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.

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 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.


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.


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.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Friendship

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!

"Friendship, friendship, just a perfect blendship
When other friendships are soon forgot, ours will still be hot!"

Yes, our theme on this week's episode of Thursday Movie Picks is Friendship. An apropos topic for me this week, as I just returned from a long weekend vacation with friends in Provincetown, MA. For those of you who don't know, P-Town is the very last city on the very tip of Cape Cod, and has long been a destination especially for gay men. It may have been the weekend before the "season" officially kicks off, but we all had a blast, and I had a lot of fun going on my first true friends-only vacation. So in honor of my friends, I have chosen the following movies about gay friend groups this week.

The Boys in the Band (William Friedkin, 1970) Gay culture pretty much started here, didn't it? The original gaggle of gay friends, Michael, Donald, Emory, Hank, Larry, Bernard, and Harold, are the quintessential catty group of gay BFFs. But in 1968, when the story takes place, one year before the Stonewall riots, LGBT people were still not "out". At least, not in the way we would think of as being "out". A lot of gay men I know find this to be VERY dated, but I still see it as an important piece of queer history: This is very much a time capsule of a specific group of people in a specific time and place, and it has a lot of value as such. But it still encapsulates how a LOT of gay men feel - full of joy and pride, but also confusion and pain.

Love! Valour! Compassion! (Joe Mantello, 1997) Very nearly an update of Boys in the Band to the mid-90s, this adaptation of Terrence McNally's play follows eight friends as they make visits to Fire Island during one summer. It's funny and affecting in equal measure, and a lot more good-natured than its '70s predecessor. But then, it takes place in a world where gay men were becoming more accepted, and where they had less reason to stay hidden. Of all three films I've picked today, this one is the least remembered, and I think that's not quite as it should be. It's a lovely film, with a great cast and a gorgeous script adapted by McNally himself.

The Broken Hearts Club (Greg Berlanti, 2000) A bit dated now thanks to its reliance on the trend-obsessed West Hollywood culture of the late '90s, Broken Hearts Club is fun, formulaic... and a little bit offensive to gay men, even though it's written and directed by a gay man and is about gay men! The characters' oft-stated ideal is to be as straight-acting as possible. Which... I mean, most of the main cast members are straight (including Dean Cain, Zach Braff, Timothy Olyphant, and Ben Weber), and are completely unafraid of playing up the more femme qualities some gay men have. But still, I have a huge soft spot for this movie, and for swoon-worthy Timothy Olyphant in it.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Twisty Thrillers

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!

Who doesn't love a good twisty thriller? I tend to love movies that without warning completely pull the rug out from under you - IF said rug-pulling is done well. It's a lot harder than it looks, but these three movies pull it off.

Wild Things (John McNaughton, 1998) OH how I love this trashy, tawdry thriller. Matt Dillon plays a high school English teacher with the oldest students you have ever seen, including wealthy Denise Richards and poor Neve Campbell, in swampy Florida. Kevin Bacon and Daphne Rubin-Vega play cops sent in to investigate when he's accused of rape. Wild Things is a hell of a wild ride - the trailer doesn't even give away HALF of the double-triple-double crosses in this. Deliciously vulgar in every way, this is one of those movies that is so proud of its naughtiness that I get giddy whenever I watch it.

Arlington Road (Mark Pellington, 1999) Even more timely now than it was on release, Arlington Road is one of the great forgotten films of the '90s. Jeff Bridges stars as a widowed college professor who slowly starts suspecting his new neighbors Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack of being domestic terrorists. That's it. That's the whole set-up. But strap yourself in, because this paranoid domestic thriller takes you to some very queasy places. It will put you on the edge of your seat and make you mighty uncomfortable. It's masterful.

Red Eye (Wes Craven, 2005) GOD I love that trailer! Even if it kind of lies about what the movie actually is. Red Eye isn't really a horror film, it's a thriller, one of the leanest, meanest thrillers of the new millennium. The "woman in peril" subgenre is sadly looked down upon by many, but at their best, these films show us ordinary people fraying their nerves trying to deal with extraordinary circumstances, often trying desperately to get other people to believe that what is happening to them is REALLY HAPPENING. What exactly Cillian Murphy needs from Rachel McAdams, I won't say, but suffice it to say the two actors are perfectly matched, and the tight screenplay (Red Eye runs 85 minutes, and not a single one of them is wasted) gives them actual characters to sink their teeth into. McAdams in particular makes for a wonderful protagonist, making the kind of split-second decisions we all would like to believe we would be able to make in similar circumstances. Thank God 99.9% of us will never have to find out what we would do for real! In the meantime, we can just enjoy this movie.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Cannes Favorites

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!

Ah, France! I've never been, but my Dad was a French teacher for many years, so I grew up learning the language. Somewhere along the way, the country kind of took on a mythic quality for me. And when I started becoming a cinephile, well, it became very near the center of the universe! The Cannes Film Festival, held every year in May in the south of France, is the most prestigious film festival in the world, and the Golden Palm (or Palme d'or) the most prestigious prize. Not that the various festival juries are completely infallible, but looking at a list of Palme d'or winners is to look at a list of some of the greatest films of all time. Hell, even looking at a list of films that have played in competition for the Palme is pretty damn impressive! So it's REALLY HARD to pick only three favorites out of the bunch. But that is the assignment, and complete it I shall!

Marty (Delbert Mann, 1955) Yes, the very first film to win the Palme d'Or (prior to this the festival's top prize was the far more unwieldy Grand Prix du Festival International du Film) is also one of my favorites. Marty is a wonderfully humanist portrait of a middle-aged single man who falls in love with a mousy schoolteacher one night. That's it. That's the whole thing. But Paddy Chayefsky's beautiful script gets at that feeling we've all had when you've resigned yourself to never being truly happy for a hundred different reasons, and puts it into the persons of Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair, looking decidedly far from the movie star glamour we're used to seeing on screen. It's a touching tale of two lost souls improbably finding each other, even when they thought they would never find anyone, small-scale and quiet, but all the more impactful for that. Marty is also one of only two films to win the top prize at both Cannes and the Oscars, and the only one to win the Palme and the Best Picture Oscar (The Lost Weekend won before Cannes changed its top prize to the Palme).

All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979) Three musicals have won the Palme d'Or, and they couldn't possibly be more different from each other (the other two are the candy-colored melodrama The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and the realist tragedy Dancer in the Dark). They're all visionary works, but for my money this is the most visionary of them all. The crowning achievement of the legendary Bob Fosse's career, All That Jazz takes a kaleidoscopic look at what it's like to be a super-talented, egotistical, drug-addicted artist. Roy Scheider gives a searing performance as the Fosse character (named Joe Gideon), and Fosse surrounds him with some of the most brilliant dance numbers ever set on film. All That Jazz is, simply put, a marvel - it should be too much, but that turns out to be just the right amount.

Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012) Love. What does that word mean? At what point does love go from being selfless to selfish? These are the questions at the heart of Haneke's unsparing Amour, one of the most grueling films I've ever seen. But there is so much truth in this film. Hard, brutal truth, to be sure, but truth. You can only feel for Georges and Anne as she suffers one stroke, and then another, and then basically starts dying in painfully slow motion in front of him. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva are so in touch with their characters that it never feels as though we are watching actors playing parts, but instead watching these people actually go through these horrible things. I've never been so emotionally wrecked by a movie as this, and that's why I love it so. We need films like this, to see humanity in all its beauty and pain, to understand every horrible decision that we may eventually have to make, to prepare ourselves for the end, because it comes for all of us.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - A Fresh Start

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!

Look, we've all been there. Those days when everything is falling apart, or has grown stale beyond belief, or when a chapter of your life has just... ended. So you move on, you move out, and you hopefully move up in the world. It's not always easy, but sometimes you just have to do it. Just like characters do in these movies.

Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) Mildred's husband is a louse - she provides more financial support for the family by baking pies and cakes, and he has a woman on the side. So she kicks him out, but has to find a way to support her two daughters on her own. In order to do that, she takes a job as a waitress, with the goal of one day opening up her own restaurant. Which she finally does... while failing to realize that she's unwittingly raised her daughter Veda into a snobbish bitch who doesn't appreciate any of her mother's hard work. One of the key works of the Old Hollywood Studio System, and the role that famously won Joan Crawford her Oscar.

Bridget Jones's Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001) Bridget Jones is a 32 year-old "singleton" living and working in London, and has decided that she's heard one too many behind-her-back remarks about her appearance and personality. So she decides to make an active change in her life, and starts keeping a diary. She vows to quit smoking, lose weight... and stop fantasizing about her boss, the handsome womanizer Daniel Cleaver. Some of those things actually work out. This endearing adaptation of the popular novel earned Renée Zellweger a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her leading performance as the singularly British Bridget, and Hugh Grant and Colin Firth are well-matched as her love interests.

Wild (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2014) Cheryl Strayed has lost her mother and ended her marriage. She's lived recklessly and self-destructively for too long. Finally, she makes a somewhat rash decision: She's going to hike over a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. Alone. One of the most powerful films about spiritual reawakening and the power of memory I've ever seen, anchored by a never-better (and Oscar-nominated) Reese Witherspoon. All the better for the fact that it's based on a true story.