Thursday, January 12, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Fashion World

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

Lights, camera.... FASHION!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Awards Contenders In Brief - A Monster Calls

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

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

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

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Awards Contenders In Brief - Fences

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

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

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

Thursday Movie Picks - Coming Home

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

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

And what a year it's been, huh?

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Awards Contenders In Brief: Jackie

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Parties

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

Are you a party animal? I'm not, generally speaking. I mostly prefer my own couch, a mug of hot tea, and Netflix, but this time of year there are so many parties around that I get out and about more than usual. And I will admit, I usually have a pretty good time. So it's fitting that this week on Thursday Movie Picks the topic is parties. I've picked three movies that center around three very different types of parties. Party on!

The Party (Blake Edwards, 1968) Maybe not the funniest collaboration between director Blake Edwards and star Peter Sellers, The Party is still manic fun. Largely improvised, Edwards just lets Sellers's Indian actor Hrundi V. Bakshi loose at a lavish, over-the-top Hollywood party and watches the insanity that ensues. Something is going on in every square inch of every frame, and watching people react to Sellers is a large part of the fun.

Can't Hardly Wait (Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan, 1998) The ur-90s teen movie, with a cast of just about everyone who was anyone in that decade, taking place at the graduation party to end all graduation parties. Ethan Embry is in love with Jennifer Love Hewitt, recently back on the market after ending things with jock Peter Facinelli, only she doesn't know who he is. Seth Green is determined to have sex, but he's affected a white gangsta persona so off-putting it's made him a joke. And everyone else just wants to have a rager. I never went to a party anywhere to close to this in high school, and maybe that's why I like this movie so much.

Bachelorette (Leslye Headland, 2012) Three friends from high school get asked to be a fourth's bridesmaids for her upcoming wedding. The only problem is, the bride is no longer the party girl the other three still are... and they're also kinda mean girls. But they're played by Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, and Lizzy Caplan, so they're VERY fun to watch, even while ruining the titular party for the very sweet Rebel Wilson. The movie's mean streak goes a long way to making it more fun than your average female-led comedy, actually, and it's a much better movie than any of the similar Hangover movies.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Awards Contenders In Brief: La La Land

So you may have noticed that I don't really do reviews on this blog. Which may have struck you as somewhat strange, given that this is a movie blog and all.

The simple fact of the matter is, writing a full review, for me, takes a LOT of time. I endlessly obsess over wording and details and getting things perfect. And in the end, I'd much rather spend that time WATCHING movies, especially since there are so many I haven't seen.

But I DO post short review-like things on my Letterboxd page, so read some of my past ones there. Going forward, I'm going to try to post those here, under this new "In Brief" label, so that I don't feel bound to write a full-length review.

So of course for the first of these, I'm going to pick a movie that I actually COULD write a full-length review of.

La La Land is, quite simply, my favorite film of the year. But let's be clear: Y'all know my nom de internet. And you'll know just from watching any of the trailers for this movie that have been released over the past couple of months that this movie was basically created in a lab specifically for me. So my naming it my favorite film of the year should come as absolutely come as no surprise, and should probably be taken with a grain of salt.

I really say all of this because I desperately don't want to oversell La La Land. It's fantastic, but it's also slight, and if you don't like movie musicals, this very likely won't be the one to change your mind - especially if you're immune to the charms of Emma Stone and/or Ryan Gosling (although, I personally don't understand how anyone could be, but I have been made to understand that somehow such people do exist).

I also desperately don't want to spoil this movie for anyone. Nothing else I experience for the rest of the year (I know it's only a couple of weeks but just go with me) will come close to matching the experience of seeing La La Land for the first time, so I want everyone else to enjoy it just as much as I did - by knowing nothing ahead of time except what the trailers told me.

So, here it goes: Gosling is Sebastian, a jazz pianist with dreams of opening his own jazz club. Stone is Mia, an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop on a studio lot. They meet and eventually fall in love. That's all I'm telling you of the plot. But the plot doesn't really matter. As with all the greatest movie musicals, what matters is the style with which the story is told, and La La Land is full to bursting with some of the greatest style of any movie released in quite some time. It pays homage to nearly every musical the Hollywood studio system ever produced, and takes direct inspiration from the single greatest movie musical ever made, Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In so doing, it contains not one, not two, but three of the best single scenes of any film to be released in 2016, scenes of such bravura moviemaking magic that I actually applauded through tears in the theater.

Gosling and Stone have the chemistry of the greatest screen pairings - Hepburn & Tracy, Bogie & Bacall, Astaire & Rogers... to name a few - and that, along with their full-on charm offensive, is essential to making this movie work (it's almost impossible to imagine this working nearly as well with the original casting choices, Emma Watson and Miles Teller). It's a pleasure to watch them, because not only are they clearly enjoying themselves, not only do they make it look easy, but their faces are so open and honest that it's incredibly easy to feel for them. It's the kind of star power and chemistry that Old Hollywood used to cultivate with almost clockwork precision, but which has gone somewhat out of fashion nowadays. They also both have lovely, natural singing voices - they don't sound like professional singers, exactly, but the film is better off for it - and are wonderfully fluid dancers (bless Mandy Moore for her joyous choreography).

The score (music by Justin Hurwitz, lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul) is tuneful and romantic, with six original songs that you will be humming for weeks, and some lovely instrumental numbers. The film is as much about movie musicals as it is about anything else, so the music is very important. If I say that the film starts with its two weakest numbers, just know that they're still damn good, and each is shot so distinctively that it more than makes up for whatever the songs themselves are lacking.

I just... I have nothing bad to say about this film. Every single element works in perfect harmony together to create a perfect old-school movie experience. Everything about it has the look of one of the great MGM technicolor movie musicals, but it feels and sounds thoroughly modern. It is the perfect movie musical for the modern age - a perfect meeting of nostalgia with a contemporary sensibility. It is as much about the thrilling, transporting power of movie musicals as it is a perfect example of one, and as a lover of musicals, I couldn't possibly ask for anything more.

One week later, I'm still not over it. When my screening on opening night was over, I wanted to go straight to the box office and buy a ticket for the next available showing. I also wanted to go Monday after work, and also every day after that, because I just can't think of a better way to spend a little over two hours. And that's the highest praise I can give it.