last act, when it becomes an utterly average, disappointingly standard superhero movie. While I admire that the film ends up making the Big Bad (SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT) a pragmatic politician, I don't think that decision ultimately works as well as it could have. But none of that matters so much in the face of the woman at this movie's center. Diana "Prince" is a strong woman, no doubt about it, but it isn't until she's able to embrace potential weakness (in both herself and others) that she becomes her best self. And that's kind of beautiful.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Adaptations You'd Most Like To See

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

This week on Thursday Movie Picks, we're talking about adaptations we'd most like to see. I decided to stick with novels for the time being, because if I expanded to plays and musicals, we'd be here for WEEKS. To be honest, there aren't many pre-existing properties that I'm dying to see film adaptations of, mostly because the ones I do seem to inevitably get film versions. Just like...

Ready Player One (novel, Ernest Cline) Despite the slightly dodgy looking trailer, I CAN. NOT. WAIT. for this. The Dungeons & Dragons-meets-Willy Wonka by way of The Matrix storyline is a near-perfect fit for director Steven Spielberg, and Cline's world is so thrilling that when I finished the last page of this, I immediately turned it over and started again.

The Thursday Next Series (novels, Jasper Fforde) Almost too literary to ever be attempted as a film series, Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair follows intrepid Literary Detective Thursday Next into the pages of Jane Eyre (quite literally) to find Jane herself, who has been (quite literally) stolen from the pages of her own novel. Deliriously dizzy with love of the written word and full of boundless imagination, there are so many clever, fun touches in these books that would be pure joy to see on the screen. And the twist to classic novels would be a delight as well.

House of Leaves (novel, Mark Z. Danielewski) Nearly impossible to describe, this Russian nesting doll of a novel involves at least three narratives running both concurrently and on completely separate timelines. The bulk of it - and the part I would most kill to see filmed - is a scholarly dissertation on a possibly non-existent documentary by Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Will Navidson, that documents what happens after Navidson moves his family into a beautiful new house in Virginia only to one day find an extra door that leads to hallway where previously there was none, and subsequently discovers that the house measures one-quarter of an inch longer on the inside than it does on the outside. While the novel as a whole is decidedly unfilmable, going off on tangents within tangents (and footnotes within footnotes) and adopting many techniques to make the reading of the book itself feel more cinematic, I would LOVE to see some intrepid filmmaker attempt to film "The Navidson Record" as described in the text, especially if they could effectively build it up as a Blair Witch Project-style "this really happened" narrative... which I admit is practically impossible.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - A Stranger

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.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled Thursday programming.

October was a crazy month for me. I'm glad it's all over and that my life and schedule is back to normal. I look forward to talking more movies with everybody!

SO. To the matter at hand! Strangers can be mysterious or friendly, but generally speaking, in movies they're bad news. Whether as harbingers of things to come or an interloper who completely upends everything around them, you pretty much don't want to run into anyone unknown if you're in a movie.

Teorema (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968) Terence Stamp is the living embodiment of desire as a character known only as "The Visitor", who comes to a bourgeois Italian household and disrupts their lives. Mostly by having sex with them, and then leaving. But even that description doesn't really do a good job of describing this movie, which is much stranger and more alienating than it sounds. It's a completely singular experience.

10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg, 2016) A young woman has broken up with her fiancée on the eve of a massive, near-extinction-level event. While driving away, she gets into a car accident, and when she wakes up, she finds herself chained up in an underground bunker. The man who has chained her up, Howard, insists that he's saved her from whatever happened outside, but she's not so sure. Who's the real bad guy here? Why can't we all just get along? Billed as a "spiritual sequel" to the "found footage" monster flick Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane starts out as a great littler thriller/character study, but the last act throws that all out the window in favor of positioning itself as the second film in a franchise. It ALMOST completely ruins the movie, but thanks to the terrific performances of Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman, this is still plenty of fun. BUT SERIOUSLY, if you didn't see that ending coming from the second you saw the trailer for this, I don't even know what to do with you.

Cléo de 5 à 7 (Agnes Varda, 1962) Pop singer Cléo has had a cancer scare, and is waiting for the results of a test to tell her whether or not she has it. That's it. That's the whole movie. But, oh, what a movie Agnes Varda spins from such a simple premise! It's a beautiful, lyrical piece on how to appreciate every little thing around you. But why do I include it here, you may ask? Well, that would be because Cléo isn't truly able to process her feelings about her pending diagnosis until she meets a stranger, a soldier on leave from the Algerian War. It is only in meeting this man that she is able to appreciate life for what it truly is. Sometimes, a stranger comes along right when we need them - an impartial observer who can force us to see ourselves from a different, life-changing perspective.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Television Edition: Horror

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!

Halloween is drawing ever closer, and it's FINALLY starting to feel like Autumn here in NYC. Autumn is my favorite season, so this makes me sigh a great sigh of relief. Summer weather has just lasted WAY too long this year. There's now a slight breeze and chill in the air that I just love. It also means that every TV show is now trying to be a little bit spooky. Which is fine by me. Horror is easier to take in smaller doses, so I generally like horror TV shows a bit more than I do horror movies. The three below are two of my all-time favorites and one show that, frankly, should be so much better than it is, but is often still pretty good anyway.

The X-Files (1993-2002) It's true, classifying The X-Files as horror does it a bit of a disservice. After all, in its heyday, it could be just about anything from week to week. But there was usually an element of the scary, or at the very least the creepy, and the creepy-crawlies made multiple appearances. The basic premise is simple: Two FBI agents comprise in the bureau's "weird cases" division, one of whom is a true believer in aliens and the supernatural and one of whom is a scientist who is naturally skeptical of such things. But creator Chris Carter did so much more with it than that, creating a longer-term story arc deemed "the mythology" that had more influence on the state of TV programs today than most will admit. It's taken for granted now that the best episodes of the show were the "monster of the week"-style episodes, and the episodes focused on the "mythology" arc were lesser, but at the time, this was ALL truly thrilling stuff. On a personal level, The X-Files was basically my introduction to the horror genre. It was my mom's favorite show (next to ER), and when my sister and I reached the age when we were allowed to stay up late on Sundays to watch it, we were excited - we finally felt like grown-ups!
Favorite Episodes: "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man", "The Post-Modern Prometheus", "Triangle", "How The Ghosts Stole Christmas"

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) Yet another show that it feels like a disservice to reduce to being a "horror" show, as well as another show that had more influence on today's TV shows than most are willing to admit, Buffy was basically my favorite show in high school. The story of a teenager who is the latest in a long line of Vampire Slayers - "chosen" ones who have been called by fate to fight the undead (and other monsters), her friends (and a frenemy or two), and her "Watcher" (her high school librarian, natch)... and the hunky vampire with a soul Angel. Creator Joss Whedon's stroke of brilliance to have Sunnydale High School literally sitting on top of a Hell Mouth (exactly what it sounds like) and use the demons as metaphors for the vagaries of teenage life is what allows the show to endure, but the show's whip-smart, ultra-quotable dialogue is what made it a huge hit among the teens of the '90s.
Favorite Episodes: "Doppelgangland", "Hush", "Restless", "The Body", "Once More With Feeling"

American Horror Story (2011-Present) Ryan Murphy's grand guignol anthology series is SO hit-or-miss, but at its best (unquestionably the second season, Asylum), it has a truly terrifying anything-could-happen brazenness that makes it required viewing. Given that each season is its own complete story, you an skip the seasons that don't seem like your thing. In addition to the aforementioned Asylum (in which Sarah Paulson's lesbian journalist commits herself to Jessica Lange's Catholic nun-run asylum for a career-making scoop), the best seasons are the first (Murder House, in which Dylan McDermott's psychiatrist and his wife Connie Britton move to the titular house in LA after a bout of infidelity on his part, only to find out it's haunted - by busybody next-door neighbor Jessica Lange as well as by ghosts both friendly and malevolent), and probably the absolutely demented sixth season, Roanoke (a "true crime"-style show within the show about a couple who move to a renovated home in the backwoods of North Carolina, supposedly on the spot where the infamous Roanoke Colony moved after its sudden disappearance). The third season, Coven, is wildly uneven and terribly scripted despite some entertaining performances; the fourth, Freak Show, is a wasted opportunity; and the fifth, Hotel is a gorgeous slog. American Horror Story is not a show that very much cares for silly things like logic and consistency, but in its best moments, that doesn't matter.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Halloween Edition: Body Horror

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Come play with us! All you have to do is pick three movies that fit the week's theme and write a bit about them.

Yes, it's true! At long last I have returned to the land of the living, having finally recovered from the big apartment move. I was so exhausted the past couple of weeks that I don't know how i managed to stay awake most days, but I'm finally all moved in and unpacked in my new place (save for some books that need a place to go - I have so much more space I don't know what to do with it!), and it feels GREAT! I love my new apartment something fierce and I'm so glad to be getting back to "regular life" stuff like my blog.

And speaking of moving into a new place and taking up residence there: BODY HORROR. This week's Thursday Movie Picks theme. I'll be honest. Body horror isn't really my thing. I don't do well with creepy crawlies and gore. That being said, there are some movies that I LOVE that do kinda fall into this horror subgenre. Bear with me, as you consider....

Under The Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2014) If you've seen this, you know exactly why it's here. If not, you may be confused as to how a movie about an alien with Scarlett Johansson's body seducing men for unknown nefarious purposes fits into body horror. Well, except for one scene, it's mostly subtext. What plot there is in Under The Skin concerns itself with, more than anything, this alien creature coming to grips with her outer shell of a body and what it means to be human. But this is NOT a movie that is very concerned with such silly things as "plot" - Glazer is more concerned with images and what they can do, how they can tell a story with only the barest bones of dialogue. Make no mistake: This is a slow burn of a slow burn movie, but it is so utterly hypnotizing that it remains one of my favorite theater-going experiences. If the gorgeous, frame-worthy images don't draw you in, then Mica Levi's haunting experimental score will. Under the Skin, especially that score, burrowed its way deep into my subconscious on first viewing, and has yet to make its way out. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Teeth (Mitchell Lichtenstein, 2007) You know all those stories about how mothers find superhuman strength when their babies are in danger? Well, what if a teenage Christian abstinence group spokesperson did something similar when a man tried to get near her lady parts? Well, that's what happens to Dawn (a star-making performance from Jess Weixler) - after a friend tries to rape her, her vagina sprouts teeth and... well... you can guess what happens from there. This black-as-pitch comedy follows Dawn's journey to owning her womanhood in a new, exciting way. It's kinda gross, kinda scary, and pretty damn funny - a true underseen gem.

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010) If you don't think this falls under body horror, then you've never been a dancer. By now, I'm sure you know the plot: Technically proficient but emotionally stunted dancer Nina (Natalie Portman in an Oscar-winning performance) wins the coveted lead role in her ballet company's production of Swan Lake. She perfectly embodies the virginal white swan, but has trouble with the more aggressive, sexual black swan, and her anxiety manifests in increasingly baroque, scary ways, especially after free-spirited company member Lily (Mila Kunis, perfectly cast) is made her alternate. A psychosexual thriller set in the ballet world starring Natalie Portman and directed by Darren Aronofsky... and with Barbara Hershey as Nina's terrifying stage mother? Yes, this movie was clearly made in a lab just for me, and this is one of very few movies that surpassed my impossible-to-keep-down expectations. The entire thing is ingeniously shot, edited, and scored, with tremendous performances from everyone. Yes, my friends, Black Swan is, in a word, "perfect."

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Television Edition: Family

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

Well, it's that time of year again, the High Holidays, busy times spent with family celebrating and eating and singing and eating and fasting and eating... and on top of that, I'M MOVING! So to say I've been busy as all hell this past month would be an understatement.

All of which is to say, this will be a bit of a double week here, because last week, I would have picked the following Just Not Funny Comedies:

Old School (Todd Phillips, 2003)

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Adam McKay, 2004)

Step Brothers (Adam McKay, 2008)

Sorry, guys. I could barely do Will Ferrell on SNL.

And now that that's out of the way and I feel all caught up, let's get to the task at hand: TV Families. I'm going back in time a bit for my first pick, but if you haven't seen any of this classic sitcom, you owe it to yourself to watch. As for the others, if you're not watching... why the heck not?

All in the Family (1971-1979) The Bunkers are the most well-drawn sitcom family in TV history. everyone can see themselves and their family members in them, which is one of the reasons why the show was able to tackle so many social issues so effectively. Personally, my grandparents are practically dead ringers for Archie and Edith - he a loud-mouthed casual bigot of the working class, she a doting, slightly dotty near-martyr who just wants everyone to be happy. Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton brilliantly make both characters so much more than stereotypes, and Sally Struthers and Rob Reiner match them perfectly as their modern daughter and her "meathead" of a husband. Nearly every episode is a perfect one-act play, but none is better, or more famous, than the one where Sammy Davis, Jr. drops in and plants one on Archie.

Jane the Virgin (2014-Present) The Villanueva women are my favorite current TV family, for how grounded they are despite all the crazy going on around them. What crazy, you ask? Well, for starters, young Jane - the virgin of the title - gets accidentally artificially inseminated with her doctor's brother's sperm, and decides to have the baby. And things only get more telenovelistic from there, with ruthless crime lords, mistaken identities, secret twins, forced comas, love triangles, baby snatching, fantasy sequences, and marriages both fake and real becoming plot points. But through it all, Jane, her mother Xiomara, and abuela Alba (and her biological father, telenovela superstar and perfect comic creation Rogelio de la Vega) are always there for each other, to provide support and remind of what is truly important in life. Jane the Virgin balances wildly divergent tones better than any show currently on the air, with wacky comedy, soapy plot developments, and heartfelt tear-jerking all living side by side in perfect harmony. Gina Rodriguez is absolutely luminous as Jane, and deservedly won the Golden Globe for her performance in the first season, giving a beautifully memorable speech in the process.

One Day at a Time (2017-Present) I just started watching this VERY loose remake of the classic Norman Lear sitcom on Netflix, and totally fell in love with the Alvarez family. Nurse and Army vet Penelope is newly divorced and raising her two teenage children with her very Catholic Cuban mother (Rita Moreno, proving that Betty White isn't the only octogenarian legend who's still got it) while dealing with a little bit of PTSD (and other timely issues). While the situation only bears the slightest resemblance to the show on which it's based, the scripts all feel like they are from that era of socially-conscious Norman Lear megahits (like All in the Family), equal parts humor and heart.

BONUS

My other favorite TV family, but I couldn't pick the show because it was really just a recurring sketch on the Carol Burnett Show (yes, there was Mama's Family, but that was NOT the same).

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Financial World


Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. You can participate too - just pick three movies that fit the week's theme and write a bit about them!

Drive by, quick-and-dirty style this week.

Something tells me the financial sector would approve.

Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, 1964) Don't let the magical nanny and Dick Van Dyke's broader than broad cockney accent fool you. This movie is really about one banker's slow realization that there are more important things than money and business. Watch it again and tell me I'm wrong.

American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000) One of the decade's defining movies, so of course it's a psychological thriller about the '80s starring Christian Bale and directed by a woman who puts most men to shame for how far she's willing to go and for sheer filmmaking prowess.

The Big Short (Adam McKay, 2015) Zippy, quippy, star-studded jaunt through the 2008 financial meltdown that is probably more fun than it has any right to be. But afterwards, I remember the flashy sequences for their flashiness more than the information they were actually trying to impart.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Television Edition: High School

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 about them!

I'm off to my annual retreat in the woods this evening, so here's a quick run-down of three of my favorite high school TV shows. If you've ever thought "jeez, all high school shows seem the same!" well, then, you're kinda right. These shows couldn't be more different, but you just might see a formula somewhere...


Sabrina The Teenage Witch (1996-2003) What if you woke up on your sixteenth birthday to learn that you were the descendant of a long line of (good) witches, and that you were a witch yourself? This is what happens to Sabrina Spellman (the great Melissa Joan Hart), and as if high school weren't hard enough, now she has to learn lessons from her aunts Hilda and Zelda, as well as their familiar, Salem (a witch cursed into the body of a talking black cat for trying to take over the world). Caroline Rhea and Beth Broderick are sitcom perfection as the doting, adoring aunts, Nick Bakay makes Salem a maniacal delight, and Hart proves that her performance on Clarissa Explains It All wasn't a fluke, making Sabrina one of the most relatable teenage characters ever, despite her highly unrelatable situation. Due to Hart's popularity and the fun, satisfying quality of the show's humor and heart, it was the top-rated show of ABC's "TGIF" lineup for all of its four years on the network. After that it moved to The WB, also the home of...

Popular (1999-2001) What if you woke up one morning to find out that your mom/dad met and fell in love with the dad/mom of someone in a clique on the opposite side of the social spectrum from you? That's what happens to Brooke McQueen (Leslie Bibb) and Sam McPherson (Carly Pope), and as if weren't hard enough being a teenager, now each of they have to become sisters in a high school created by Ryan Murphy. Yes, this is the Crown Prince of Television's first series, and the template of all Ryan Murphy shows begins here: Great pilot, diverse casting, living on the cutting edge of social issues like obesity and homosexuality, a dash of surrealism... and the unfortunate tendency to go off the rails after a solid set-up. While Bibb and Pope hold the show together admirably as the leads, it's the supporting characters who really stand out, in this case the villainous Nicole Julian (the delicious Tammy Lynn Michaels) and her second-in-command, Mary Cherry (Leslie Grossman), one of the most original, flat-out hilarious TV characters ever created. To even describe what happens in one episode of Popular would be nearly impossible, given how many ingredients Murphy and co-creator Gina Matthews throw into it, but it's always entertaining, and very unique.

Veronica Mars (2004-2007) What if your popular best friend was violently murdered and your father, the town Sherriff, was crucified for going after one of the town's favorite sons, causing you to lose your social standing and your perfect boyfriend? Such is the tale of Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell), junior detective for hire. And as if it weren't hard enough being a teenager, she has to balance school with work (her Dad's PI office), side jobs from her classmates, and solving her best friend's murder. Wise beyond her years, the once-popular Veronica is now a calloused, cynical version of her former self, struggling mightily to keep herself and her dad (the great Enrico Colantoni) afloat in a city that would rather they both just die. Bell gives one of the best performances of a teenager on TV, delivering creator Rob Marshall's quips with a keen ear for hard-boiled private dick dialogue but never ever losing Veronica's heart, and the relationship between her and Colantoni is one of the most sharply-drawn father-daughter relationships I've had the pleasure to witness. All that, and the mysteries - both episodic and season-long - are involving and just twisty enough to keep you guessing until the last moment. It's one of my all-time favorite TV programs, and now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go watch it all the way through again, for the third time.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - The Stage

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join us, leave your field to flower - just pick three movies that fit the week's theme and write a bit about them!

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts
  -William Shakespeare, As You Like It, II.vii

It's true, and in my time I have played many parts. Ever since I was an infant, I loved putting on a show for people. I would climb up on top of chairs or stools and perform, even before I could speak intelligibly, if my mother is to be believed. I didn't REALLY get into theater until middle school, right around the time I first saw Singin' in the Rain and told my Mom that I wanted to be Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor, prompting her to sign me up for tap dancing lessons. Suddenly, I was a triple threat - good singer, good dancer, good actor - and got cast in shows I auditioned for outside of school plays. My love affair with the stage continues to this day, even though my last stage performance (playing Professor Bhaer in the musical version of Little Women, and making my mother cry) was in February of 2014. Living in NYC means an abundance of professional theater but a scarcity of truly amateur opportunities - everyone's trying to make it here - so I haven't tried. But once you're bitten by the bug, the itch to perform on stage in front of an audience never really goes away, and I'll be back performing soon. Just you wait.

These are three of my favorite movies about life on the stage (minus Shakespeare in Love, which I've picked for these things WAY too many times, and Birdman, which I expect will be picked a lot today).

 
To Be Or Not To Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942/Alan Johnson, 1983) Pick your flavor, the elegant Lubitsch touch or the Brooks-ian Borscht Belt. To my mind, they're both great. The story in both versions is the same: A husband and wife team are stars of the Warsaw theater scene of 1939 (Jack Benny/Mel Brooks and Carole Lombard/Anne Bancroft). Every night while the husband is performing Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be..." speech, a young Lieutenant pilot (Robert Stack/Tim Matheson) leaves the audience... to go backstage to romance the wife! She keeps seeing him because she likes the attention, but has no intention of actually leaving her husband. Eventually, the Nazis invade and our intrepid young Lieutenant becomes aware of a spy in the ranks. Mistaken identities, cross purposes, and lots and LOTS of hilarious scenes ensue as the theater troupe works together to fight the Nazis in whatever way they can. The plot is WAY too complicated to attempt to explain here, but in both versions it provides for ample comedy of all kinds, and tremendous performances from the stars. Since each version is essentially the same story tailored to the talents of its stars, they're just different enough to be good in their own way. I honestly can't choose which one I prefer. All I can say is they're both hilarious and worth a watch, especially in the current moment.

The Last Metro (Francois Truffaut, 1980) During the Nazi occupation of Paris, a Gentile actress (Catherine Deneuve) struggles to keep her Jewish husband (Heinz Bennent) hidden in the theater's basement, while both acting and directing (for him) a new play. Gerard Depardieu plays the leading actor in the play, who is also a member of the resistance. The title refers to the last train of the evening, which all Parisians had to catch because of a Nazi curfew. Like many of Truffaut's films, there's a lot here that's a bit dull, but the moments when it comes alive are truly thrilling, and the combined star power of French Cinema Gods Deneuve and Depardieu is just amazing to watch. As with all of Truffaut's best films, this feels personal, and it was: Both his father and uncle were members of the French resistance, and were once caught passing messages (a scene he recreated in this film - one of its best sequences).

Being Julia (Istvan Szabo, 2004) Julia Lambert is the greatest stage actress of her day. But being a woman of a certain age, she is starting to be pushed out for younger, prettier actresses. An affair with a  young American reinvigorates her lust for life, but when she realizes he is using her to advance his career and social standing AND ALSO sleeping with a rival ingenue, Julia begins to plot her revenge. Annette Bening is delicious as Julia, tearing into the juicy part with the energy of a hungry lioness, and she receives great support from Jeremy Irons, Michael Gambon, Juliet Stevenson, and especially Lucy Punch as her rival. I could watch the scene where Julia hijacks the play to get revenge on Avice on a loop forever and be perfectly satisfied.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Against the Crowd Blogathon 2017


Yes, it is time once again for Dell on Movies and KG's Movie Rants's Annual Against the Crowd Blogathon! And I have to say, while I adore this blogathon, it gets harder and harder to do every year, because I generally don't see movies that get bad reviews - life is too short and funds are too scarce to waste on bad movies, y'all.

BUT! I persevere. I do it for you, dear reader. And, I mean, I also do it for me, because I like writing these, but...

This seems to have gotten away from me. ANYWAY. To the business at hand!

In case you somehow don't know what this blogathon is, go here, or read on. The basic idea is to rip apart a movie that "everyone" loves (75% or better on Rotten Tomatoes), and defend a movie that "everyone" hates (35% or worse on Rotten Tomatoes). So here I go, ready to tear to shreds...

TREY EDWARD SHULTS'S IT COMES AT NIGHT


For what it's worth, I didn't hate this completely. For the first three-quarters, it's a masterpiece of escalating tension. We watch a family of three in a post-apocalyptic world euthanize the grandfather of the family unit (surmising that he has succumbed to whatever disease infected most of the world), go about their daily lives trying to just make it to the next day alive, and then deal with a younger man foraging for food and shelter for his wife and young son. They decide to grant this new family shelter, and for a while they get along just fine. But then, the movie so epically shits the bed that I ended up wondering what the whole point was, other than "People Are Awful". It moves from a tension-filled dark fable to an exercise in miserablism in the stroke of a single plot point, and even reading interviews where Shults said he came up with the story after the death of a close family member didn't do anything to make me see the movie in a different light. Why choose to tell THIS story in this way? It doesn't make sense. And neither do the great reviews.

And also, if you call your film It Comes At Night, maybe, I don't know... SOMETHING SHOULD FUCKING COME AT FUCKING NIGHT.

But anyway, if that offended you, prepare yourself, because I'm about to defend...

MORTEN TYLDUM'S PASSENGERS


For what it's worth, I don't think this is some unheralded masterpiece of cinema or anything. I just think it got a lot more flack than it deserved. A lot of people took issue with the fact that movie centers around Chris Pratt's decision to wake up Jennifer Lawrence against her will (because he somehow falls in love with her just by looking at her and reading about her), and then lies to her about it for a long while. But the thing is, he doesn't make that decision lightly, and the movie gives great weight to his decision - and never lets him off the hook for it, either.

Once you're able to put that aside (and I really don't think it takes very much to do so), Passengers is a slick slice of classic Hollywood sci-fi escapism. It's beautiful to look at and listen to, and requires almost no work from your brain. It may not be a GREAT movie, or even a really good one. But it's pretty far from what I would call terrible. The expensive-looking production design and visual effects and combined charisma of Lawrence and Pratt elevate it from merely passable to good. I enjoyed it a whole lot more than I ever thought I was going to based on the reviews, from critics and movie fans alike.

And there you have it! I'm not swimming too hard against the crowd here (I rate both of them 2.5-3 stars out of five), but what can I say? Recently, I've pretty much been with the consensus. These were the two most notable exceptions I could think of.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Rescue

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

This week on Thursday Movie Picks, we're off on a mission to rescue these three movies from obscurity! Or maybe not, since most of them have a pretty decent following, but I couldn't resist that opening.


The Rescuers (Wolfgang Reitherman, 1977) Not exactly a high point in Disney animation, but one of my favorites all the same, because of fond childhood memories and a sterling voice cast including Eva Gabor and Bob Newhart as a pair of intrepid mice on a mission to rescue a young girl from the clutches of Geraldine Page's Madame Medusa, who needs the young girl to retrieve the Devil's Eye, the world's largest diamond. It's standard, silly Disney stuff, but the voice performances really do make it.

The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984) A soldier is sent back in time to save the mother of the man leading him in the resistance against machines, after an invincible cyborg assassin was sent back in time to kill her. I know it sounds ridiculous, but in the hands of action wizard James Cameron and stars Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, and of course Arnold Schwarzenegger, it's a breathless rollercoaster ride of a movie, as relentless as its title character.

Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012) The true story of a CIA rescue mission to save six Americans caught in the middle of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. How'd they do it? By saying they were filming a sci-fi film and disguising the escapees as the crew. A fine winner of the Best Picture Oscar, Affleck's film is entertaining throughout, but the best part is the escape from the country - even though I knew the ending to the story (because, you know, history), I was on the edge of my seat (which was in the front row of a sold out theater, which I never do because I HATE IT, but it was worth it to see this opening night) the whole time. Truly suspenseful, thrilling stuff, anchored by such a terrific cast of character actors that it doesn't much matter that Affleck is a bit of a dud in the central role of the agent leading the rescue mission.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Summer Blockbusters

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

Let's face it: Summer blockbusters are now just mostly recycled crap, franchise films that are at best enjoyable but almost never exciting. In the 1990s, though, they were something else entirely - visual effects-driven dramas with surprising casts that were more often than not completely original stories. There was no need to create a "cinematic universe" or set up a potential sequel, because the movie itself was enough, and next year audiences would move on to the next thing.

To my mind, these three movies are the Holy Trinity of Summer Blockbusterse: well-made, entertaining films that actually engage you in their fantastical situations with grounded characters.

Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996) You simply could not escape this movie when it came out on July 4, 1996 - or for that entire year, really. This is the movie that blew up the white House, killed an alien horde with a computer virus, and made Will Smith the King of Summer Movies. the special effects are fantastic, but the thing most people remember this movie for (other than Will Smith, that is) is President Bill Pullman's climactic speech to the troops. Has there been a summer blockbuster recently where the writing has been this memorable?

Twister (Jan de Bont, 1996) Released a mere month and a half before ID4, Twister isn't as fondly remembered today, but if you ask me it's the better movie. Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton are ideal leads as a pair of exes and rival storm chasers, and the title storms are still awe-inspiring, as they should be. Again, this is a popcorn movie where SCIENCE is placed on a pedestal. But it still has enough of a sense of humor to send a few cows flying towards the screen.

Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998) Easily the worst of these three, Armageddon is still a great time, mostly because of the absolutely absurd premise, wherein Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck lead a team of oil drillers into space to break up a massive asteroid hurtling towards Earth. It's ridiculous, but it has its moments. No one who's seen it has been able to look at animal crackers the same way since, I guarantee that. Also includes Aerosmith's "I Don't Wanna Miss A Thing", one of the greatest movie songs ever.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Crime Family

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Come join our lovely little TMP family by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and telling everyone a bit about them!

So, I know there's one crime family that rules them all, but.... I haven't seen those movies. I KNOW I KNOW BAD DANIEL! But, I mean... there ARE other cinematic crime families, right?

...right?

Let's find out!

Animal Kingdom (David Michôd, 2010) J's mother just died from a drug overdose. So he calls the only family he has left, his aunt Janine. In staying with her and her brood of boys, he comes to learn there was a reason for his mother's estrangement from them: They're criminals, and Janine is the Don. Jacki Weaver got a WELL-deserved Oscar nomination for her sublimely pitched performance, but the entire cast (which includes Sullivan Stapleton, Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, and Guy Pearce) is fantastic. Director Michôd takes the tension up past the breaking point nearly the whole way through, making for one intense, thrilling movie. Recently adapted into a TV show with Ellen Barkin as Janine.

Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, 2007) Anna, a British-Russian nurse delivers a baby from a 14 year-old girl who then dies, leaving behind only a diary written in Russian. Through translating the diary, Anna comes to learn that the young woman was part of a sex-trafficking ring organized by a Russian mafia family. Unfortunately for her, said Russian mafia family knows that she knows, and is now threatening her life in the form of Nikolai (smokin' hot and Oscar-nominated Viggo Mortensen), the family's "cleaner" and pseudo-babysitter for the don's unstable son. Cronenberg takes to the mafia genre shockingly well, orchestrating some terrifically tense stand-offs between characters and winding a slightly sprawling story tight around his finger.

Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990) Based on the real-life story of Henry Hill, Martin Scorsese's magnum opus tracks Hill's life from his youth under the wing of local mafia don Paulie Cicero to his cocaine-fueled descent to the witness protection program three decades later. There's not a single false note in the whole thing, not one bad beat or wonky line reading. Every single scene sings. It's a classic - and one of my All-Time Favorites - for good reason.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Review - Atomic Blonde


Lorraine Broughton is in pain. A man she was close with was killed, so that explains the inner pain, but we don't know how she got all those cuts and bruises. We'll find out soon enough, though, that she got them in quite fantastic fashion.

So begins Atomic Blonde, the most ass-kinkingest movie of the year. Charlize Theron stars as the top secret agent in MI6, a modern feminist James Bond with a killer bod and a particular set of skills. After a colleague (and probable lover, the film never makes it clear and is better for it) is shot while retrieving a MacGuffin in Berlin, Lorraine was shipped in to find the MacGuffin and bring it back home, or else the enemy Russians would know the identity of every British and American agent. But Berlin during the time of the Wall is a dangerous place, and Lorraine runs into trouble before she even gets to meet her contact, Berlin station chief David Percival (James McAvoy). And that's just the beginning.


Hold onto your butts. This is gonna be one helluva bumpy ride.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - The Chosen One

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

Today is the hottest day of the summer so far in NYC, and I've been working like a dog all week (but I have tomorrow off to have a long weekend! YAY!), and The Chosen One is just about the oldest trope in all fantasy/sci-fi, so I'm just gonna do this Quick And Dirty Style. Hold onto your butts!

The Matrix (Wachowskis, 1999) In which the world you know is all a lie, you are forced to choose the red pill or the blue pill, and Keanu Reeves says what we were all thinking the first time we saw "bullet time": WOAH.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice (Jon Turteltaub, 2010) In which Disney actually manages to make an entertaining full-length movie out of a short from Fantasia, a physics nerd becomes a hero, and Jon Turteltaub (of all people) proves himself to be the Nicolas Cage Whisperer.

Moana (Ron Clements & John Musker, 2016) In which empathy is treated as the most heroic quality, The Rock attempts to sing, and Auli'i Cravalho becomes a star.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Amusement Parks

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. We're open 52 weeks a year, so join us by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and writing a bit about them!

Well, this is what happens when I don't plan ahead.

You see, last week's theme was Summer Vacation, and I picked a lovely little movie called The Way Way Back, which involves a boy and his mother going on vacation to the mom's new boyfriend's beach house, and the boy finding a job and family of misfits at the local water park.

And then I see that this week's theme is Amusement Parks.

Clearly, I should have thought about this a bit more.

Anyway, now I have to stretch the definition of Amusement Parks a bit in order to get three, but I don't think there will be too many complaints...

Westworld (Michael Crichton, 1973) Long before the TV series took over pop culture, novelist Michael Crichton directed his original screenplay about a "resort" with three different theme parks: Medieval World, Roman World, and the titular Westworld, all populated by androids programmed to act according to their historical period and role. For $1,000 per day, guests can participate in an adventure with the android population of any of the three worlds... and anything goes. ANYTHING. But then, the androids start breaking down and doing things like killing guests, and the staff can't figure out what's going on. And soon enough, Yul Brynner's gunslinger starts hunting one of the Westworld guests, with only murder on his mind. It's pretty thrilling stuff, even though the '70s vision of 1983 will make you laugh.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (Jack Clayton, 1983) From that brief period of time where Disney made it their mission to make movies that scared the pants off young children, and actually did it pretty effectively, comes this adaptation of Ray Bradbury's fantasy novel (which itself was originally a screenplay intended for Gene Kelly to direct). A carnival (an amusement park of sorts) comes to the small town of Green Town, IL, and two young boys realize that the proprietor, one Mr. Dark (the fantastically menacing Jonathan Pryce), may have something, er, darker, than amusement on his mind. Considering the film's troubled backstory, it's amazing it holds together as well as it does, but then again, with Pryce's perfect performance at the center, how could it not?

Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) It's the oldest story in the world: Man finds ancient mosquito trapped in amber, man harvests DNA from said mosquito to genetically engineer dinosaurs, man creates amusement park for dinosaurs to roam free while paying patrons gawk at them from afar, dinosaurs end up breaking free and terrorizing the area during the soft opening. Spielberg's film is terrifically entertaining, even though on the surface it seems like a surefire flop - after all, what early-mid '90s action film would cast Laura Dern, Sam Niell, and Jeff Goldblum and then have them talk about things like evolution and chaos theory? But, then again, DINOSAURS.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Summer Vacation

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join us on our adventures through the world of cinema - all you have to do is pick three movies that fit the week's theme and write a bit about them!

Happy Summer, everyone!

I don't know about where you are, but here in NYC, Mother Nature has definitely made it clear that we are in Summer - it's been hot and sticky and altogether uncomfortable most days recently. Remind me again why so many people LOVE Summer?

Oh right. Summer means Summer Vacation. Even for those of us who are no longer in school and don't have kids in school (or work in a school ourselves), vacation really is synonymous with the Summer season. Me, I stopped taking a vacation in Summer as soon as I graduated from college - partly because I couldn't really afford it and partly to avoid all the crowds (seriously, wait until a couple of weeks into September and it's SO much nicer). Thankfully, this week we're just picking movies with a Summer Vacation theme, not actually fighting the hordes of people also on their vacation. Staycation, anyone? These will keep you very good company.

Dirty Dancing (Emile Ardolino, 1987) It is the summer of 1963, and Baby (real name: Florence - you decide which is worse) cannot wait to get out of this luxurious Catskills resort her parents have brought her and her sister to, and instead be at Mount Holyoke College so she can prepare to join the Peace Corps. But all that changes when she gets snuck into one of the staff parties and meets Johnny Castle, the resort's dance instructor and resident hot piece. Many dance lessons (and "dance lessons") later, Baby becomes pretty good at it, but forces conspire against our age-inappropriate lovers - until the climactic moment, which is by now so ingrained in the cultural consciousness that you probably know it even if you haven't seen the movie. As for the movie itself? It's perfectly charming, and totally predictable... and it WORKS, thanks in no small part to the undeniable chemistry between Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze as the leads. It  may be cheese, but sometimes that's exactly what you need.

The Way Way Back (Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, 2013) 14 year-old Duncan is terminally shy, and not at all interested in spending a summer with his mom and her new boyfriend at his beach house. But one day, he ends up at the Water Wizz water park and meets the owner Owen, who sees a kid in desperate need of a confidence boost. So he hires him to do odd jobs around the park (and I do mean "odd"), where the staff love him like the kid brother some of them may never have had. And, slowly but surely, Duncan matures and gains confidence in himself. Another charmer, this one has a terrific supporting cast (Sam Rockwell is great as Owen, Toni Collette is still the best movie mom even if she deserves MUCH better parts, and Allison Janney steals the show as always as the drunk next door) that elevates the movie from cute nostalgia exercise to a funny, moving portrait of adolescence.

Les vacances de M. Hulot (Jacques Tati, 1953) I save the best for last, because this is just the best. Jacques Tati is the master of the sight gag, and all of his films are chock full of them. But this is his sweetest, a love letter to the seaside summer vacationers that flocked to the southern coast of France - and those who waited on them hand and foot. It's sometimes very subtle comedy, but always worthy of a chuckle, and more often worthy of guffaws. It is one of my first All-Time Favorites, and it still fills me with the same warm feeling every time I watch it.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - TV Edition: Medical Dramas

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 (which the last week of every month is TV shows) and writing a bit about them!

I'm really tired this week, so without further ado, here are my picks for Medical Drama TV Shows

Grey's Anatomy (2005-Present) While it's no longer making headlines the way it did in its first few seasons, the show that made Shonda Rhimes is indeed still on the air, and far better than a show in its thirteenth season should be. The story follows one Meredith Grey, daughter of a legendary surgeon, through her internship, surgical residency, and doctor-hood at the INCREDIBLY UNFORTUNATE Seattle Grace Hospital. I would say it's about Meredith and her group of fellow interns that we meet in the pilot episode, except that.... well, there are only two of them left now, and it was pretty much always Meredith's story, from the very first. Grey's has become highly influential for its patented indie music cues and over-the-top devastating emotional moments, so much so that sometimes the show can feel like a parody of itself if you just catch an episode in reruns. But watch it from the beginning and you'll be surprised at how quickly you get sucked in, because it's SUPER entertaining with a wide variety of characters performed by actors perfectly in sync with them... and each other. And then, watch through tears and splayed fingers as you reach the climaxes of episodes like "Into You Like a Train" and "Deterioration of the Fight or Flight Response/Losing My Religion" (the second season finale). It's a soap opera through and through, but (mostly) a damn good one.

A Gifted Man (2011) Patrick Wilson plays a handsome, wealthy, cocky doctor with a handsome, expensive private practice in NYC. One day he randomly runs into his ex-wife, now working at a free clinic in the Bronx, and they share a wonderful evening together. Only when he goes to call her the next day, he finds out that she died two weeks prior. She is now appearing to him as a ghost - or a hallucination - and trying to get him to become a better person by giving of himself to the less fortunate. Filled to the brim with top-notch talent (Jennifer Ehle plays the dead wife, Margo Martindale the put-upon secretary, and ER vet Eriq LaSalle the medical partner; Oscar winner Jonathan Demme directed the pilot), A Gifted Man never quite rose above its premise and only lasted one season. But Wilson made the character's journey interesting to watch, and even though the plots at the free clinic were obviously manipulative, they worked more often than not.

The Knick (2014-2015) Ever wonder what hospitals were like before modern surgical techniques were invented? Turns out, it's probably not so far from what you might think, but also completely different. Directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Clive Owen, The Knick isn't quite like anything you've seen before, as we follow star surgeon Dr. Thackeray and the denizens of New York's Knickerbocker Hospital in the early 20th century. The attention to period detail is astounding, but it's Cliff Martinez's brilliant, anachronistic, completely electronic score that's the real stand-out.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - The Woods

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!

Growing up, our house didn't have a backyard. Our backyard was woods. It was really beautiful when it snowed - it looked like a real winter wonderland with all the ice and snow coating the branches of all the trees, and it was fun to go wandering and exploring. But during any other time of the year, it wasn't a place you wanted to go. It wasn't often scary-looking, but sometimes, when it was particularly dark and the cicadas and crickets and whatnot were particularly quiet, it made it tough to take the garbage out to the end of our driveway.

This week on Thursday Movie Picks, we're going into the woods, and.... well, there's one that immediately springs to mind, and the rest.... I REALLY had to stretch. Let's see how you think I did!

The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, 1999) Somehow, my family went to see this on a movie outing. I was 15 and my sister was 13. When we returned home from the theater, it was dark out, and pulling in to the driveway, we realized it was garbage night. It took all four of us to bring out one garbage can, because this movie had instilled such fear about the woods and the dark. I know it is now in vogue to dismiss The Blair Witch Project as solely a marketing gimmick, and/or to blame it for all the terrible found-footage horror films it spawned, but this is the REAL DEAL, dealing in genuine terror - the terror of the unknown, of the darkness, of what is lurking just outside your field of vision. It boils down an entire genre to its most basic elements - three people, investigating a legendary witch, lost in the woods, where there are creepy sounds and strange goings-on - and lets our own psyches fill in the blanks. The final scene of this is still the cruelest, most bone-chilling denouement of any horror movie I've ever seen.

The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2012) It's nearly impossible to summarize Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon's horror spoof without giving away it's big secrets, which are best left to be experienced while watching the movie, but it's another movie that boils down the horror genre to base elements: five horny teens, an old, semi-abandoned cabin in the woods and off the grid, and the dark of night. That it actually manages to be as scary as it is funny is pretty impressive... to anyone who didn't watch Whedon's TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer! The Cabin in the Woods is a total delight from start to finish, deconstructing the horror genre and satirizing it better, in a more serious and more loving way, than the Scary Movie series ever did.

Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009) You know what? I can't really in good conscience recommend this one. But GOD DAMN did it blow me away. The basic story is this: A nameless couple (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe, both fantastic) are struggling after the death of their infant boy (he crawled out an open window while they were having sex in the shower). He is a therapist and she a scholar. After she becomes so grief-stricken she can barely move, he decides to take her to their woodland cabin, Eden, where he starts having terrifying visions and she starts exhibiting increasingly violent sadomasochistic tendencies. It terrible, ROUGH stuff, but cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle has created some of the most beautiful images ever put on a screen for this, and the performances hold absolutely nothing back. It's a hyper-violent, super-pretentious movie, one that is quite possibly not for anyone at all, really. But as an exploration of grief and the masculine/feminine dynamic, it's quite stunning, and totally singular. Just don't say I didn't warn you.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Based On A True Story

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

Movies that are based on true events are strange beasts. Sometimes they are well-done and respectful of their subjects, other times they only take the bare outline of the events to make their story, changing the details entirely. Who's to say if those changes actually make the movie better or not, but sometimes it "works", and sometimes it doesn't. I'm not even ALWAYS on the side of making those kinds of changes. I remain, as always, on the side of good movies!

Which these mostly are.

127 Hours (Danny Boyle, 2010) The incredible true story of how one sorta-asshole found himself actually caught between a rock and a hard place, and how he found a sort of redemption. James Franco is flat-out incredible as Aron Ralston, an adventurer who went out one day without telling anyone where he was going, and got his arm caught under a boulder, which he couldn't push off. He spent the title length of time stuck in a random part of the desert with very little water and even less food until he finally had to do the unthinkable. Director Danny Boyle brings this to vibrant, fascinating life, aided by an incredible score and crushing sound design... and of course, Franco's justly lauded performance.

Pain & Gain (Michael Bay, 2013) The incredible true story of three idiot gymrats who extorted an asshole and tricked themselves into believing they were above the law just because the guy was an asshole. And got caught, of course. I'm generally not a fan of Michael Bay's movies, but this is easily the most interesting one he's ever made, and he's helped a lot by the stellar performances of Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie, and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. The tone of this is so tricky, walking a razor-thin line between pitch-black comedy and all-too-serious thriller, and miraculously mostly succeeding. It's a little too garish for its own good, but it works far better than it has any right to. It's the biggest indictment of rugged masculinity AND The American Dream that I've seen in a long time, from an entirely unexpected source.

The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, 2013) The incredible true story of idiot teens who somehow managed to steal enough clothes, jewelry, and handbags from stars that the stars noticed. And got caught, of course. Coppola's brilliant, perfectly cast movie is a perfect window into the Millennial mindset, where fame and labels and Facebook/Instagram likes and STUFF are more important than anything else, perhaps even actual money. The whole cast is great, but Emma Watson's spot-on, wickedly funny turn is the film's crown jewel. She's so good here, it makes you wish she would do more "character" roles more often.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Double Features

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!

Last summer, Film Forum in NYC ran a series called "Return of the Double Feature!" (exclamation point included, as in Moulin Rouge!) that I had a LOT of fun attending. What was great was that it wasn't always immediately clear why two movies were paired together until you really thought about it, or even until you sat down and watched them. It made me think about programming a series like that and how much fun it would be.

Well thankfully, our lovely wandering host has given us that opportunity this week, as the theme for Thursday Movie Picks is DOUBLE FEATURES!

Naturally, I came up with far more ideas than I have time to write up, but here are three of my favorites.

GHOSTLY CHILDREN DOUBLE FEATURE!
The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961)/The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001) Creepy old English manor houses haunted by ghostly children.... except the children aren't the ghosts! The Others is as close to a spiritual sequel to The Innocents as we're ever likely to get. Both films have a chilly formalism that doesn't make them any less scary or give them any less emotional impact, and their twists and turns will keep you guessing about what's REALLY going on all the way through in the best possible way. Plus, each possesses one of the greatest performances from a great actress: Deborah Kerr is utter perfection in The Innocents, while The Others gives Nicole Kidman a role that encapsulates all the best things about her screen persona. Both are perfection.

SEXUAL MORES DOUBLE FEATURE!
Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967)/Fifty Shades of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johonson, 2015) Basically, watch Bunuel's semi-surrealist masterpiece of sexual desire, and then watch Taylor-Johnson's slightly-better-than-expected erotic romance/coming-of-age drama and marvel at how far we haven't come in depicting sex on screen. In the former, Catherine Deneuve's frigid, bored housewife becomes a prostitute in a high-class brothel during her days, acting out her "depraved" sexual fantasies while leading a supposedly perfect life with her doctor husband. In the latter, Dakota Johnson's mousy college student becomes entranced by the local handsome billionaire, only to be repulsed by/attracted to his kinky sexual proclivities. Both depict women taking ownership of their bodies and sexual desires in ways women are rarely allowed to do in film, but for all the hype, Fifty Shades is barely more explicit and FAR less provocative than a film released fifty years ago with a major star.

TEENAGE 80S BANDS DOUBLE FEATURE!
We Are The Best (Lukas Moodyson, 2014)/Sing Street (John Carney, 2016) Two of the most adorable movies you will ever see, these films really get what it feels like to be a teenager and needing to express yourself in ways that no one else understands - and how music can unlock something special inside of you. Even if it's terrible music. Wonderful performances from debuting leads, great songs, and fantastic costumes/makeup fill both of these films, which couldn't be more different, but are also wonderfully similar. They will both leave you walking on clouds of joy by the end.

BONUS PICK
Grindhouse (Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino, 2007) This pre-packaged double feature from two hotshot directors is quite the tribute to the questionable-quality cheapie B-movies from the 70s, and has all the hallmarks of a late night double feature picture show: explosions, hookers, flat acting, fast cars, and FANTASTIC fake trailers in between the two halves. Rodriguez's zombie flick Planet Terror is more fun, but Tarantino's car chase/serial killer shot Death Proof has one of the greatest car chases ever filmed. All the actors are clearly having a blast, and most of them have never, ever been better.