Thursday, December 31, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Snowy Winter Movies

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

It's the last Thursday Movie Picks of the year! And so, I WILL NOT miss it! But, in order to achieve that goal, I gotta do this quick-and-dirty style.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, 2011) I didn't like this one as much as Niels Arden Oplev's Swedish version (which I saw first), largely because it is cold, remote, and largely sedate - which wouldn't be a problem if it didn't have that incredible, pulse-racing credits sequence, which captures an energy the story could never hope to match. But when I think of winter, this is pretty much what it looks and feels like.

Frozen (Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, 2013) Olaf the Snowman is the MAN. This smart update of Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen is a future classic. Proof? You already know the songs. At least one of which by heart.

Fargo (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1996) The Coen Brothers' masterpiece? Quite possibly. A masterpiece of tone and comic timing.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Holiday/Vacation Movies

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

As the British say, "We're going off on holiday!" Well, we're not. But the characters in these movies are!

M. Hulot's Holiday (Jacques Tati, 1953) Jacques Tati's iconic bumbling simpleton M. Hulot goes on vacation to the French coast, and chaos follows in his wake, as it tends to do. There are so many classic gags in this film that I can't pick a favorite - the taffy, the dinner table, the wind in the lobby, Hulot's tennis serve.... and those are just four. This gentle comedy is perfect for introducing younger children to both black & white film and foreign films, since it's just plain funny and uses hardly any dialogue. It's one of my All-Time Favorites.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956) Talk about your holiday gone wrong. American doctor Jimmy Stewart and his wife Doris Day are traveling abroad with their young son when Jimmy unwittingly stumbles on an assassination plot. To ensure his silence, his son is kidnapped. Fun for everyone! A remake of Hitchcock's own 1934 film, this is superior in nearly every way, especially during the nail-biting, dialogue-free sequence at the Royal Albert Hall.

Summertime (David Lean, 1955) Spinster middle-aged wallflower secretary Jane Hudson (Katherine Hepburn in one of her best performances) takes the vacation of her life to Europe, and while in Venice, she meets swoon-worthy Rossano Brazzi. A whirlwind romance ensues, changing Jane's life forever. Read more of my thoughts on the beautiful film here.

Merry Christmas, everyone! May your holidays be merry and bright!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Family Get-Together/Reunions

Written as part of the blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join in the fun by picking three movies related to the week's topic and telling us about them!

I have a complicated relationship with my family. I love them, but I don't necessarily like being around them, particularly my extended family. I mean, they're nice, but they are so so different from me that we rarely have much to talk about. A few sentences updating each other on our lives and we're done. Commence another few hours of stuffing my face because I don't have anything more to say.

Although honestly, not many of the families in these films are much better...

This Is Where I Leave You (Shawn Levy, 2014) As unfortunately so often happens, the tricky, interesting tone of Jonathan Tropper's novel doesn't quite survive the transition from page to screen, despite one of the best casts in recent years. Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, Corey Stoll, and Adam Driver return to their childhood home for their father's funeral. Naturally, their mother, Jane Fonda, wants them to do certain things and behave in a certain way and they don't quite want to listen. Hijinks ensue. I so wish this was better, although it's not bad.

August: Osage County (John Wells, 2014) Again, Tracty Letts's searing family dramedy doesn't quite survive the transfer from stage to screen, but here it's mostly the fault of the director John Wells, who doesn't really have a good feeling for staging, camera movement, or rhythm, all of which are of supreme importance to the material. Thankfully, the cast mostly makes up for this with tremendous performances: Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, and Juliette Lewis are perfection as three sisters who  return to home after their father goes missing. Their mother (Meryl Streep in one of her more "actorly" performances) is a venemous dragon lady with cancer of the mouth (both literally and figuratively), and Margo Martindale is her sister who tries to smooth things over. Needless to say, things don't go well ("EAT YOUR FISH, BITCH!").

Dan in Real Life (Peter Hedges, 2007) The best of this bunch, and - go figure - the only one not adapted from another source. Steve Carell is a lonely widower and syndicated newspaper columnist with three daughters who meets the perfect woman (Juliette Binoche, of course) at a bookstore on the way to the annual family get-together. Unfortunately for him, she shows up at the gathering, too, on the arm of his brother (Dane Cook, because.... really?!?!?). Will Dan gain the courage to stand up for himself and go after the woman of his dreams? Yeah, it's pretty predictable, but this is never less than enjoyable, and performances kick it up to great.

Death at a Funeral (Frank Oz, 2007/Neil LaBute, 2010) Go ahead, pick one: British with swoon-worthy Matthew McFadyen or American with raucous Chris Rock. They're both hysterically funny. and they both have everyone's favorite imp, Peter Dinklage, and terrifically funny stoned performances from Alan tudyk and James Marsden respectively.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Movies Set in a Hotel

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 telling us about them!

Ah, hotels! The glamour! The romance! The allure of travel!

...or at least it used to be, way back when. Nowadays, hotels are either super-luxurious (and thus super-expensive) or cheap cinder-block rooms with barely any class to them at all.

Guess which I prefer?

The Gay Divorcee (Mark Sandrich, 1934) Not the best of the Astaire-Rogers pictures, but one of their earliest and most enjoyable. All the tropes of their films are set here, and in high style (the film received an Oscar nomination for Art Direction) at a European hotel where Ginger goes to stage an affair so she can get a divorce. Edward Everett Horton is her bumbling lawyer (and was there a better, gayer bumbler in Old Hollywood?) and ex-fiancee of her much-married Aunt Hortense (Alice Brady), Erik Rhodes the man she's supposed to get caught with, and Fred of course a friend of Horton's who once nurtured a crush on Ginger. If that all sounds like every other of the pair's films, then let me help: This is the one with "Night and Day", Betty Grable, and the fabulous 20-minute finale to "The Continental".

Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961) One of the great mysteries of cinema, Last Year at Marienbad sort of defies description at a plot level. It concerns a man and woman meeting at a hotel. He says they have met before, she says they have not. But in the hands of screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet, founder of the "new novel", it becomes so much more: a treatise on memory, a puzzle to be solved, a gorgeous bauble to look at as a jeweler looks at a diamond.

Plaza Suite (Arthur Hiller, 1971) Neil Simon wrote three Suite plays (the other two are California and London), and this is the best. Three scenes take place in the same suite at New York's famed Plaza Hotel. These films perhaps don't feel like great choices for adaptations from the stage, as the plays are designed to take place on one set and make good use of the three-act structure, but the star turns from Barbara Harris, Lee Grant, Maureen Stapleton, and of course Walter Matthau, justify the film's existence. If you're allergic to Matthau, stay away, but otherwise, this is an alternately touching and funny picture.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Con Artists

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 telling us about them!

Ready, steady, GO: Con Artists




Sorry, I'm still in a turkey coma from last week. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and I had two celebrations, one on Thursday and one on Friday. This was my first year traveling to celebrate the holiday since college. And I was also cooking. So I missed last week's Thursday movie picks. :-(

So I wanted to be back this week with a vengeance.

Except that I forgot today was Thursday.


Oh well. I shall soldier on anyway! I've got one modern classic, and two Classic classics.

Ocean's Eleven (Steven Soderbergh, 2001) Effortlessly cool and with enough movie star charisma and swagger for eleven films, Soderbergh's update of the classic Rat Pack film is pure, endlessly rewatchable movie fun.

The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941) Barbara Stanwyck's seduction of Henry Fonda's dim-witted mark is one for the ages.

Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1933) Only Lubitsch could make a con film this sophisticated, sexy, and funny. Indelible performances from conwoman Miriam Hopkins and single socialite Kay Francis, as well as suave Hubert Marshall, the man caught between them.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Asian Language Movies Set in South East Asia (Non-Horror)

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join in by picking three films that fit the week's theme and telling us about them.

This week on Thursday movie picks, we are traveling to South East Asia. I'm going to be honest: I haven't seen too many movies from this area of the world, despite some of them having rich cinematic histories. BUT! I will not let that stop me! I shall make some picks anyway!

Bwakaw (Jun Luna, 2012) This lovely, lyrical tale of a taciturn old gay man and the dog who might just melt his heart is far better and more affecting than a film with that subject matter probably has any right to be. But Bwakaw has humor and heart and a tremendous performance from Eddie Garcia in the lead. Seek it out by any means necessary, because I can't imagine a person who won't enjoy this.

Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2002) I've been slowly making my way through the filmography of "Thai Joe" Weerasethakul, one of the most potent, unique voices working in modern cinema. Meaning, I've seen this one, and hope to find the time to see his next, Tropical Malady. This one does not quite have the sense of mysticism that apparently colors the director's other works (especially the Palme d'Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), but it has a magic all its own. The plot - such as it is - concerns a Burmese immigrant to Thailand as he tries to get treated for a strange rash covering his body and his landlady. But plot means little here, as Joe is really working more towards a mood. This is a S - L - O - W movie; the opening credits come 45 minutes in, and oddly enough they feel perfectly placed. But there's also a strange, special kind of alchemy that happens when you are able to get on the film's wavelength.

...and that's it! That's the extent of my knowledge of South East Asian cinema. I could tell you to go watch some Lav Diaz films, but I haven't seen them, and so cannot personally vouch for their quality.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks: Movies about Music/Making Music/Musicians

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 telling us about them!

Well, October is over, so back to our "regularly-scheduled programming" (read: non-scary) on Thursday Movie Picks. This week: Movies centered around music. I had to re-pick this week as I missed the note on there being no films based on real-life people, so... here goes!

Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000) I can't even with this movie. One of my All-Time Favorites. Crowe's semi-autobiographical film so perfectly captures the feeling of not just a specific time and place, but of that time in one's life between childhood and adulthood. I could go on and on about the perfect cast (Frances McDormand as one of the all-time great screen mothers... Kate Hudson in a luminous star-making turn... Billy Crudup and Jason Lee with AMAZING period hair... Patrick Fugit as the most appealing narrator ever... Philip Seymour Hoffman cracking wise and dispensing wisdom....), but what I really love about Almost Famous is the feeling it conjures up, and how effortlessly it plays.

That Thing You Do! (Tom Hanks, 1996) You'd think Tom Hanks would have directed more after this perfectly entertaining film about a 60's band's rise to the top. He's even great in it as the band's big-label manager. Tom Everett Scott, Jonathan Schaech, Steve Zahn, and Ethan Embry make for great distinctive personalities as the band members, and Liv Tyler makes an impression as "The Girl". And the soundtrack is to DIE. Long Live The Oneders!

Frank (Lenny Abrahamson, 2014) This isn't a GREAT film, but it does contain what is possibly Michael Fassbender's best performance as the giant-head wearing musical genius Frank, and a great performance from Maggie Gyllenhall as one of his band members - a much more typical role for her, but damn if she isn't PERFECT. The music is at points extremely weird, but also kind of perfect for what it is, and often laugh-out-loud funny. Domnhall Gleeson makes for a perfectly agreeable narrator, and the film is a good watch. But it doesn't have much staying power outside of Fassbender's performance. Also: He has a surprisingly good singing voice, if not "good" in a traditional sense.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks: Secret Agents & Spies

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Participate yourself by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and telling us about them.

This week's theme for Thursday Movie Picks correlates to the weekend's big release, the new James Bond film SPECTRE. Can I let you in on a secret? Up until Skyfall, I had never seen a Bond film. Not a single one. I'm not really sure why. I've just never been able to muster up the excitement for them.

But anyway, that's not really the point. The point is, there's much more to Secret Agents and Spies on film than Bond and his dirty martinis. Here are three of my favorites.

North By Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959) Probably the most exciting film Hitchcock ever directed, in which Cary Grant is mistaken for a Mr. George Kaplan, a spy who, as it turns out, doesn't exist. Which is especially unfortunate for Cary after he's photographed taking a knife out of a U.N. diplomat's back. Someone else put it there, but try telling that to the police, especially when the secret government agency who created the persona of Kaplan won't get involved at the risk of exposing their real double agent, played by the gorgeous Eva Marie Saint. With James Mason as the big baddie and Martin Landau as his underling.

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (Jay Roach, 1997) Hands down the best thing Mike Myers has ever done, Austin Powers is a dead-on hilarious parody of the 60s and spy films. But you don't have to be particularly well-versed in spy films to enjoy it. It's pure silliness, but it's absolutely INSPIRED silliness. The jokes fly fast and furious from the lips of the inimitable cast (Elizabeth Hurley, Robert Wagner, and Mindy Sterling have never been better, to say nothing of Myers in his dual role as the titular spy and his arch-nemesis Dr. Evil), and the double entendres are the best I've seen in probably any movie ever. The later sequels, The Spy Who Shagged Me and Goldmember, are basically bald rewrites of this one, but why mess with perfection?

Mission: Impossible (Brian De Palma, 1996) One of the rare franchises that has kept up a pretty much even level of quality across each film, the Tom Cruise series is one of the best in film history. This is the one that started it all, and god DAMN is it fun. When Ethan Hunt's entire Impossible Missions Force (IMF) team gets killed, the agency assumes he's the mole they've been trying to find for a while. Except he's innocent, so he has to go rogue in order to prove his innocence. Cruise's "I do my own stunts" go-for-broke star power has never been put to better use than with this character, so it's no surprise that he keeps coming back to it. And given the great directors and scriptwriters that keep coming to the series, it's clear that someone behind the scenes knows what they're doing (for what it's worth, my pick for the best of the series is the fourth, Ghost Protocol). De Palma's original lays all the groundwork with flawless sequence after flawless sequence and a roller coaster pace that only lets up in just the right amounts to relieve the (at times considerable) tension.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (Guy Ritchie, 2014) It's a pity so many people dismissed this film this summer, because it was really a blast. The cool retro vibe extended from the perfect costumes and hairdos of its (unbelievably good-looking) stars to Ritchie's filmmaking, which has never been slicker or sleeker. It's ultimately a lark, but it's a great looking one, and lots of fun. Plus, between Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, and Elizabeth Debicki, there really is something here for everyone.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Ghost Movies

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Be part of the fun by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and telling us about them!

This week, Halloween week, we are picking Ghost Movies. There are really two kinds of ghost movies - scary and sweet. And so, I have picked two from each. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two older movies are sweet and the two newer films are scary.

I should also say that I saw Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak this weekend, and...... I was underwhelmed. I get that, in the end, it's less of a ghost story than "a story with a ghost in it" to use the film's own language, but it didn't go far enough into the gothic grandeur and melodrama for me. Disappointing, despite some absolutely fantastic elements.

The Canterville Ghost (Jules Dassin, 1944) Cowardly Sir Simon of Canterville has been cursed to haunt his family castle until one of the family's descendants performs a brave deed while wearing his signet ring. You see, he ran away from a duel and his father would NOT have him besmirch the Canterville name by being a coward. Three centuries pass full of cowardly Cantervilles, but when a soldier in a battalion stationed in Canterville Castle appears to have the Canterville birthmark, the portly Simon thinks he's finally found the one to break the curse. Based on a story by Oscar Wilde and starring Charles Laughton as Sir Simon and Margaret O'Brien as his youngest descendant, Jessica, The Canterville Ghost is all sorts of fun.

The Ghost & Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Makiewicz, 1947) Young widow Lucy Muir (a luminous Gene Tierney) finally decides to strike out on her own and live with her daughter in a cottage by the sea. She was warned against it, but moves in anyway... only to find out that the place is haunted by its previous owner, the salty sea captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison, playing Rex Harrison as only he can). Their relationship starts off antagonistic, but soon cools into a mutual respect and then warms into.... can it be? YES!... love. With Natalie Wood as the Muir daughter Anna and George Sanders as the living part of the supernatural love triangle that inevitably forms, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is one of my favorite romances, and couldn't be more different from the classic TV sitcom it inspired.

The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001) It is not long after World War II on the fog-flooded island of Jersey off the coast of England. Grace (Nicole Kidman in what is probably her best performance) has been living with her two children - who suffer from a rare disease characterized by "photosensitivity"; they could die if exposed to natural light - in a large house while her husband is away at war. Thankfully, three new servants have shown up to help her and the children. And just in time, too, as her daughter has been seeing a family of ghosts in the house and windows and doors have been flinging open by themselves. The Others is a masterpiece of restraint and mood, and also genuinely scary in moments. Even after you know all the story's twists and turns, the film is still a marvel to behold. And its final shot is one of the new millennium's most chilling, haunting images

The Conjuring (James Wan, 2014) Based on a true story from renowned paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Conjuring is the best scary movie to hit theaters in quite some time, and it achieves that by taking horror back to basics: long takes, deep focus, a respect for craft, and care for its characters. The Perron family (led by Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston, perfectly ordinary empathetic) moves into a fixer-upper in 1971, and not long after moving in start to experience supernatural happenings. In fear and desperation, they turn to the Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, both fantastic), who confirm that the house is indeed haunted. By some mightily pissed off spirits. The letter-perfect period trappings contribute to the throwback feel of the film, but what really elevates The Conjuring above most horror films of the modern day is its structure: The film does not work unless you feel for the characters, and the early scenes make us feel like part of the Perron family. When things finally go south, it's not just horrifying, it's heartrending, because we feel for these characters, just like poor innocent Regan in The Exorcist and Rosemary in Rosemary's Baby.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Werewolves

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join us - I promise we won't bite - by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and telling us about them.

Quick and dirty this week, as I haven't really seen many films involving werewolves.

The Wolf Man (George Waggner, 1941) What's most surprising about this Universal monster movie is that the titular beastie doesn't really appear for much of it. But Claude Rains and Lon Chaney, Jr. give the film the gravitas it needs to work on a level deeper than the script displays on the surface.

Teen Wolf (Rod Daniel, 1985) An essential piece of '80s pop culture, this undeniably fun Michael J. Fox-starrer works much better as a teen flick than a horror, even a horror-comedy, film.

Cat People (Val Lewton, 1942) Val Lewton was the king of doing a lot with a little, and Cat People is a perfect example of that (so much so that I'm not entirely sure it really fits this week's theme). We never see the mysterious monster stalking poor Simone Simon, but this is the genesis of that old horror trope "the person walking alone at night who hears something walking behind them that stops when they stop," and damn if it isn't effective.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Asian Horror

Written for the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. It's SPOOKY for the month of October! Join us by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and telling us about them.
For this week's Halloween Special Edition, the theme is Asian Horror. I will fully admit, I have not seen a whole lot of horror films in general, let alone ones from Asia. HOWEVER, I have seen just enough to have some to pick from. God bless the Criterion Collection, which introduced me to most of these. Since a bunch of people said they weren't going to participate this week due to their lack of knowledge of Asian horror, I've gone the extra mile and picked four instead of three this week.

Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953) Based on two Japanese folk tales, Ugetsu is one of the most beautiful, restrained ghost stories ever put on film. It takes place during the Civil Wars of 16th Century Japan, where two ambitious peasants leave their little village to make their fortunes. The potter Genjuro wants to sell his wares to the wealthy while his brother-in-law Tobei wants to become a samurai. After their village is sacked, they decide to take their wives with them to the city, but soon Genjuro sends his wife back to the village, telling her he will return soon. Eventually the two men get what they want, but the price they have to pay...

Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964) Kobayashi's masterpiece tells four ghost stories (the title actually translates to ghost story). The first ("The Black Hair") is actually similar to that of Ugetsu, but the ending is more scary than sad - a man divorces his wife to live with a wealthier woman in the big city, but finds himself even more unhappy in his second marriage. He leaves his second wife and returns to his first, only to get quite the rude awakening after spending the night with her. The second ("The Woman of the Snow") involves an ice ghost who freezes men to death and bleeds them dry. The third ("Hoichi The Earless") is about a blind musician who is so talented that the underworld comes calling. And the last ("In a Cup of Tea") is based on an unfinished story about a soldier who sees a ghostly reflection in the titular drink. To call this film stunningly gorgeous is to do it a disservice. It is right up there with The Red Shoes as one of the most beautiful films ever made.

Io Island (Kim Ki-Young, 1977) The titular island is one straight out of legend - women rule and all the men who arrive mysteriously disappear. So of course a developer wants to build a tourist resort there and sends someone to investigate the strange happenings. It's sort of like a Korean version of The Wicker Man, except stranger.

House (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977) This is without a doubt the weirdest fucking movie I've ever seen. If you ever need proof that everyone in the 70s was high as fuck on every drug available, just point to this nearly indescribable movie. The plot is fairly basic: Seven Japanese schoolgirls (sporting such on-the-nose names as Gorgeous, Melody, Prof and Kung Fu) go on a trip to Gorgeous's aunt's house in the country for summer break. Neither the aunt nor the house are anything like what they seem. Except that how the story is told is... well... just watch the trailer. It'll give you a pretty good idea of the utterly bizarre insanity on display. Words simply cannot describe this one. It needs to be seen to be believed.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Villainous Children

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join us (ONE OF US... ONE OF US....) by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and telling us about them! We regular participants don't bite.... HARD....

Continuing the special October Halloween Edition of Thursday Movie Picks, this week's theme is Villainous Children. There are only so many films with actual CHILDREN as the villains, so I stretched a bit for one of them instead of picking two of the really obvious ones. And there was another that I really REALLY wanted to pick, but to do so would completely spoil the end of the movie. So without further ado, here are my eeeeeeevil picks.

Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla, 1960) One day, all the inhabitants of the village of Midwich, England, fall into a deep sleep in the middle of the day. Some months after they all wake up, all the women of childbearing age are pregnant, and they give birth rather fast, all to beautiful blond-haired children, who have some strange characteristics. Including being able to control the minds of the adults around them. This is one of the creepiest little films I've ever seen - very much a British B-movie from 1960, but incredibly well-acted and well-shot. There's a reason it's become a classic.

Let The Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) Eli is a sweet little pre-teen just like any other. And she's very sweet to poor little bullied Oskar. But just what is it she and her elderly caretaker do out late in the evenings? The truth is quite chilling, and not just because Alfredson's future classic takes place in a seemingly perpetual winter. This is an absolutely first-rate horror film. So of course Hollywood had to make its own version for people who don't like subtitles. I've heard Let Me In actually isn't bad, but even if you don't like subtitles, you owe it to yourself to see this one... 

The Orphanage (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2007) ...and this one even more. Laura moves her family into the orphanage where she grew up in order to start a home for handicapped children, like her adopted son Simón. Simón likes their new house, even drawing pictures of his five new (invisible) friends. Typical kid stuff. But then one day during a party for the new residents and their families, Simón disappears after Laura can't come with him RIGHT THEN to see one of his friends - whom she happened to see later anyway. It'd be hard to miss him, wearing a burlap sack mask and doing nasty things. So she does what she has to to find her son. The Orphanage is a great film, full stop. Scary, deeply felt, perfectly shot and edited, and with a wonderful performance from Belén Rueda as Laura. It's perhaps the saddest horror film ever made, and it also contains the single best jump scare of the past ten years.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Alfred Hitchcock Movies

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Come and join us - all you have to do is pick three films that fit the week's theme and tell us about them!

Welcome to October! That means it's Halloween month, and Thursday Movie Picks is celebrating with different scary-movie-themed picks every week. For this week, we turn to the "Master of Suspense", Alfred Hitchcock himself. The man has directed so damn many great films that it's practically obscene. I haven't seen all of them, but I have seen many of them (I had four full VHS tapes of them recorded from a TCM marathon when I was younger), and plenty of episodes of his great TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, too. Yeah, I guess you could say I'm a fan.

But... to pick just three? JUST. THREE?!?!?! Okay, fine. These are not my three favorites. Nor are they what I consider to be his three best (and yes, those are two very different things). They aren't even the three that I would tell people to start with if they had never seen even a single Hitchcock film before. These three are the ones that I think are his most underrated.

Sabotage (1936) - The most famous description of Hitchcock's style was given by the man himself, in his long-ranging interview with Francois Truffaut. It's the famous discourse on the difference between surprise and suspense - if you show a conversation between two people at a dinner table, and after a while a bomb explodes, that's surprise. However, if you show the audience the bomb under the table first, and then play the exact same scene, that's suspense. Sabotage, one of the last films he made in England before going to Hollywood, contains perhaps the most obvious - and cruelest - demonstration of that. It's only a five or six-minute sequence, but it feels twice that long for all the stress the film puts you through. Sylvia Sidney plays a woman whose husband owns a cinema. He's always been nice to her and her (much younger) brother Stevie, but she gradually begins to suspect that he's part of a terrorist gang planning a series of attacks in London. And then one afternoon, Stevie has to deliver a film canister to Piccadilly Circus...

Stage Fright (1950) - You know how everyone talks about Psycho and how shocking it was when Hitchcock killed off the film's biggest star by the halfway point? Well, he had been toying with audience's expectations and cinematic narrative conventions for years before that. Stage Fright is a bit of a lark, a trifle in a filmography as great of Hitch's, but its big twist is one of the greatest cinematic acts of pulling the rug right out from under the audience. Jane Wyman is Eve Gill, a young acting student who hides her crush, acting fellow student, from the cops, who suspect him of murdering his lover's husband. In order to prove his innocence, she becomes the temporary maid to his lover: the great actress Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich).

To Catch a Thief (1955) - I keep seeing people refer to this one as "lesser" or "minor" Hitchcock, and I just don't get it. No, it's not Vertigo or Psycho or Rear Window or even North By Northwest, but it's possibly the most purely entertaining film he ever directed, with one great scene after another. It's also boosted immeasurably by its stars, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, neither of whom were ever more alluring than they are here. Retired jewel thief John "The Cat" Robie is forced out of retirement when a copycat criminal leads the police to interrupt his quiet, comfortable life on the French Riviera. He manages to convince an insurance agent to let him keep an eye on their wealthiest clients and their jewels in the hopes of catching the impostor in the act. Only it seems one of them, Frances Stevens, knows exactly who he is... and also has a bit of a taste for danger. This is apparently legendary costume designer Edith Head's favorite film she ever worked on.

BONUS: The Ten Best Hitchcock Films (according to me... my favorites will get their own post)
1. Vertigo
2. Psycho
3. Notorious
4. Rear Window
5. Shadow of a Doubt
6. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
7. The 39 Steps
8. I Confess
9. Strangers on a Train
10. Rebecca

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

An Open Letter

Dear Matt Damon,


I have liked you as an actor ever since School Ties. And I'm sure you're a good guy. But recently, it seems as though every time you open your mouth your Straight White Male Privilege comes flooding out and it is EMBARRASSING.
I can't really speak to the whole Project Greenlight diversity issue, but this most recent slip-up, I most definitely can. "Actors are more effective when they're a mystery," huh? So by that yardstick, you must be a pretty damn ineffective actor, since everyone knows a whole lot about you - we know your best friend is Ben Affleck because you told us when doing the rounds for the film you wrote  together (Good Will Hunting, one of my favorite films), we even know who your wife is because you bring her to premieres with you and thank her in award acceptance speeches. And because of that, we know (GASP) what your sexuality is!
Yet somehow, we still believed you (and your co-star Michael Douglas, aka Mr. Catherine Zeta-Jones) as a gay man in Steven Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra. And we buy it when you fall in love and have sex with women other than your wife in other films. Because acting is ALL ABOUT making people forget that you are who you are in real life and making them believe you are whatever character you are playing. For example: We all knew Christopher Lee was not a vampire, but we were still scared shitless of him as Dracula anyway! "Mystery" doesn't ever enter the picture. The only time it might lend a helping hand is when the actor is BAD, when they're not doing their job to make the character believable. That's when we rely on our good old-fashioned intuition to help fill in holes.
Because let's face it: 99% of the time when you see someone, you assume they are straight. Even if it's only subconsciously. Because, let's face it, most people in the world are straight. And since that's the case, people are straight until proven gay. That just is how it is, and that's okay. It does, however, put the onus on gay people of all stripes to "come out" (a phrase I detest) and let people know. That's slightly unfair (more so in parts of the world where being gay is a crime or otherwise punishable offense in the eyes of other people) but it is what it is.

So at best, Matt, by saying this you are showing that you are completely ignorant of how your own craft works, and at worst you are saying something extremely damaging to gay people. It's not exactly homophobic per se, but it promotes homophobia by suggesting that gay people should not say anything about their homosexuality at the same time as you and countless others flaunt your heterosexuality around the world without giving it a second thought.
And no matter which one it is, your statements make me think less of you. And they make me less likely to see your new film, which looks like it might be really good and which I probably would have seen otherwise (and which, by your own logic, no one will see - or believe you in if they do - because there's no mystery to the fact that you are not an astronaut with world-class smarts). Because now when I look at you, all I can see is a smug straight white man who doesn't have the ability to see past the end of his nose. And why would I want to support the career of someone like that?


Dancin' Dan

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - All in the Family Edition: Adopted/Foster Families

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join in the fun by picking three films that relate to the week's theme and telling us about them!

To all my fellow Jews out there, Happy New Year, and I hope your fast was easy. That's the short reason why this posting is a bit late and a bit short today. To everyone else, HAPPY FALL! My favorite season.

Anyway, let's get right down to it, shall we?

This month's All in the Family Edition of Thursday Movie Picks focuses on Adoptive/Foster Families. This is the long reason why this posting is a bit late and short today. This is one of those times where I have to page through all the movies I've seen (thank you, Letterboxd!) and see which ones fit the theme. I just couldn't think of any off the top of my head. And then of course, when I see one that fits, I smack myself and say, "DUH! How could I forget?!"

Animal Kingdom (David Michod, 2010) J's mother has died from a self-inflicted overdose. So he gets taken in by his grandmother, formerly estranged. There's a reason for that: Her sons Darren, Craig, and Pope are a bit of a criminal element. And the police are after them. This Australian family crime drama is a stunning exercise in tension, compelling from first frame to last.

Despicable Me (Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, 2010) Gru is just your average supervillain trying to put a dastardly plot into motion. His plot? To steal the moon. But after the Chinese shrink ray (an integral part of his plan, as you can guess) he stole gets stolen from him, he adopts three adorable orphan girls to enlist their help to get it back. But the little brats start to grow on him, and he ends up (SPOILER ALERT) adopting them for real. Adorable, hilarious animated film with great voice performances all around (especially from Julie Andrews, doing an impeccable German accent as Gru's impossible-to-please mother).

The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock, 2009) The heartwarming story of a good family of White Christian Saviours who adopt a big black boy not because his mother is a no-good drug addict who barely takes care of him, not solely out of the goodness of their hearts, but because he MIGHT be good at football. And, whaddya know, they just happen to be important people at a Southern private school with a good football team! Aw, I don't mean to be mean, really I don't. The Blind Side is a perfectly nice Lifetime movie that has born the brunt of some pretty harsh, although not entirely undeserved, criticism because it managed a Best Picture nomination. It may be sickly sweet and only competently made, but the performances of Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw as the heads of the family in question are just complex enough to make it not entirely cringe-worthy. Not at all Oscar-worthy, least of all in 2009, but still.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Journalists/Reporters for Print/TV

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

Is it really Thursday again already? It feels like just yesterday that we were talking about movies on trains. And this week, the theme is journalists/reporters. Ah, the intrepid reporter bungling their way to a career-making story with nothing but pluck, gumption, and a notepad - one of my favorite movie plots! I could have gone classic this week (if you haven't seen His Girl Friday, DO IT. Rosalind Russell is tremendous in it), but I did that last week, so contemporary films were in order. Here we have, for your viewing enjoyment, two fictional journalists who got more than what they bargained for, and one real-life newsman who was much more than his opponents bargained for.

Never Been Kissed (Raja Gosnell, 1999) Josie Geller, played by a radiant Drew Barrymore, starts out as a copy editor, but then one day the Editor-in-Chief of the paper she works for gives her a "real" assignment: go undercover in a high school to report on what teenagers' lives are really like. Of course, Josie had a terrible time when she was in high school (she was nicknamed "Josie Grossy") and wants to succeed this time around. Except that she still has the same temperament she had in high school, and teens haven't changed that much in the intervening years. So then her popular younger brother (David Arquette) goes back to school too, and everyone learns that high school - even one attended by 30 year-olds - is hell, and outer appearances don't always match the inner person. It's all cliché, yes, but Barrymore is impossibly winning, and the ensemble cast (including Michael Vartan, Jessica Alba, Leelee Sobieski, Molly Shannon, John C. Reilly, James Franco, and Garry Marshall in a great cameo as the Editor-in-Chief) is very fun.

The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002) Intrepid journalist Rachel Keller is concerned about her son, who has apparently been drawing morbid pictures of his cousin Katie's death.... even before it happened. Being an intrepid journalist, she naturally decides to investigate the mysterious death of her niece. Which of course includes watching this weird-ass videotape she watched in a cabin with friends. A videotape straight out of urban legend. One that causes you to die seven days after you watch it. But Rachel finds out that the legend is all too real. And of course she bumbles her way around trying to get to the bottom of how such a tape came into existence. Both The Ring and the original Japanese film Ringu, on which it is based, have a concept that has horror built right in; the plot itself suggests that the very act of watching the film will kill you. It doesn't get much scarier than that. But Verbinski's film has a sturdier sense of mood than Hideo Nakata's original, and a great performance from Naomi Watts at its center.

Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney, 2005) Nightly News anchorman Edward R. Murrow and his team go to battle with Senator Joseph McCarthy, who is on a Communist witch hunt in 1950s America. Clooney's film so ably and completely captures not just the look but the feel of the 50s in every aspect of the production. And while the entire ensemble cast deserves praise, it's character actor David Strathairn, as Murrow, who has the biggest part, and boy does he run with the opportunity, giving a performance that transcends mere mimicry to stand on its own as a performance of solid, deep power. Clooney (whose passion project this was; his father was a TV newsman) couldn't have asked for a better actor to carry this exciting, well-made, important film.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Train Movies

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Please join us by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and telling people about them!

Ever since the dawn of film, with the Lumière brothers' "L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat" in 1896, the cinema has been in love with trains. It's hard to deny they make for pretty arresting viewing on their own, not really needing anything else to give them interest. As someone who commuted via train from Connecticut to New York City for work for seven years, I can say that the trains of today are not quite what they were: The modern sleekness has stripped away a lot of their grandeur. At any rate, these films inspired by trains are pretty great, and capture a lot (if not all) of what makes them so fascinating.

The General (Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton, 1926) Buster Keaton is a genius. A goddamn genius. The physical stunts he did are pure madness to even attempt, but he executes them with such flawless ease that it makes me jealous. And to top it all off, "The Great Stone-Face" has no flair whatsoever. He just tosses off every single death-defying stunt like it's nothing. Like he's bored. Oh, a house just fell down around me. Whatever. Oh, I just narrowly avoided getting shot by a canon which I loaded after running along a moving train, that's all. No big whoop, just another day on the job, wasn't even any fun. It's sick. The General, perhaps his finest hour, he gets the girl by rescuing both her and his beloved train in the midst of the Civil War. Shockingly, it's actually (slightly loosely) based on a true story.

The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938) Hitchcock's British pictures are quite different from his American ones, and I don't think that difference is more apparent than in this film. It's a sly little thriller, yes, but it's also a light comedy, something that, while an element of some of Hitchcock's later pictures, could never really be called a defining trait of any of them. That it works so breezily well is due in part to Hitch, but mostly to his fine, fine cast: Margaret Lockwood as our heroine, Michael Redgrave as her impossibly dashing foil, and of course Dame May Whitty as the titular old lady who may or may not have even existed in the first place. And let's not forget the delightful Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Charters & Caldicott, such perfectly British supporting characters that they were drafted to appear in two other completely different films (one of which, Night Train to Munich, not only also takes place on a train, but also co-stars Margaret Lockwood) and had a mini-series all to themselves. The Lady Vanishes is pure pleasure.

20th Century (Howard Hawks, 1934) Okay, yes, this is really only here because I've performed in the musical based on this film and it's so, so bad. But the film is fun. I mean, I ask you: Can you go wrong with a Howard Hawks-directed screwball comedy starring Carole Lombard and John Barrymore as sparring, egotistical theater folk? You cannot, my friends. You truly can NOT.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Teacher Movies

Written as part of the blogathon hosted weekly by Wandering Through the Shelves. If you haven't already, you should join us by picking three movies that relate to the week's theme and telling us about them.

My father was a high school French and Spanish teacher for twenty-four years before becoming a vice principal. My mother became a middle school social worker after working in a hospital for years. So I have a special place in my heart for films that look at the adult side of schools. I've already used some good ones in previous weeks (Dead Poet's Society, Take the Lead, Hamlet 2). These are three of my absolute favorites.

Mr. Holland's Opus (Stephen Herek, 1995) Glen Holland is a composer trying to start a family. Since there aren't exactly a whole lot of regular jobs for composers, he takes a job as a high school music teacher to make some money. What he didn't expect was that the job would take over his life, to the point that he becomes more invested in his students (including young Alicia Witt, Terence Howard, and Jean Louisa Kelly) than his son, who (of course - this being a melodrama and all) happens to be deaf. Richard Dreyfuss is great in the lead, aging Holland believably from the 50s through the 90s, and Gleanne Headley is incredibly sympathetic as his wife.

Entre les murs (Laurent Cantet, 2008) Everything about Laurent Cantet's film (titled The Class in English-speaking countries) is risky: the students are real kids, not actors, it was based on an autobiographical book by a teacher in an average French school, that teacher plays himself in the film, and it's shot like a documentary, despite being more or less scripted. So if The Class feels more true to life than other school films, that's because it is. In every possible way. Neither M. Marin nor his students nor the other teachers are perfect - they all make mistakes, even when they know in the moment that they're wrong. The dialogue in the classroom is more stimulating, and teaches the audience more about the current state of France (and possibly the world), than any other film ever made. FULL DISCLOSURE: I attempted to read the book on which this was based, and found it SO dry. The film, thankfully, is anything but. The fly-on-the-wall documentary style is an inspired choice, making everything feel like it's buzzing with energy.

School of Rock (2003, Richard Linklater) Far and away the best (read: least annoying) Jack Black has ever been, largely because he plays off the kids so well. This is slightly bending the rules a bit, as Black's character, Dewey Finn, isn't actually a teacher but a washed-up never-was rock band leader. He may be a terrible, lazy son of a bitch, but when he pretends to be his best friend to take a substitute teaching job at a prestigious prep school (he's also broke), it turns out he's a pretty good music teacher. He's also selfish, turning the kids into a band to compete in a local Battle of the Bands to prove to his old band that he's better than they are. The kids (including a young Miranda Cosgrove) are adorable, Black interacts with them brilliantly, Sarah Silverman is hilarious in a bit part (Dewey's best friend's girlfriend), and Joan Cusack is at her Cusack-ian best as the principal of the school.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

LIST: Top 40 Dance Videos (Part Four)

Here we are, at the top of the pyramid. The Top Ten. I hope you like all these as much as I do.

BUT! Before we move on to the business at hand, allow me to remind you up front that this is a list of the best dance videos, NOT the best video dance routines. If that were the case, then you would have seen a lot more from Madonna, Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, and more. I had to draw the line somewhere, and I decided I couldn't classify something as a Dance Video if the dancing took up less than half the video. Believe me, it was HARD cutting "Beat It" from this list. It was in my top three until I actually went and watched the video again... and found that the dancing doesn't even start until almost two-thirds of the way through. And the more Michael videos I watched, the more I realized that even though what dancing there was is still stellar, there wasn't nearly as much dancing in them as I remembered. In fact, the one that had the most was the edited version of "Bad", which I... <runs for cover>... HATE (I just never bought that persona from Michael).


Rest assured, were this a list of greatest music videos of all time, or of the best dance routines, there would be a LOT more MJ (and Madonna) on this list. But as it is, this is how the list stands. At this point, most of the videos speak for themselves, but I will still try to articulate why I think they're the best of the best.

10. OK Go - Here It Goes Again
I wrestled with myself over whether this actually counted or not, and finally decided it did. This treadmill routine (choreographed by Trish Sie) is a gimmick, sure, but WHAT a gimmick. It's super clever, superbly executed (in ONE TAKE!), and still mind-blowing. I still watch it in a state of "What the... How did they... Oh. My. GOD! AWESOME!" every single time.

Thursday Movie Picks - All in the Family Edition: Stepfamilies

Written as part of the blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. You should join us - all you have to do is pick three movies that fit the week's theme and tell us about them!

This month's All in the Family edition of Thursday Movie Picks is the hardest yet... partially because I didn't plan. I already picked my favorite (evil) stepmother (Anjelica Huston in Ever After), and my favorite step-siblings (Patrick and Sam from Perks of Being a Wallflower) in previous weeks. So, that leaves me with...

Well, let's just say I had to get a LITTLE bit creative.

Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006) In May 1944, Ofelia and her pregnant mother travel to the country to move in with her new stepfather... who just so happens to be one of the most ruthless Captains in Franco's army. Then she wanders into the labyrinth on the Captain's property, and... well... there's this... faun... who tell Ofelia that she is the Princess Moana, lost from home for years. But in order to prove it, Ofelia must complete three tasks, each more difficult than the last. Pan's Labyrinth is del Toro's masterpiece, a fantasmagoric wonder show seamlessly intertwining the childish world of fairy tales with the all-too-real adult world of the Spanish Civil War and uprising.

Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007) When teenager Juno asks her father and stepmother to sit down because she has something important to tell them, they thought it would be that she was expelled, or into hard drugs. But no, it turns out the idiot got pregnant (by Paulie Bleeker - didn't think he had it in him!), and now she's dealing with things way beyond her maturity level. There are many things I love about Juno, but the casting is probably my second favorite (after Diablo Cody's getting-even-better-as-it-ages script). They may be very staunchly middle American middle class, but wouldn't you want J.K. Simmons as your Dad and Allison Janney as your stepmom?

The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965) Fraulein Maria is the worst nun ever in the history of nuns: She spends her time singing and twirling around on mountaintops when she should be inside praying, she engages in all sorts of activities outside that get her dirty and ruin her habit, and then when the Mother Abbess sends her out into the world to serve as governess to the seven children of Captain Georg von Trapp, what does the bitch do? She falls in love with the man... who is in a relationship with the stunningly fabulous Baroness Schrader. But, this being a musical (even if it does take place in Nazi Germany), the Baroness sees the writing on the wall and leaves so that the not-so-star-crossed lovers can get together and possibly add to their happy brood... although really. SEVEN children? Nobody needs that many. I wrote plenty about this a while back for Hit Me With Your Best Shot, but I will say this again: This is Julie Andrews's best performance and I always think she won an Oscar for it. She should have.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

LIST: Top 40 Dance Videos (Part Three)

Inching ever-closer to the top spot....

20. Paula Abdul - Straight Up
Have you ever seen the full video of this? Because I thought I had, but then I watched it for this, and.... PAULA TAP DANCES. A CAPELLA. WTF. She also lands a triple pirouette with no help from editing tricks. Figures, since David Fincher directed this chiaroscuro beauty. This video is also proof that a good teacher (Paula) doesn't teach her students (Janet Jackson) everything she knows (if you didn't know, Paula choreographed all of Janet's early videos, and was even in the video for "What Have You Done For Me Lately", which features the most amazing shoulder-ography from Ms. Jackson).

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

BLIND SPOT #6: The French Connection

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know this wasn't on my original list. But it was playing at Film Forum and I'm playing catch-up with this project as it is, so I decided to take it in and write it up.

It's my blog. I'll do what I want!

This one had me hooked right from the blaring score and quick zoom-in title card. It announces itself as an exciting thriller right from the start, and damn if it doesn't deliver on that promise. The beginning, though, plays a little uneasy now: Within the first five minutes, Gene Hackman's "Popeye" Doyle runs down and assaults a black man after a surprise raid on a bar in a black neighborhood. The "n word" is used. A lot. And with all that's been happening recently, it made me more that a little uncomfortable; it felt like something that couldn't be explained away with the old "oh, but it was a different time," excuse. Doyle's casual racism is only denounced by his partner (Roy Scheider! Why didn't I know he was in this movie?!?) long past the point where it loses its effectiveness with their perp. In a film that wasn't very good, it would be difficult to get over it. But thankfully, The French Connection is a VERY good film, and elsewhere... what riches!

Friedkin is a master of suspense, very nearly on par with Hitchcock. It's what gives Bug such a creepy-crawly feeling of inevitable tragedy, and what saves The Exorcist from some questionable acting. The two centerpiece scenes here are terrific edge-of-your-seat, sweaty-palmed mini-masterpieces. I'm talking, of course, about the two scenes involving the subway. One underground on a platform, where Doyle plays cat-and-mouse with the crime ring's mastermind (the great Fernando Rey), and the other, the film's famous car chase, in which Doyle isn't chasing a man in another car, but rather a man in a subway on elevated tracks. The platform scene ends with the above shot - Rey's perfect smirk and wave at Doyle, letting him know that he was onto the policeman the entire time (even better: it apparently happened just this way in real life). It's a thrilling moment at the same time as it's utterly depressing - how are they ever going to catch this guy?

But Doyle catches a break later when a sniper meant to assassinate him misses and goes on the run. Doyle misses him on the subway, but commandeers a car on the street (every single person in the screening laughed at this) and chases the train to its next stop. It's easily one of the best car chases ever filmed, looking like it's taking place on real city streets that haven't been blocked off (and in fact, some weren't - Hackman actually did almost hit one car and was sent spiraling into a pole). It's so good actually, that when Doyle finally catches up with the guy, as he's coming down the stairs, thinking he got away scot-free, I actually was still on the edge of my seat, convinced that he wasn't going to get his man. Of course he does, in memorable fashion.

The film also gets at the mundanity of being a police officer in subtle ways I've never seen before: Check Doyle's gloves when they're on stakeout, all tattered and hole-y... actually, check all of the scenes when they're on stakeout, doing nothing but watching and waiting, outside in a city where it's seemingly always winter. Even the scene where they strip a car looking for drugs feel more procedural than exciting. But in that mundanity, Friedkin somehow finds deep wells of suspense. He's helped, of course, by a ferocious performance from Hackman, who tears through just about every scene he's in even if he's standing silent. He's a jumpy bundle of pent-up angry energy, an absolute live-wire, and compulsively watchable despite his questionable morals. Pairing him with Scheider, always a thoughtful, grounding presence, was a brilliant choice.

The French Connection more than lives up to its reputation as a killer police thriller. It is full to bursting with fantastic location shots of New York City, and the grittiness those provide makes the film feel even more authentic. Since the police officers who investigated the original case were involved in all aspects of production (the real-life Doyle plays movie-Doyle's Chief), it had that authenticity going for it already, but the location shooting really adds so much to this. You almost feel like a fly on the wall of the entire city watching this investigation unfold, something that is even now all too rare in films. Unlike In The Heat of the Night, which was released only four years earlier and really shows its age, The French Connection still feels as fresh as the day it was released.
The French Connection
Year: 1971
Directed by: William Friedkin
Screenplay by: Ernest Tidyman
Starring: Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey, Tony Lo Bianco
Oscar: 5 WINS - Best Picture, Director, Actor (Hackman), Adapted Screenplay, and Editing. Nominations for Supporting Actor (Scheider lost to Ben Johnson in The Last Picture Show), Cinematography (Owen Roizman lost to Fiddler on the Roof), and Sound (also lost to Fiddler on the Roof).
Rating: *****

LIST: Top 40 Dance Videos (Part Two)

Here we go, #30-21...

30. Ed Sheeran - Don't
Phillip "Pacman" Chbeeb is positively dripping with charisma - has been since his very first audition on So You Think You Can Dance. So what a treat it is to just watch him do his thing in this video. I'm not really a fan of Ed Sheeran, so I will often watch this with the volume turned waaaaaay down, but it's still incredible to watch as he walks around a California neighborhood in his patented liquid-like popping style.

Monday, August 24, 2015

LIST: Top 40 Dance Videos (Part One)

Lists are, if you'll pardon my French, fucking DIFFICULT. I hate making them with a flaming passion. But I also LOVE them. They feel so representative, so orderly, so... SATISFYING. But compiling them? They're hard enough to order as it is outside of a few selections near the top usually, but then just when you think you're done you realize you completely forgot something and it screws up everything, or you realize that one thing dominates more than half the list, or you can't find a crucial piece of info or even proof of the existence of one of your entries, causing you to question your sanity... NIGHTMARE.

But sometimes, you just feel the need and come hell or high water or no sleep, you HAVE to make a list. And so here we are.

Because of that one episode of Hit Me With Your Best Shot a few weeks back, music videos have been on my mind recently. Mainly in an "Are they still a thing?" way, but I felt a list coming on, so I decided not to fight it... only there were entirely too many videos to choose from when making a list of the greatest of them all. But then I went back to my roots and decided to do a list of the Best DANCE Videos, and everything fell into place. Kind of.

Granted, you could make a list that consisted entirely of Michael and Janet Jackson videos and it would arguably hold water, so dominant are they at creating dance-centric clips... but a list of dance videos without Madonna? Without Paula Abdul? Inconceivable!

But on the other hand, there are AT LEAST six Janet videos that could be considered definitive for her, compared to one for pretty much everybody else, and they all pretty much trounce the competition. Leave it to Janet to always bring the next level shit - the tilting dance floor in "Doesn't Really Matter", the mixture of Afro-Cuban dance, breakdance, and stepping in "Escapade" - and also to show the young-uns how it's done ("All For You" and "All Nite" are some of the most intricate, stylish dance videos of their respective eras). I mean, yes, "Rhythm Nation" is her best overall video, but can you really put it on a dance-centric list above the incredible solo in "Pleasure Principle" or the killer chair routine in "Miss You Much"?

Anyway, this has been on my brain for long enough. So I finally decided to throw caution to the wind and just publish the damn thing already.

I had only one criteria for this list: The dancing has to be the star. So any clips in which dance plays a supporting role ("Chasing Pavements") or in which the dance routine just doesn't get enough screen time ("Marry The Night" and pretty much anything else by Lady Gaga) had to go, unfortunately. Videos that were one-take wonders got extra consideration due to degree of difficulty. I decided to cap it at 40 because Top 40 is a big deal in music. If there's enough interest or if I feel like it, I'll post ten Honorable Mentions to bring it up to 50. I'll be posting 10 a day until it's done.

Let the countdown begin!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Against the Crowd Blogathon

Welcome to my post in the 2015 Against the Crowd Blogathon, hosted by Dell on Movies!

The blogathon's theme is pretty much what you'd expect: Pick a film that "everyone" loves (at least 75% on Rotten Tomatoes) that you hate, and a film that "everyone" hates (at most 35% on Rotten Tomatoes) that you love. Then say why.

This was far more difficult to do than I thought it would be, but the fact is: Since time is (unfortunately) a finite resource, I tend to only see films that I know I'm going to like, and there are very few cases in which I saw something despite terrible reviews. I almost didn't find films that fit the criteria Dell set up! Except in the case of a film that "everyone" loves but I hate. I kept trying to find another one, but I just couldn't do it.
I HATE THE DARK KNIGHT. I didn't want to step in it with this film AGAIN, but I don't think there's a film as universally loved as this that I dislike so much. In general, I prefer my comic-book adaptations to be true to their source material - i.e., FUN. The Dark Knight is not fun. Not that this is necessarily a problem; Batman has always been a "darker" superhero, and after the numerous terrible superhero movies we got before 2008, it was definitely time for someone to go there and put a superhero in the "real world", and deal with the real consequences of his actions. I was ready to like The Dark Knight. I really was.


The Dark Knight is two-and-a half hours of relentless darkness, with a murky, byzantine plot that on repeat viewings only shows more and more holes. It is a punishing film, not just because that amount of cynicism and darkness over that length of time would make anything a tough sit (and the film is far too long to sustain the mood effectively), but because there's not a single moment of levity in the whole damn thing. Heath Ledger gives a great performance as the Joker, no doubt about it, but he's not funny in a fun, belly-laugh way - he's funny in a queasy, sick-to-your-stomach way. He's insane, and he renders Bruce Wayne/Batman the biggest idiot in the world with his mere presence. The man was trained by the freaking League of Shadows... AND THEN BEAT THEM, and yet he's not smart enough to figure out that the freaking Joker is not exactly a man you can trust to tell any part of the truth. AND, despite their admirable ultimate choice in the ferry boat standoff, the citizens of Gotham are proven to be the ultimate sheep, blindly following whatever voice screams at them the loudest in the moment, blaming Batman for the Joker's reign of terror instead of the police, the federal government/policing agencies, or, ya know, the clearly crazy Joker himself (they get even worse in The Dark Knight Rises, BTW). Which wouldn't necessarily be a problem, except that it begs the question: These are the people Bruce Wayne is so intent on saving?

And despite the strength of the film's cinematography, the editing is all over the place, often resulting in action sequences that are very nearly incoherent. And if you haven't yet done so, I urge you to take a look at the video below, which goes into detail on this very topic.

But my biggest problem with The Dark Knight, the one that completely outweighs all my other problems with it as a film in its own right, is that it's basically the film that was responsible for the cult surrounding Christopher Nolan, a group of people who think that every thing he does is an instant work of genius solely because he deigned to touch it, and that the man himself is infallible. Nolan is clearly very talented, and I've been a fan since Memento, but after The Dark Knight, a film wholly unworthy of being called his best, he was put on a pedestal as The Greatest EVER by a squadron of comic book fanboys, and it has become impossible to get a word in edgewise or have even a slightly negative view of Nolan or any one of his films without getting ripped to shreds.

But hold off on the ripping of me to shreds for just a little bit, because...