Thursday, March 23, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - The Underdog

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

"There's no need to fear, UNDERDOG is here!"

Yes, it's everyone's favorite canine cartoon superhero, here for your entertainment this week on Thursday Movie Picks. I remember being a young child madly in love with cartoons (weren't we all?) and loving the little overserious mutt with his uniform and cape. Oh the many hours I would spend just waiting for the next epi...

...I'm sorry, what?

...oh, NOT that underdog?

...really?

...

WELL THEN!

Apparently, we are talking about the "accomplish goal with impossible odds" kind of underdog. Which I suppose makes more sense. Lord knows we Americans love a good underdog story, so there are loads to choose from. Here are a few of my favorites.

The Mighty Ducks (Stephen Herick, 1992) The power of nostalgia is STRONG with this one. It plays straight from the Bad News Bears playbook: Loutish, formerly great sportsman is forced to coach team of the worst kids at his preferred sport, teaches them how to believe in themselves and win the big game, too. It is pure formula all the way down the line, and I ATE IT UP when I was a kid. I still do now, actually, and I'm not the least bit ashamed to admit it. It comes down to the casting, which is perfect all the way down the line. The kids have such a great natural rapport with each other that it's easy to overlook their at times not-so-great acting skills, and Emilio Estevez  proves to be a perfect adult lead for this. There's a reason why this got two sequels AND an actual hockey team that took its name.

Cool Runnings (Jon Turteltaub, 1993) Yes, it's another Disney about a winter sport from the '90s, but what can I say? You can't get much more of an underdog than 1988 Jamaican Olympic bobsled team. I've since learned that practically nothing happened in real life the way it did in the film, and they certainly could have stayed more true to life and still had a compelling narrative, but when the performances are this good (especially John Candy, in the last performance he was alive to see completed) and the film is overall as fleet and filled with good feeling as this, what does it matter? My sister and I still quote this movie to each other TO THIS DAY.

Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008) A case where a movie about an underdog became an unlikely underdog itself, narrowly escaping a direct-to-DVD release to win every award in sight, including the Oscar for Best Picture. Boyle's kaleidoscopic film about a poor young Indian man who against the odds makes it on the Indian version of the TV show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and realizes that the experiences in his life have given him all the answers he needs to win and lift himself up out of poverty may be too full of contrivances and conveniences for some, but I was totally engrossed in it from the start, and right alongside the characters emotionally until the euphoric ending.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Ancient World

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. You can be a part of it, too! Just pick three movies that fit the week's theme and write a bit about them - couldn't be easier!

We've been under siege by snow here in NYC recently, to the point where I had Tuesday off from work, which has thrown my whole sense of time off. Yes, that's a somewhat long-winded way of saying that I forgot today was Thursday so I'm doing this at work now (SHHHH - don't tell!). But that's okay, because we're time-travelling this week, back to the Ancient World. Now, this leaves a bit of leeway, but I'm taking it as a B.C. sort of thing. Biblical epics and dinosaurs, y'all!

The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille, 1954) If I've said it once, I've said it a hundred times: This is the most entertaining biblical epic ever devised, and there is simply no topping it. You've got Heston at his staunchest, Yul Brenner at his most intense, Vincent Price and Edward G. Robinson being themselves for some reason, and, above all, MISS Anne Baxter, wrapping her moist red lips around every juicy line like watermelon in a desert, making a meal out of the single word "Moses". Add to that the truly biblical narration by the Voice of God, Mr. DeMille himself, and of course, the greatest special effect in movie history, the parting of the red sea. It may be four hours long, but damn if it doesn't keep me involved for every single second, no matter how many times I've seen it.

Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963) From the sublime to the ridiculous, we have one of history's most notorious flops, but not because it wasn't a bit of a box office sensation. No, audiences flocked to see Elizabeth Taylor as the famous Egyptian ruler, but the film was so expensive that it never recouped its costs. Every bit of its massive budget shows onscreen, but unfortunately the film is kind of a snooze, despite its beauty. Oh, it's always entertaining to watch Taylor and Richard Burton, but when they're not sharing the screen, Cleopatra is a bore, not engrossing enough to be a Serious Historical Drama, not camp enough to be an Entertaining Biblical Epic.

Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979) "He's NOT the Messiah; he's a VERY NAUGHTY boy!" Every film Monty Python ever made is hilarious, but for me it's a close race between this and Holy Grail as their funniest. Taking the biblical epic and giving it an even more satirical twist than Mel Brooks's very funny History of the World, Part I, Life of Brian imagines the story of Jesus Christ through the life of a boy born next door on the same night, culminating in a famous scene of the crucified singing their advice to "Always Look On the Bright Side of Life". The film has been accused of blasphemy ever since it was released, but in my opinion, you can make fun of ANYTHING as long as it's funny. And dear God, Life of Brian is FUNNY.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Remakes/Sequels/Reboots Of A Movie You Want To See

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

Well, I suppose it was inevitable this topic would come up! Remakes and sequels and "reboots" are all the rage in Hollywood these days. To be honest, I am mostly not a fan. If a movie was good once, that does not mean that it will necessarily be good again with a different team, as movie after movie after movie has proven.

HOWEVER. There are some films that have great concepts that resulted in mediocre-to-bad movies, and that's where I think Hollywood should be focusing their remake/reboot energy. Movies, perhaps, like these.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Stephen Norrington, 2003) This is as great a premise as they come: A rogue's gallery of sci-fi, fantasy, and adventure characters (Captain Nemo, Tom Sawyer, Dr. Jekyll, Dorain Gray, etc.) team up for a secret mission. Unfortunately, the film absolutely squanders this great premise with a director who didn't seem to have any clue what he was doing. The comic books the movie was based on had a sort of deadpan fun with the audacity of the concept, but the film takes it at face value. In fact, Showtime's series Penny Dreadful does a much better job of this, going full-on melodramatic Victorian Gothic horror show, but you don't even have to go that route. Just infuse the concept with some of the audacity and fun of the comic books and it could be really great, instead of just fine.

The Brothers Grimm (Terry Gilliam, 2005) Look, I LOVE me some Terry Gilliam, and I LOVE me some "fairy tales are real" nonsense. But this is an unholy mess of a movie, in part because it's too focused on plot, which has never been Gilliam's strong suit. He's great at creating worlds, and does a fantastic job of that here, too. But after that, the whole thing falls apart, from the script to the casting to all non-design artistic decisions. Recast it and give the reigns to Guillermo del Toro. He'll know what to do with this concept.

The Happening (M. Night Shyamalan, 2008) You remember the trailers for this, right? INCREDIBLY creepy. And there's a whole lot of that creepiness in Shyamalan's first R-rated film, too. But unfortunately, it's also saddled with appallingly terrible Z-grade acting from A-list stars and an explanation (it's not even worthy of being called a twist) that is pulled out of nowhere, thus robbing the movie of everything it has going for it. Hand the script over to Stephen King and then give the director's chair to Bryan Bertino (The Strangers), and this would be much better. Oh, and maybe change that stupid title, too?

Friday, March 3, 2017

Mt. Rushmore of Movies Blogathon


SOOOOOOOO.... I saw these posts on Dell on Movies and Rambling Film and I thought to myself "Mt. Rushmore? OF MOVIES?? I MUST WRITE!" And then I realized I had only a day to decide on a topic and pick the ultimate FOREVER four. And such things are usually NOT easy.

But then I realized I had one. THE one. The one where I could pick the absolute indisputable four for ever and ever of all time to be carved in stone and displayed for the masses. So here we go:

THE MT. RUSHMORE OF MOVIES WHERE
THE ROMANTIC LEADS DON'T END UP TOGETHER
(aka, The Great Three-Hankie Weepies)


Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) That entire last scene at the airport is just beyond perfect: "...the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that. Here's looking at you kid." ...AND CUE TEARS.

Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945) How cruel that these two don't even get a proper goodbye: "I must go." "Yes you must," and his hand on her shoulder. CURSE YOU, Dolly Messiter and your awful timing!

Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1998) Another absolutely perfect final scene: "You will never age for me, nor fade, nor die." "Write me well." And she lives on, as his heroine for all time. Glorious.

In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000) This one hurts differently than the others. This one hurts after our two lovers have taken their leave, as he whispers his secret love into a hole, covers it with mud, and leaves it there, never to be shared or spoken of again.

...no, YOU'RE crying! I just have a piece of grit in my eye...

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - On The Run

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join us each week as we pick three movies that fit the week's theme and tell each other about them. It's fun!

Uh oh.

You've just done something bad. Something wrong. Something you weren't supposed to. And the wrong person found out.

What do you do?

You go on the run.

Just like the people in this week's Thursday Movie Picks!

No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007) Poor Llewelyn Moss. He happens across the aftermath of a violent shootout with no apparent survivors and a briefcase full of money. He thinks it's his lucky day. Unfortunately for him, there's a tracking device in the briefcase, and both sides want it back. As do the police, naturally. And even more unfortunately, one of the men after the briefcase is one Anton Chigurh, a quiet, possibly insane, deadly force. The Coen Brothers' thriller won the Best Picture Oscar and it's a tense, brutal film with killer performances and beautifully bleak cinematography. It's too bleak for me to enjoy, but I do respect the hell out of it.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969) Butch Cassidy runs the Hole in the Wall Gang of outlaws. The Sundance Kid is his right hand man. After a train robbery goes awry, the two of them find themselves on the run without the gang and with Sundance's lady. I probably don't need to tell you what happens from there in this American classic with two devastatingly handsome star turns from Paul Newman and Robert Redford, but if you don't know, you should see this. The final standoff may feel a little tame after Bonnie & Clyde, but the film builds it up into a pretty emotional climax.

North By Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959) Roger Thornhill is having a VERY bad time of things. First he gets kidnapped by some nattily-dressed thugs thinking he's someone named George Kaplan, then they drug him and send him home behind the wheel of a car after he fails to convince them of his true identity. Then his mother has to get him from prison, no one at the house the kidnappers took him to admits to recognizing him, and when he finds the man who owns the house, that man is stabbed in the back while in Roger's arms. Yeah, you'd run in that situation, too! Writer Ernest Lehman wanted to write "the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures," and by George, he just might have done it. I've probably seen this more times than any other Hitchcock film, and it's just as entertaining every time - probably the most purely entertaining film he ever made. Cary Grant is perfect as Thornhill, James Mason a deliciously suave villain, Eva Marie Saint the perfect Hitchcock blonde, and the entire supporting cast is chock full of great turns. An All-Time Favorite of mine, for sure!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Best of 2016 (Part Two)

AND NOW! We move on the more marquee categories - the actors, actresses, writers, and directors who made my favorite contributions to their films in 2016.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Arrival
Elle
The Little Prince
Moonlight
The Handmaiden (WINNER)
Everyone and their mother has attempted to adapt Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince to film, but this was the first that truly captured the spirit of the novel, with the stroke of genius of making it as much about the act of reading The Little Prince as it about the plot itself. Elle is yet another example of why we should call a novel "unfilmable" at our own risk. Arrival's screenplay plays its hand so subtly that the big reveal both is and isn't a total surprise - a pretty neat trick! Moonlight's words are pure poetry, but never sound writerly. But how anyone could read Sarah Waters's Fingersmith and make The Handmaiden, which aside from completely changing the time and place of the novel, is actually even crazier than the novel, is mind-boggling.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Hell Or High Water
The Lobster (WINNER)
Manchester By The Sea
The Witch
Zootopia
Even setting aside the perfect use of period language in The Witch, it unfolds at a perfect pace for maximum scariness. Zootopia may be a little bit TOO on the nose, but damn if its insightful political commentary doesn't play like gangbusters, as does its clever comedy (sloths at the DMV!). Hell or High Water has the year's tightest, most quotable script, if not the most groundbreaking. Kenneth Lonergan continues to prove that he understands human beings and how they grieve better than just about any other writer with his near-perfect script for Manchester By The Sea. And in The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos found a perfect vehicle for his pitch-black sense of humor and deadpan, with an allegory that will touch anyone who has ever been single deeply.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Mahershala Ali, Moonlight 
Tom Bennett, Love & Friendship
Alden Ehrenrich, Hail, Caesar!
Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash (WINNER)
Lucas Hedges, Manchester By The Sea
Lucas Hedges brings a great "real-kid" quality to his performance, and his nervous breakdown is as heartbreaking as it is hilarious. We can feel Mahershala Ali's presence long after his character is gone from Moonlight, such an indelible character does he create in such limited time. The rhythms of Tom Bennett's speech patterns in Love & Friendship are completely unlike anything else I've ever heard - a truly original comic creation that left me needing to pause and replay his scenes after I had stopped laughing. Alden Ehrenrich would make this list even if the only scene he had was "Would that it were so simple," but he does so much more. But his scene partner Ralph Fiennes truly outdid himself in A Bigger Splash, playing one of those annoying people who always has to be the center of attention, and gets it through the expenditure of lots of energy and volume. It's a tour de force you can't look away from, even if you wanted to.

 BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Olivia Colman, The Lobster
Naomie Harris, Moonlight (WINNER)
Lupita Nyong'o, Queen of Katwe
Molly Shannon, Other People
Michelle Williams, Manchester By The Sea
Everyone in Manchester is always doing their best work when in a scene with Michelle Williams. That's not an accident. Whatever emotional impact the film has, it's all due to her performance. Lupita Nyong'o gets to show lots of range in Queen of Katwe as the titular chess prodigy's young mother, and she tops even her great Oscar-winning performance in 12 Years a Slave, telling us all we need to know about this woman just by the way she walks. Olivia Colman is the perfect vessel for Lanthimos's deadpan dialogue as the Hotel Manager; thanks to her, you'll never look at a toaster the same way again. Even though her character is dying of cancer, Molly Shannon makes sure she comes alive, bringing her natural good humor to bear, equal parts defense mechanism and genuine good feelings. Pity poor Naomie Harris, though. Were Viola Davis not fraudulently competing in this category at the Oscars, her fierce, raw portrait of an addict mother at three stages of her life would likely have swept awards season, and justifiably so.
BEST LEADING ACTOR
 Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Connor Jessup, Closet Monster
Peter Simonischek, Toni Erdmann
Denzel Washington, Fences (WINNER)
Jessup lets us see the genuine fear and longing battling it out for dominance in his sensitive portrait of a damaged gay teen coming of age. Ryan Gosling does it all in La La Land - sings, dances, plays piano - and he does it all with the same effortlessness that marks his off-the-charts chemistry with Emma Stone. Grant's bottomless charm goes a long way towards making St. Clair a sympathetic character, but he's also sneakily funny as Florence's devoted husband/failed actor.  Jack Nicholson sure has big shoes to fill in the godforsaken Toni Erdmann remake, since Simonischek is so effortlessly sympathetic and weird simultaneously. It's a tricky balance that he pulls off to perfection. No one this year can touch Denzel's Troy Maxson, though. He's a true force of nature in Fences, swinging the entire world over to his axis wherever he goes. This is the best he's been in ages, and it's not like he's ever been one to phone it in.

BEST LEADING ACTRESS
Jessica Chastain, Miss Sloane
Viola Davis, Fences (WINNER)
Krisha Fairchild, Krisha
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Natalie Portman, Jackie
The opening and closing close-ups of Krisha Fairchild's face are astonishingly precise - and the rest of her performance as a recovering alcoholic whose return home does not go as planned packs quite a wallop.  Isabelle Huppert has the trickiest part of the year in Elle, but thankfully the character couldn't be better suited to her gifts, and hot damn does she deliver as a woman who isn't sure what she's feeling, or even what she should be feeling, after getting raped. Jessica Chastain gets to sink her teeth plenty of scenery as the year's ultimate "nasty woman", and since she never lets subtlety get away from her entirely, it's a perfectly satisfying four-course meal. Natalie Portman was born to play Jacqueline Kennedy, but her portrait of a first lady in mourning isn't just about her perfect voice and looks, it's about the modulations in her speaking tone that speak volumes, and in how hollow she goes behind the eyes as she moves through her grief. But no one this year gave a more volcanic performance than Viola Davis in Fences. She's so disarmingly fun and flirty with her lout of a husband in the opening scenes that when the big snot-filled breakdown monologue comes, it's like a tidal wave hitting the audience. As she unleashes the full force of her pent-up anger and fear and love and grief, and stands up for what she deserves, it's not just Rose Maxson doing so - it's every woman who has ever been taken for granted and taken advantage of, for every woman who has suppressed her own hopes and dreams for a man, for every marginalized person who has watched and patiently waited and suffered in silence as others simply took what they wanted. She is all of us. And we will not be ignored.

BEST DIRECTOR
Park Chan-Wook, The Handmaiden
Damien Chazelle, La La Land (WINNER)
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster
Pablo Larraín, Jackie
The totality of Larraín's vision for Jackie is absolutely stunning. Would that all biopics could be this focused and powerful. Barry Jenkins made Moonlight one of the most thematically, visually, and sonically beautiful films ever. No one else could have made The Lobster, one of the year's most unique films in terms of plot and tone, and Yorgos Lanthimos shepherded every single element together to make something completely singular. The Handmaiden is one of the most demanding films of the year - it's also one of the most purely enjoyable, so fleet on its feet and so willing to go where few other films would dare. Park Chan-Wook also makes sure all the technical elements are impeccable. Damien Chazelle made La La Land a technical dazzlement that feels entirely current despite using a form and technique rooted in the past. It's a perfect blend, reinvigorating the musical by going to places modern-day audiences aren't used to going. This was his dream project, and you can see the thought and care put into every frame.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Best of 2016 (Part One)

So many movies are released every year that it's nearly impossible to see them all within the confines of January 1 - December 31. So I usually give myself until the Oscars to see everything. After all, that's when the year in film truly ends, right?

Anyway, I'll post my Top Ten (or whatever it is this year) tomorrow, on Oscar day. But for now, let's look at all the other things Oscar will be awarding tomorrow. Starting with the tech categories...

BEST MAKE-UP & HAIRSTYLING
 Closet Monster
The Dressmaker (WINNER)
Florence Foster Jenkins
The Handmaiden
Sing Street
Florence Foster Jenkins is the showiest of these, what with all the period styles and sick makeup for Meryl, but there's careful attention paid to the differences in class and how people of different social strata present themselves. Sing Street gets to the performative, shifting nature of identity that occurs in adolescence in fun ways. The Handmaiden is mostly here for the wonderful hair creations that sit atop Lady Hideko's head - each one some new gorgeous marvel. Closet Monster and The Dressmaker both have makeup as central to the story. Closet Monster's looks appropriate for a talented teen, but The Dressmaker wins for how it underscores the film's central themes about the power of outer transformation.