Thursday, January 29, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks: All in the Family Edition: Married Couples Movies

Written for the blogathon hosted by Wandering Through The Shelves. Join us - just suggest three movies on the weekly topic!

This week's Thursday Movie Picks are for the "All in the Family Edition" which will run on the last week of every month. This month the subgenre is "Married Couples Movies", and wow is that a toughie. SO MANY MOVIES centered around married couples! I haven't gone very far back in time for most of my recent picks, so this week I decided to go all Classic Hollywood with three of my most favorite screen couples.

The Thin Man (1934, W.S. Van Dyke) William Powell and Myrna Loy are unquestionably my favorite screen couple. Their relationship in The Thin Man is just too good to be true, in that old-school banter kind of way. While it's clear they love each other, neither of them have trouble dishing out the sass when it's called for. I guess this is what you get when an actual married couple write a screenplay - and this really is one of the greatest screenplays ever written (there's also a murder mystery in there somewhere, but make no mistake: the central relationship is the real star of the show). I probably quote it weekly, if not daily. "Oh, Nicky, I love you... because you know such lovely people!" "He didn't come anywhere near my tabloids!" And of course, the martinis. And that glass of rye. And "the nicest dinner I ever listened to." I could watch this movie on a loop forever and be completely satisfied.

Topper (1937, Norman Z. McLeod) After the fun-loving Kerbys (Cary Grant and Constance Bennett, both delightful) die in a car crash, they become ghosts. Believing that they haven't moved on because they've been too irresponsible to do any truly good or truly bad deeds, they decide to help their stuffy friend Cosmo Topper (Roland Young) start to enjoy life (a "good deed" only by Hollywood standards). Of course, old habits die hard, and they largely treat the afterlife as an extension of their actual lives, causing mayhem and merriment embodied by some of Hollywood's cleverest special effects. Topper is undeniable fun thanks to these two, and as Topper's snooty, social-climbing wife, Billie Burke (yes, Glinda from The Wizard of Oz) makes a hilarious foil. Also, Young's physical comedy as the Kerbys invisibly walk a drunken Topper through his building's lobby is a riot - as impressive as it is funny.

Adam's Rib (1949, George Cukor) Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made nine movies together, and for my money, this is the most enjoyable. And they make for formidable competitors as Adam and Amanda Bonner, married attorneys who find themselves on opposing sides of a case involving a woman who shot (but didn't kill) her unfaithful husband. Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon's great screenplay is perfectly mixed honey and vinegar. Okay, sure, the gender politics don't quite track, but I totally buy the "battle of the sexes" anyway. Hepburn and Tracy are on fire; no one fought onscreen quite as well as they did. Plus, a hilarious turn from Judy Holliday as the woman on trial.

BONUS: Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941, Alfred Hitchcock) No, not that Mr. & Mrs. Smith. This one stars Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery as a slightly unhappy married couple who learn that through a legal snafu, they aren't actually married. It's the only romantic comedy Hitchcock ever directed (done as a favor to Lombard), and it's good, even if it is decidedly minor Hitchcock.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Blind Spot #1: The Purple Rose of Cairo

I can't think of a better film to start the Blind Spot Series (much love to Ryan at The Matinée for starting this amazing blog series!) than Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo, because it is all about love of the movies.

But even knowing the basic plot going in, I was not prepared for just how funny Purple Rose would be, nor was I prepared for the turns its plot would take. Yes, Mia Farrow's depression-era abused wife Cecilia goes to see the fictional film The Purple Rose of Cairo so many times that Jeff Daniels's sweet-hearted, safari-suited character Tom Baxter walks right off the screen to be with her, but what happens after that is Woody Allen's true stroke of genius.

Not only are the theater patrons amused and appalled in equal measure, not only do the other characters in the film within the film sit around and grouse about the asshole who walked off the screen and left them without a way to continue the movie, not only does the theater owner call the producer and distributor to take care of the problem, but the studio calls the actor who played the role (Jeff Daniels again) to fix it!

Leave it to Woody Allen to treat this fantastical premise completely realistically. And I do mean completely: Even Tom's money isn't real.

Everything follows a completely sound train of logic, making the entire thing seem even more absurd than it actually is. Especially when we get two versions of Jeff Daniels, the actor and the character he created, getting into metaphysical arguments about who's who and who's the better person. It's hilarious stuff, especially for this performer. This is a really unique way to tackle the identity issues that can come with being an actor: What would happen if the character your played in a film - the actual character, you as the character - appeared in front of you in real life? Is he you? Some version of you?

One of many great little details in the film is how Tom expects the real world to behave like the movies - when he starts to get hot and heavy with Cecilia, he expects the world to fade-out and for time to jump to after they've had sex. He has no idea what sex is like, because movies of that time never showed anything beyond some relatively chaste making out. Which makes his visit to a brothel with Dianne Wiest (LOVE. HER.) especially hilarious.

And then, Tom actually brings Cecilia into his movie for a patented Hollywood-style nightclub montage. The perfection of The Purple Rose of Cairo, the film-within-the-film, is glorious to behold. The actors, including Edward Herrmann, Van Johnson, Deborah Rush, and Zoe Caldwell, are clearly having a blast playing classic film tropes of characters, and the style of the film is so perfect (from the literal title cards to the soundtrack to the afore-mentioned montage) that you might actually buy that this thing was a real Hollywood film from that time.

But let's get back to the actual film. I think that anyone who loves movies can relate to Farrow's Cecilia. I felt like I knew her almost immediately, as she goes to the movies so much that she knows the people who work in the theater by name. I make it a point to try to go to the movies once a week - I budget it as a necessary expense, not a fun thing to do if I have the money. And haven't we all wanted to meet a movie star in real life - let alone actually be in a movie for real? Cecilia gets to do all of that. And even when things don't work out so well, she still has the movies. A new one comes out every week!

Apparently there was some criticism of the film when it came out because of its ending. People claimed it wasn't "happy". To which I first have to say: Who says all films have to have a happy ending? And frankly, I agree with Woody Allen, who retorted, "That was the happy ending." There is no way to end this story more happily. If Cecilia runs off with actor Gil, there's no way they would live happily ever after. He's so self-absorbed that he would eventually leave her for someone else, and with nothing, and she'd be right back where she started. If she runs off with the fictional Tom, they won't get far before the harsh realities of life will come crashing down on them both. Tom isn't just fictional, he lives (quite literally) in a fantasy world, and has no idea how to live in the real one. Nope, no matter how you slice it, Cecilia eventually has to face the music and realize that life, with all its ups and downs, must be lived. It doesn't always end happily, but that's why we have movies. Life can't be like them, but they sure are nice to escape to.

The Purple Rose of Cairo
Year: 1985
Written and Directed by: Woody Allen
Starring: Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels, Danny Aiello, Dianne Wiest
Oscar: Best Original Screenplay Nomination (lost to Witness)
Rating: ***** (Personal Favorite level)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

My Movie Birthday Present to Myself

I know some may consider it uncouth, but every year I get myself a present for my birthday. It's my own special version of RuPaul's "If you don't love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else!" maxim (can I get an AMEN up in here?). Usually it's something that either doesn't cost anything (taking the day off work is a popular favorite) or that doesn't cost much (splurging for a peppermint mocha from Starbucks as opposed to my usual Dunkin Donuts french vanilla coffee in the morning).

This year, I choose to give myself the gift that keeps on giving: Participating in The Matinee's Blindspot Series!


The idea is, every month you watch a cinematic staple that you really should have seen by now, and write it up. Realizing that my "Watchlist" on Letterboxd is well over 700 titles(!), I figured that giving myself the gift of knocking off one a month was the least I could give myself this year - it's like joining the Fruit of the Month Club or something!

So, with some help from my bookshelf full of Criterion DVDs and Blu-Rays that I bought during 50% off sales - most of which I haven't watched yet - I have finally whittled it down to this year's 12.

Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937)

Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio di Sica, 1948)

The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)

Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954)

Smiles of a Summer Night (Ingmar Bergman, 1955)

Diary of a Chambermaid (Luis Bunuel, 1964)

In The Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison, 1967)

The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)

Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)

The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985)

The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)

I went through many iterations of this list. I tried to vary the genres, time periods, and countries as much as I could - and limited myself to only one per director. You may have noticed a slight lack of comedies on this list, and the thing is, I've seen a lot more of those. But it bothered me, so I swapped out Persona for Smiles on the Bergman front. But the truth is, no matter what films I ended up choosing, I'll watch all the ones I want to watch someday. I will. Maybe even this year. But these are the ones which will "officially" be a part of this project.

And to start, very soon there will be a post on the first one I watched: Woody Allen's delightful The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Thursday Movie Picks: Movies With (a) Colour in the Title

Written for the blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Play Along!

If I'm being honest, I kind of wanted to be really super obvious with this week's stated theme of Movies With (a) Colour in the Title and just go with the individual pieces of Kieslowski's Trois Couleurs trilogy here, but, dammit today is my birthday and I shan't take the obvious path! It is simply not in my nature! And so, without further ado...

Red Eye (2005, Wes Craven) Ladies and gentlemen, the greatest trailer EVER. Okay, maybe not EVER, but definitely one of them (why yes, I do love a good trailer, thanks for asking!). Craven's actually-not-at-all-supernatural thriller isn't quite the mindfuck the trailer seemingly sells, but somehow that works in the movie's favor. Everything feels fresh and surprising, despite us having seen it all before, precisely because of that feeling that there's something lurking just around the corner, outside the frame. Craven, liberated from slashers and monsters and confining himself to one claustrophobic set for most of the (relatively short) running time, is at the peak of his powers here, as are stars Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy. Red Eye is a nasty, tight little thriller, perfectly paced and with zero fat. It's the kind of mid-range B-movie you wish Hollywood would make more of, until you realize there's no way they could all possibly be this good.

Touch of Pink (2004, Ian Iqbal Rashid) Alim, a young-ish gay Canadian (of Indian heritage), is happily living in London with his long-term boyfriend Giles, but is so repressed that he still talks to his imaginary friend: a version of in-the-closet Old Hollywood movie star Cary Grant, played with just the right amount of flair by Kyle MacLachlan. Touch of Pink (playing off the title of one of Grant's films, That Touch of Mink) is not a great film, but it's definitely one of my favorite gay films. Taking its cue from MacLachlan's delightful performance, it has just the right lightness of touch. The script is pretty standard-issue gay rom-com stuff (Alim's mom comes to visit, he panics and at the urging of Cary Grant, pushes himself back into the closet), but the actors all know how to make it sing, giving this puffball of a movie a sprightly, enjoyable bounce.

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985, Woody Allen) Simply put, a must for anyone who loves movies. Who among us hasn't wanted to live in a movie, or to have one of our favorite characters as a friend? I'll have more to say on this one soon (it's a Blind Spot), but for now I'll just say that what I love most about Woody Allen's scrumptious film is how absolutely seriously it takes its fantastical premise.

BONUS SHORT FILMS: The House is Black (1963, Forugh Farrokhzad) If you haven't seen this masterful short, just go to YouTube and do it now. Contrasting powerful, haunting images of an Iranian leper colony and Farrokhzad's readings of the Bible, the Koran, and her own beautiful poetry, The House is Black is twenty minutes of stunning, unforgettable cinema.

The Red Balloon (1956, Albert Lamorisse) One of my all-time favorites, this sweet short is perfect. This is childhood, pure and simple.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks: Movie Musicals

Written for the blogathon hosted by Wandering Through The Shelves - why don't you join us?

Way to pick an easy one this week! Musicals are only my favorite kind of movie, so I only have about a hundred different movies I could choose to write up for this. Therefore, I had to come up with an extra criterion to even begin writing. Therefore, here are three Non-Hollywood Musicals.

1. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964) I'm not going to lie, this may be my favorite musical of all time. The key to getting into musicals is accepting the very heightened reality in which they exist, one which allows for people to spontaneously burst into song when they're feeling too much to simply speak. In Demy's vision of war-era France, people primarily communicate through singing (yes, very near the whole thing is sung-through), and the mise-en-scene is even color-coded to match their emotions (and outfits), so it helps you along this path. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is also one of the most swoon-worthy romances in screen history, as teenagers Catherine Deneuve (in her film debut) and Nino Castelnuovo fall madly in love right before he gets drafted to serve in the army, all to Michel Legrand's gorgeous, Oscar-winning score. Will they ever get reunited? All I'll say is that Demy's Palme d'Or-winning film (one of three musicals to claim cinema's most prestigious honor) contains one of the finest ending scenes of all time.

Hey! If you like this one, why don't you try: The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). Even more candy-colored fun from Demy and Deneuve, with Gene Kelly for extra flavor!

2. Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001, Ashutosh Gowariker) Even for people who love musicals, Bollywood films can be a bit daunting: At least three hours long, with unbelievably (necessarily) complicated plots, and expensive, expansive musical numbers that often sound like they're sung by particularly nasal children - and all in a foreign language! But what they have in their corner is unrivaled spectacle. My freshman roommate in college was of Indian heritage, and every once in a while he would pop in a Bollywood movie to watch when he was bored, and I would tag along. Thankfully, they had subtitles. Lagaan was the one that stood out to me the most, probably because it's very atypical. Epic even by Bollywood standards, it's an historical drama set during India's colonial British Raj (and thus lacks the sparkle and pizazz of most Bollywood films). The residents of a small, poor village are oppressed by the high taxes imposed on them by the crown, so one of the more arrogant British officers makes a wager: The villagers will not have to pay the tax (the "lagaan" of the title) if they can beat the Brits at a game of cricket. Problem is, the villagers don't know how to play. Can they overcome all the odds and win? The result is a lot more fun than it sounds. Unlike most Bollywood musicals, the songs aren't modern-sounding at all, using period instrumentation. Plus, instead of stopping the action dead in its tracks, they are integrated into the story almost seamlessly. They also tend to enliven scenes that would otherwise be standard clichés (a training sequence, a "let's show those outsiders we have culture, too!" party). At three hours and forty minutes, Lagaan may sound like torture to anyone who doesn't like musicals, but I'm telling you: This is entertainment of the highest order, even if it doesn't sound like it. (BONUS: the film's score was composed by A.R. Rahman, later of Slumdog Millionaire fame.)

Hey! If you like this one, why don't you try: Devdas (2002) Aishwarya Rai is only one of the most beautiful women in the world, and the musical numbers truly have to be seen to be believed.

3. Dancer in the Dark (2000, Lars von Trier) Either you like Bjork or you don't. Either you like Lars von Trier or you don't. But Dancer in the Dark is an undeniable triumph for the both of them. Bjork is simply remarkable as the poor factory worker Selma, who has a genetic degenerative disease which is slowly stealing her eyesight. She saves every penny she can in in the hopes of getting her son an operation that will prevent him from suffering the same fate. Will she be able to do so? In a sort of middle ground between the classic musicals Selma loves to watch with her co-worker Kathy (Catherine Deneuve) and a more naturalistic musical like John Carney's miraculous Once, the musical numbers here come from what Selma hears around her, be it the factory machines, a flag flapping in the breeze, or a train rushing past. And the songs are rather gorgeous - "I've Seen It All" was even nominated for an Oscar (yes, this is where we got Bjork's infamous swan dress). Deeply felt but also typically von Trier in the way it toys with, interrogates, and alienates the audience, Dancer in the Dark is quite divisive despite it's Palme d'Or win. I love the film's subtle stylistic flourishes (the musical numbers are filmed with static cameras with brighter colors than the rest of the film, which used handheld cameras) and incredible performances. Bjork has said she found the filming of this to be so nightmarish that she would never make another film ever again. Whatever von Trier did to her (and I hate to say this), it was probably worth it for this sublime film.

Hey! If you like this one, why don't you try: ...yeah, there really isn't anything like this one. The closest you'd get is probably the aforementioned Once (2007), which is a truly perfect film.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks: Movies That Feature An Irreparable Mistake

I found this blogathon at Wandering Through the Shelves this weekend and thought it would be a good place to begin my 2015 blogging resolution (basically: Write More, Dammit!). It's easy and fun: Each week, pick three movies that relate to the stated theme. Last week was films featuring a bank robbery (for what it's worth, I would have chosen the French classic Rififi, the recent nutso Now You See Me, and The Italian Job, both versions of which have their strengths). This week, the theme is the more difficult-to-define Movies that feature an Irreparable Mistake. My first pick was easy, my second pick I had to think about a bit, and the third is kind of out there but stands out for a number of different reasons.

1. Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007) It's right there in the title, isn't it? The whole film is about atoning for an irreparable mistake. This is probably a film that should never have been made, considering that Ian McEwan's lovely, lyrical source novel exists solely because of its very literary coup de grace of an ending - something which, while translated fairly well by director Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, doesn't have quite the impact onscreen that it does in the novel's pages. In fact, what strength it does have is almost solely contained in Vanessa Redgrave's master class of a performance, which packs an entire history into maybe five minutes of screentime. But this is still a gorgeous film to behold - especially its first third (Saoirse Ronan's eyes! That green dress!) - and it contains one of cinema's great tracking shots (the stunning, devastating Dunkirk sequence). If it feels a bit at a remove, then that's almost by necessity, given the conceit of the film's ending. But this is a film that has only grown in my estimation in memory and on rewatch, one defined by passion - whether for another person or for righting one's own wrong.

2. I Know What You Did Last Summer (Jim Gillespie, 1997) I have a theory that pretty much any good horror film features an Irreparable Mistake, whether offscreen before the film begins (think Freddy Kruger's backstory in A Nightmare on Elm Street), or as the inciting incident, as it is here. Usually, the Irreparable Mistake is not leaving the damn haunted house, or not calling for help, or leaving your door unlocked, or something similarly stupid. But here, it's a decision of some actual weight: Four idiot teenagers accidentally hit a guy with their car and then dispose of the body (quite poorly, as it turns out). It's not quite as good as screenwriter Kevin Williamson's prior hit Scream, possibly because it doesn't have slasher master Wes Craven in the director's chair, but it has a killer premise and is still fun, and quite the nostalgia trip for anyone who was a teen in the '90s (like me).

3. Audition (Takashi Miike, 1999) I have been trying to think of a way to describe Audition without giving it away ever since I first saw it, mostly because it has such a genius structure and build-up. I think that this is the PERFECT way to do so. The plot is thus: Shigeharu Aoyama is a lonely widower living in Japan. His television producer friend suggests he hold a fake audition for a movie in order to find a new wife, since he has trouble approaching women. I'm not sure that the audition itself is the Irreparable Mistake. I would say that comes a bit later, after Aoyama becomes attracted to the beautiful former ballerina Asami. Like the other two films listed here (this was not intentional), Audition is based on a novel, and is an intriguing exploration of gender roles in modern-day Japan, and any lover of movies should see it (and I say that as someone who usually does not like this kind of movie). Don't read anything about it, don't look it up on IMDB, avoid looking at any posters or DVD covers if you can. Just type the title into Netflix and click play. That's all I'm going to say.

Monday, January 5, 2015

New Year, New Me

I have been a bad boy.

I started this blog because I desperately needed an outlet. I found something I liked to write about that I felt I had good credentials to write about (more or less) and could have a unique opinion on. Unfortunately, it fell by the wayside far quicker than I expected, a victim of a busier-than-expected year in addition to my own fickle and oft-indecisive nature.


My New Year's Resolution for this year is to write more. Regularity is key to getting me to do this, and I work better on assignment than on inspiration. So, I will be participating in some blogathons to get back into the habit of writing again. Then, more in-depth writing will come.

Or, at least, that's the hope.

I know I don't really have any "regular" readers at this point - at least, I don't think I do - but consider this post a missive going forward (in case people wonder what a Dance On Film blog is doing not doing much writing about Dance On Film) as well as a division between Old Me and New Me.

As they say... To infinity... AND BEYOND!