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.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - TV Edition: One-Season Wonders

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 and writing a bit about them.

One of the most frustrating things about TV shows is that you never know how long they're going to last. You can put hours of time into watching them and get attached to the characters only to be rewarded by the show getting cancelled at the end of its first season - if it even makes it that far! And this week on Thursday Movie Picks: TV EDITION, that's what we're talking about - those weird, wonderful shows that not enough people loved as much as we did to stick around longer than one season.

So NoTORIous (2006) Yes, Tori Spelling had a sitcom. Yes, it aired on VH1 for one season. And YES, it is HILARIOUS. It's a funhouse mirror version of Tori's own life, complete with dad Aaron Spelling appearing as a disembodied voice a la Charlie's Angels and, in the most brilliant stroke of casting, Loni Anderson as her mother. The series is "about" how Tori wants to be taken seriously and for people to like her for her (as opposed to her daddy's money), as well as how her upbringing at the hands of her self-absorbed mother has affected her. Co-starring Cleo King as Tori's beloved nanny and Zachary Quinto as her gay best friend Sasan, So NoTORIous is far better than  you would ever imagine it being - constantly surprising and occasionally even surreally bizarre.

Ben and Kate (2012) Kate (Dakota Johnson) is a hard-working, practical single mom. Her brother Ben (Nat Faxon) is a free-spirited professional underachiever. When Ben comes back to town after a long stint away, the two realize that they each might be just what the other needs in order to be their best selves. Heart-warming and humorous, I am at a real loss as to why this show wasn't a bigger hit than it was. Faxon and Johnson have great familial chemistry, Kate's kid is ADORABLE and an utterly unprecious actress, and the supporting cast is full of ringers, none better than Lucy Punch as Kate's best friend BJ, who more than deserved some awards recognition for her absurd, hysterical performance.

No Tomorrow (2016) What if you met the perfect guy, and he turned out to be a doomsday prophet? That's the dilemma facing Evie, a fussy middle manager at a supply warehouse, in the hunky, British-accented form of Xavier, the free-spirited and otherwise pretty normal guy she meets at the farmers' market. Xavier has science to back up his apocalypse theory, and he also has an "apoca-list" of all the things he wants to do in the eight months before the world ends. Evie falls for him (and honestly, who WOULDN'T fall for Joshua Sasse?), and gets caught up in his world, making her own list and crossing off items with Xavier. Romantic comedy is tough to get right on TV (you can only believably keep the central couple apart for so long, and most rom-coms end when they get together), but No Tomorrow does a damn good job of it, in part because Tori Anderson and Joshua Sasse have incredible chemistry, and in part because as the series goes on, both are revealed to be far weirder and more interesting as people than they seem at first glance. It also helps that the supporting cast, while in many ways stock characters, get fun storylines and actors that make them feel like genuine individuals. And honestly, the ticking clock of the apocalypse helps too - the focus of the series isn't a "will-they-won't-they-OF-COURSE-THEY-WILL", but rather a "how do these two people affect each other, for better and/or worse," which is much more interesting.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Meltdowns

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Participation is easy: Just pick three movies that fit the week's theme and write a bit about them. It's fun - promise!

This week on Thursday Movie Picks: Meltdowns. These can be lots of fun or very scary to watch, depending. But the greatest ones are the ones we watch happen in slow motion, not necessarily knowing what we're watching until it's too late. Ones like...

Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) The fall of Norma Desmond, Greatest Film Star Of Them All (TM) is a true horror story, and Gloria Swanson's tremendous portrayal is a thing to behold. That famous final scene has become iconic for a reason - the direct address to the camera implicating all of us, the little people in the dark, in creating the monster she became and the pitiful thing she's become. One of the most brilliant films Hollywood has ever produced.

American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999) "I'm just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose," says Kevin Spacey's Lester Burnham. And, well, he actually does have something to lose: his life. This takedown of the seemingly perfect suburbia of America at the turn of the millennium is pitched VERY high, but the moments that work are all-timers: Mena Suvari doing the cheer routine, Lester serving his wife and her lover at the drive-thru window, Annette Bening singing "Don't Rain on My Parade", and that KILLER dinner table scene, a perfect meltdown from both husband and wife. And of course, there's also the video of that damned plastic bag, which you either love or hate.

Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011) Annie is having a rough go of it. In the downturn of the economy she had to close her bakery, and now she has no money and is working at a job she hates. Oh, and her best friend is marrying an apparently pretty wealthy guy. AND wants Annie to be her maid of honor. And the pressure, well... let's just say it gets to her. Kristen Wiig's performance brilliantly toes the line between making us laugh with Annie and laugh at her, often at the same time. The entire cast is phenomenal, but none more so than Rose Byrne's delicious take on the wealthy, effortlessly likable (and effortlessly bitchy) Helen, and scene-stealer Melissa McCarthy, in the role that won her a well-deserved Oscar nomination.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Movies About Movies

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

This week on Thursday Movie Picks, we are covering one of my favorite topics: Movies About Movies. It's always fun when Hollywood turns its lens on itself, allowing us to see the inner workings of how our favorite pieces of entertainment get made. Some of my favorite movies are about movies, but I've used them already for this series, so I decided to eschew those in favor of ones that I really like but haven't talked much about here.

Bowfinger (Frank Oz, 1999) Bobby Bowfinger is a movie producer who has finally saved up enough money to direct a film of his own - just north of $2,000! The only problem is, he needs a big company to handle the distribution. He gets one executive to agree, but only if he gets Kit Ramsey, the hottest action star around, to star. When that doesn't happen, Bobby decides to film the movie guerilla-style without Kit knowing. The problem is, Kit is already paranoid, and the film's alien invasion premise makes things worse, so he goes into hiding, forcing Bobby to hire a look-alike to finish the film. This very funny satire features Eddie Murphy as both Kit and his look-alike Jiff, Steve Martin as Bobby, and Heather Graham and Christine Baranski as two of the actresses working on the film. Bowfinger mostly forgotten now, which... honestly feels about right. It's not one of the greats. But it is REALLY funny, and more than worth a watch.

For Your Consideration (Christopher Guest, 2006) Leave it to Christopher Guest and his bitingly funny repertory troupe to make one of the most cutting satires about the film industry. No one is safe in this scathingly hilarious movie about a small, slightly overly self-important independent film that gets turned into the talk of the town because of one blogger's comment about it maybe being in the hunt for an Oscar. All the Guest regulars you know and love are there: Parker Posey is again a stand-out as the ambitious younger star on the rise, and Eugene Levy, Jane Lynch, Fred Willard, and John Michael Higgins reliably steal every scene they're in. But the genius Catherine O'Hara gives the performance of her career as the steadily working but un-famous character actress Marilyn Hack. She gives a completely vanity-free performance, exposing every nook and cranny of Marilyn's psyche as she is suddenly thrust into the spotlight. It's a brilliant performance in a killer movie.

Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller, 2008) The novelty may have worn off a bit on this one, but I still laugh at pretty much anything, from Ben Stiller's maniacally committed action-hero posturing to Tom Cruise's delicious flights of fat-suited cursing to, above all, Robert Downey Jr.'s demented comic genius as an Australian method actor playing an African-American. Tropic Thunder may be a little bit stupid, but it's goddamned COMMITTED to it, and it plays like gangbusters for me, every single damn time.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Best of 2017 (Part Four)




10. Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino) After seeing this for the second time, I kept trying to write a review and couldn't. The best review, I think, was my reaction on first seeing the film: I had found the first half or so a little too slow for my tastes, but when the lights came up at the end of the credits, I realized that I had been physically holding myself together so as to keep from falling apart in the crowded cinema. The cumulative power of this film is incredible, thanks to the patient observations Guadagnino makes and the stunning performances from the leads, especially Timothée Chalamet.