Thursday, July 19, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Bad Parents

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, my parents were pretty good, actually. Oh sure, they did some things that annoyed me and my sister, and they were hardly perfect people, but they were loving and caring and supportive and never treated us badly. So I don't really know from bad parents, but the movies sure have given us some monsters, haven't they?

Mommie Dearest (Frank Perry, 1981) Regardless of your feelings on Christina Crawford's memoir that inspired this Faye Dunaway-starrer, I think there's certainly enough evidence over the years that Joan Crawford was.... not a particularly nice person. To think that this transferred over to her parenting isn't much of a stretch, even if Christina's motives are a bit suspect and much of what she describes beggars belief. But regardless of your feelings on this film (I think it's not QUITE the camp masterpiece that I had been led to believe it was), you can't deny that Faye Dunaway gives a tremendous, ferociously committed performance as Joan (or Christina's version of Joan).

Happiness (Todd Solondz, 1998) If you've not seen Happiness, I'm sure as hell not going to spoil it for you, except to say that it's quite brilliant, and that you'll never be able to look at Dylan Baker the same way again after watching it. More or less centering itself around the lives of the three Jordan sisters (Trish, Helen, and Joy) and their lives in a New Jersey suburb, Solondz puts his characters through the ringer, but somehow makes it really funny. Which can be a turn-off when dealing with such icky subjects as pedophilia, adultery, and depression, but it's done incredibly skillfully, and played by an absolutely tremendous cast.

Precious (Lee Daniels, 2009) In the annals of terrible movie mothers, Mary Jones has to rank at or near the top. A vicious predator who occasionally sees her own daughter, Claireece (the "Precious" of the title), as a threat, she is prone to lashing out violently. As long as no one's looking. But when social workers and government employees come around? She's just the nicest, most normal woman you ever did meet. Mo'Nique's justly Oscar-winning performance is astonishing to behold, as is Gabourey Sidibe's Oscar-nominated (and shoulda-been winning) performance as Precious. The film is occasionally harrowing, but thrives on showing how light can seep into even the darkest of places.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Characters Magically Aging Up or Down

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

I don't think we're really spoiled for choice this week on Thursday Movie Picks, but MAYBE one of mine won't be a consensus pick! Which one? READ ON TO FIND OUT!

Something Wicked This Way Comes (Jack Clayton, 1983) From that short period of time where Disney decided the direction forward for the company would be to make movies that would freak kids the fuck out, but then freaked out themselves over how scary all their movies got. This adaptation of Ray Bradbury's seminal novel was famously re-shot, re-edited, and re-scored by the studio in an attempt to make it more family-friendly. It's still plenty creepy, mind you, especially in the person of Jonathan Pryce's mysterious Mr. Dark, proprietor of a carnival that pulses with dark magic, but it's not quite great.

13 Going on 30 (Gary Winick, 2004) A little "wishing dust" grants 13 year old Jenna's wish to just skip over her teenage years and be an adult already. We've all been there. But now Jenna actually has to live it, a 13 year old in a 30 year old fashion magazine editor's body. Jennifer Garner is beyond adorable in this, and frankly should have gotten an Oscar nomination. And the rest of the cast is ideal: Mark Ruffalo as the love interest and Judy Greer as the best friend... who wouldn't want all that?

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, 2008) On our most recent podcast episode, Matt and I discussed our favorite films of the 10-Year Reunion class of 2008. This one didn't make either of our lists, but at the time I remember being really liking it. I've had very little urge to revisit it, though, partially because it's long and slow (i.e., a bit self-important and self-indulgent). But it's certainly absolutely gorgeous to behold, and I'm not just talking about Brad Pitt's getting younger and younger as the movie goes on. The cinematography by Claudio Miranda is especially great, as is Alexandre Desplat's score. And to say nothing of the film' groundbreaking visual effects, which believably age and youthen Pitt and Cate Blanchett's faces and bodies as she ages normally and he ages backwards throughout the early 20th Century.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - TV Edition: Spin-Off Series

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Partake in the fun by picking three movies (or TV shows, when the case calls for it) that fit the week's theme!

I was originally going to do a theme within a theme this week, but ended up deciding to just pick three of my favorite TV Spin-Offs. It's been a crazy two weeks surrounding Pride weekend here in NYC and I'm more than a little tired. But also very spiritually fulfilled.

The Jeffersons (1975-1985) Just take a moment to revel in that theme song for a bit. It's okay, it's one of the greats. This All in the Family Spin-off (of which there were four others) is every bit as good as its parent show, dealing with issues that people weren't really talking about in "polite conversation" like interracial relationships and... well... racism in general. Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford are perfectly matched as the titular couple who get to move to Manhattan's Upper East Side from Queens because of Mr. Jefferson's successful dry-cleaning business. Their fights are some of the funniest couple squabbles ever shown on TV. But it's Marla Gibbs as their maid Florence who really steals the show.

Frasier (1993-2004) One of the most Emmy-rewarded sitcoms of all time is a spin-off of one of the most successful TV shows of all time, Cheers. Famous for its witty, erudite scripts and sparkling chemistry between its leads, Frasier follows the titular radio psychiatrist as he takes care of his blue-collar father and clashes with his younger brother Niles, also a psychiatrist. I didn't much like this show as a kid when it was popular, but watching it in syndication as I got older, I came to really appreciate its smarts, which it never sacrificed even when it delved into farce and physical comedy.

Pinky and the Brain (1995-1998) GOD I miss great TV theme songs! Spun off from a recurring segment on the more variety show-esque Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain follows the titular laboratory mice as the genius grump Brain hatches convoluted plots for world domination and the idiotic but good-natured Pinky inevitably screws them up somehow. This show was a staple of my after-school viewing as a kid, and it's still a delight as an adult, thanks in large point to the inimitable voice work and the often brilliantly-conceived and executed parodies that were the show's stock in trade.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Juvenile Delinquents

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

I'll admit, I was the farthest thing from a juvenile delinquent when I was a kid. I was such a rule-follower that I would often call out anyone who wasn't following the rules... until I realized that there was a social "rule" that kids just didn't do that to other kids unless you wanted your ass beat. I have always, however, enjoyed watching movies (and TV shows) about kids acting badly. Call it living vicariously through them, I guess. Here are some of my favorites.

Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) The ultimate in teen angst, although it's easy to see a version of this that goes completely differently, because Jim Stark doesn't WANT to be a juvenile delinquent. But everyone around him sees him as one, so he becomes one. And that's not even the real tragedy of this, because poor Plato gets dragged down along with him. James Dean, Sal Mineo, and Natalie Wood couldn't possibly be better in this (there's a reason this remains Dean's most iconic performance), and Ray's near-operatic register for the thing perfectly captures the feeling of being a teenager, at the point in your life when no one seems to care about you, or even remember what it was like when they lived through it.

Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978) Yes, I know it's silly as all get-out, but Grease IS the word, even after all these years, and you simply will not find more charming juvenile delinquents than the T-Birds and the Pink Ladies. Yes, the ending is... not a great message for young girls, but the whole thing reads as such a fantasy that I don't think anyone watching could take it seriously. John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John are unimprovable as star-crossed lovebirds Danny and Sandy, but the true stars are Didi Conn as beauty school drop-out Frenchie and the one and only Stockard Channing as ultimate "bad girl" Rizzo.

Bully (Larry Clark, 2001) And now, a much darker vision of juvenile delinquency. Based on the true story of the murder of Bobby Kent, Bully is unflinching in its depiction of teens doing terrible things, from drugs to sexual assault to emotional abuse to murder. Bobby is terribly abusive to his best friend Marty and girlfriend Ali. And not to mention Marty's girlfriend Lisa, who Bobby raped one time after beating Marty unconscious. So the three abuse victims decide to take matters into their own hands (and the hands of a few others, too) and kill him. As with all of Larry Clark's films, Bully walks the thin line between realism and exploitation, but for me this was a very powerful viewing, with tremendous performances, especially from Nick Stahl and Brad Renfro.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Legend/Mythology

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

I've always been obsessed with the legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood. These twin obsessions come from different places - the first from the Broadway Cast Recording of Camelot, which I had a strange love for even at an early age (I would put on my parents' record of it, get up on a chair, and sing King Arthur's opening song to a non-existent audience... A LOT), and the second I think from a movie I saw when I was young... although that last bit could apply to the first, as well. Which is perfect, because this week on Thursday Movie Picks, we're talking about Legends and Mythology!

The Sword in the Stone (Wolfgang Reitherman, 1963) For my money, one of the most underrated of Disney Animated Classics, although I can understand why. The episodic nature of this telling of King Arthur's young adventures under the tutelage of Merlin the Wizard (based on T.H. White's The Once and Future King, EXTREMELY loosely) means that it's mostly plotless and meandering, and there isn't a true antagonist until three-quarters of the way through, when Mad Madam Mim shows up out of nowhere. But Merlin and his owl Archimedes are such delightful comic creations (as is Mim, honestly) that I can't help but love it, and the songs by the Sherman Brothers are similarly delightful. I've always loved it.

Robin Hood (Wolfgang Reitherman, 1973) I've heard that this one doesn't hold up very well as an adult, but nostalgia goes a long way, and the idea of telling this story using land animals of all sorts is kind of brilliant in and of itself. And then the animals chosen for each specific character are just perfect - OF COURSE Robin would be a fox, and Little John a bear, and the Sheriff of Nottingham a wolf, and of course the king's guard would be crocodiles... and of course Prince John would be a somewhat cowardly lion with a snake for an advisor. The voice casting is similarly inspired, although none are better than Peter Ustinov as the crybaby Prince John and Terry-Thomas as the simpering serpent Sir Hiss, as great a villainous comic duo as there ever was in a Disney film.

Both of these stories have also been adapted as live action films too, numerous times over. The following are my favorite of those.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones, 1975) Inspired, divine silliness. This comic telling of the quest for the Holy Grail by King Arthur and his legendary Knights of the Round Table skewers no less than... well, pretty much everything about British history. It is an historical epic as only the Pythons could do it, and I love it something fierce, despite the fact that it's been quoted so much over the years that it should have stopped being funny decades ago.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz & William Keighley, 1939) Errol Flynn's signature role, and with good reason. His swashbuckler charisma was built for this, one of the most endlessly entertaining films Hollywood has ever produced, and for my money the crown jewel of 1938 (You Can't Take It With You, Academy? REALLY?!?). The casting is flawless (Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone as Prince John and Sir Guy of Gisbourne, Olivia de Havilland and Una O'Connor as Maid Marian and her trusted lady-in-waiting Bess, Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck...), the Technicolor cinematography is gorgeous, the costumes are to die for, the score is alternately thrilling and romantic... This is Old Hollywood at the absolute peak of its powers. This story has never been told better.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Monologues

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!

This week, on Thursday Movie Picks, we're looking at speeches AKA soliloquies AKA monologues. AKA one character talking at length, just by themselves. In the spirit of that, I'm going to get out of their way and let these great monologues speak for themselves.

Also, I'm going a little overboard this week, because I just couldn't help myself.

THE ROMANTIC
Jerry Maguire (Cameron Crowe, 1996) It's become a cliché for a reason.

Chasing Amy (Kevin Smith, 1997) If you've ever fallen for a friend, you'll know how perfect this is. 

Romeo & Juliet (Franco Zeffirelli, 1968) Has any romance ever topped this scene?

THE POLITICAL

The American President (Rob Reiner, 1995) If only we had a real President who said these things. And a public who listened.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939) The climax of this is a series of brilliant, impassioned monologues by Jimmy Stewart to an unfeeling political machine. Should be required viewing for every American of voting age... but long before they reach that age and become too cynical. The more things change, the more things stay the same.

To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962) Another one that is sadly still relevant today, more than 50 years later.

THE ONE SCENE WONDERS

Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976) In which Beatrice Straight shows how to win an Academy Award in less than five minutes.

Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) In which Christopher Walken delivers the best performance of his career.

Doubt (John Patrick Shanley, 2008) In which Viola Davis steals a whole damn movie from Meryl Freakin' Streep, and becomes a star in the process.

THE COMEDIC

Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982) Every single goddamn second of this is perfection.

Animal Crackers (Victor Heerman, 1930) Everything that makes Groucho Marx great in one perfect monologue.

Addams Family Values (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1993) In which Joan Cusack puts all other monologuing villains to shame.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - TV Edition: Entertainment Business

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join in the fun by picking three movies (or TV shows, as the case may be) that fit the week's theme.

Having worked for an Off Broadway theater company for five years, I can safely say that yes, there is indeed no business like show business. Which is why it's weird that there haven't been more great TV shows that use it as a backdrop (although perhaps other people's picks this week will prove me wrong on that). Here are three of my favorites.

Slings & Arrows (2003-2006) And why not just start with the best? One of the greatest television series of all time, this Canadian show takes place at a Shakespeare Festival, following the actors, directors, stage managers, techies, and office staff who make it run. Each season is centered around one particular production (Hamlet in the first, Macbeth in the second, and King Lear in the third), directed by actor/director Geoffrey Tennant (the magnificent Paul Gross), returning to the Festival after the death of the Artistic Director, despite suffering a nervous breakdown onstage at the festival years ago. Oh yeah, and the ghost of said dead Artistic Director starts haunting Geoffrey. The show is mostly about the tenuous relationship between art and commerce, in addition to being about Shakespeare, and mental health, and aging, among many other things. Each six-episode-long season is like a full five-course meal, with lots to savor. Of course, I watched the whole thing over the course of about a month for the first time because I was so engrossed in it. This is television at its finest.

30 Rock (2006-2013) Tina Fey's zany sitcom about the trials and tribulations faced by the cast and crew of a sketch comedy show is one of the fastest, funniest sitcoms ever written. With all-time great characters and performances from Alec Baldwin, Jane Krakowski, and Fey herself (just to name a few), this show is a treasure always ripe for rewatching.

Smash (2012-2013) Oh what high hopes we all had for this show. Lovers of musicals, I mean. And while Smash certainly had its pleasures, it was all a shambles when it came to episodic storytelling. But OH what talent in front of the camera! Debra Messing has never been better than as Broadway lyricist Julia, Christian Borle was a catty delight as her partner in music Tom, Anjelica Huston was Anjelica Huston, and Megan Hilty was a bundle of perfection as chorus girl turned Broadway star Ivy Lynn. And the songs by March Shaiman and Scott Wittman were pretty much all great. But unfortunately, it seemed that nearly everyone involved behind the scenes had a completely different vision of what the show was, and that came across in different ways in each of its two seasons: Season One was over the top, occasionally venturing into so-bad-it's-good territory, while Season Two (which had a new showrunner because of said OTT-ness of S1) was confused and uninteresting, with new characters who were were all either bland or aggressively awful. Smash is maybe the biggest TV disappointment I've ever witnessed in my lifetime, going from appointment viewing for most of the first season to forgetting that the Finale was even on and not really caring all that much about even watching it afterwards. But we'll always have those great musical numbers.