Thursday, January 28, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Movies Adapted from Movies of a Different Language

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. You should join in! All you have to do is pick three movies that fit the week's theme and write a bit about them - it's fun!

This week on Thursday Movie Picks, we have been assigned movies that happen to be remakes of a film from a different language. Hollywood does this a lot, and usually NOT for the better. These happen to be some of the worst.

Do not - I repeat - DO NOT watch these movies. But DO seek out the originals!

Dinner for Schmucks (Jay Roach, 2010) Crass, grating, and unfunny in the worst way, despite the handsomely talented Paul Rudd and Steve Carell. Screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman have taken Francis Veber's classic French farce Le diner de cons, removed its heart, and replaced it with gags galore. The problem is, only about half of them are funny on their own, and the rest rely on the actors, who all turn in their most insipid, obnoxious performances. A quick synopsis: The titular dinner is one held by businessmen, who bring idiotic "friends" along in a sick game of one-upsmanship. While the original French film was smart enough (while still providing tremendously funny slapstick) to have you actually switching allegiances between the two main characters, this version is just nasty through and through.

Last Man Standing (Walter Hill, 1996) Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo is one of the greatest films ever made, with a tremendous lead performance from The Man himself, Toshiro Mifune. The first remake of it, Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars also had a killer lead performance, from Clint Eastwood. Walter Hill's version, however, has a mumbling Bruce Willis in one of his least charismatic performances. Unfortunately, that performance is pretty much of a piece with the rest of the film, which is mostly dull and oppressive. Who'da thunk so many shootouts could feel so listless?

The Vanishing (George Sluizer, 1993) Exhibit A for how Hollywood can ruin even a director adapting his own great film in English. George Sluizer's Spoorloos is a masterpiece, taking a simple premise (one half of a couple vanishes from a public place, the other half becomes obsessed with trying to find out what happened) and teasing out incredible tension and complex philosophical questions in equal amounts. But the Hollywood version (tellingly written by an American as opposed to the director/writer of the original) is a rote thriller, losing nearly everything in translation. But the film's biggest sin is replacing the original's ending (one of the greatest of all time) with a big, fat Hollywood ending, rendering the film completely toothless.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Airplane Movies

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!

This week, on Thursday Movie Picks, it's not a bird, it's not Superman.... it's a PLANE! Well, in this case, three of them. And one flying man.

Airplane! (Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker, 1980) "Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?" "Roger, Roger. What's our vector, Victor?" "Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue!" "By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?" "There's a sale at Penney's!!" "I am serious. And don't call me Shirley." And those are just SOME of the one-liners. The brilliance of ZAZ's spoof - which uses much of the script from the 50s disaster film Zero Hour - is out of this world. If you don't laugh your ass off, I just don't think you can be helped.

Air Force One (Wolfgang Petersen, 1997) Look at that trailer. Go on, just look at it. Have you ever seen anything so '90s in your whole life?!? Harrison Ford as the ass-kicking President of the United States. Gary Oldman as a Russian terrorist who hijacks his plane. Glenn Close back in the White House as the Vice President. William H. Macy. I can't believe they didn't put the best part of the movie ("Get the hell off my plane!") in there. Air Force One may be a relic of a certain time and style of moviemaking, but it still one hell of an entertaining ride. Harrison Ford for Movie President in perpetuity.

The Rocketeer (Joe Johnston, 1991) When I was a kid, this was one of my favorite movies. Still is, really - I've never outgrown it. When swoon-worthy pilot Billy Campbell finds a secret rocket-fueled jetpack hidden by the Nazis, he becomes a bit of a superhero. That is, until his gorgeous girlfriend Jennifer Connelly is kidnapped by dashing movie star/Nazi spy Timothy Dalton, in order to get the rocket back. The film is nothing but pure, old-school Hollywood movie magic and fun. I still don't know who in the cast I have the biggest crush on.


Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (Richard Donner, 1963) So, technically, this isn't a movie. But each episode of The Twilight Zone was basically a mini-movie, and this is one of the very best episodes of that show. The basic premise: William Shatner is a man who suffered a nervous breakdown six months ago while aboard a plane, and is now on a plane again for the first time since. And mid-flight, he sees.... something... on the wing of the plane. But every time someone else looks, it disappears. The "gremlin" may be one of the worst pieces of 50s B-movie style makeup ever, but the tension of the script and the direction work like gangbusters. It was also re-done as a segment of the Twilight Zone movie with John Lithgow in the Shatner role, but the TV version is better.

Monday, January 18, 2016

End-of-Year Glut (Non-Awards Edition) Part One

Every year in the fall, all the good movies open.

I hate to say it, but it's true. From September through December so many more films I'm interested in seeing come to theaters and it's so difficult to see them all. So it's taken a while for me to see all the films I wanted to see. I wanted to get them all in before the Oscar nominations, so I could be appropriately appalled when such-and-such film wasn't nominated in such-and-such category, but that didn't QUITE happen. These are the ones I managed to get in before that point that ended up not factoring into the awards conversation, in rough order from most to least recent viewing.

Tangerine - The trans hooker comedy shot entirely on an iPhone that by now I'm sure you've all heard about, Sean Baker's film demands to be seen. Tangerine is raucous, riotous fun, but also a bit shrill. It immerses itself in a pocket of culture that operates in a register so high-pitched that it's a wonder it isn't only audible to dogs, but plays into it - and against it - perfectly. The undercurrent of loneliness and melancholy (slight but still present) grounds the film and improves it immeasurably. The performers are so natural that it almost feels like a documentary at moments. Ultimately slight, but punk in a way that feels vibrant and necessary - this is completely unlike anything else you're likely to see this year or next. Mya Taylor deserved a slot in that godforsaken Best Supporting Actress category.

Ballet 422 - The thing is, this is basically my jam. A fly-on-the-wall look at the creation of a new ballet for the New York City Ballet choreographed by one of its own dancers. This is so up my alley, how could I not love it? Justin Peck is a brilliant choreographer and a member of the NYCB corps de ballet (or ensemble or chorus or whatever you want to call it), and Jody Lee Lipes had unprecedented access to him and the NYCB during the creation of his first ballet, the 422nd piece of repertory in the company's history. The lack of context for just about everything may make this a bit confusing for non-dancers/arts professionals, but as a (beautifully shot) fly-on-the-wall-style documentary, it just about can't be beat. However, there is a real lack of tension that lets it down a bit, and the lack of interviews leads to a poorly-illuminated creative process. The very last scene, though, brings the difficult life of artists in general, and dancers in particular, to light in a beautiful way.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief - As with most Alex Gibney documentaries, you pretty much know going in if this is going to be for you or not. So again, I was sort of predisposed to like this one. It is a bit didactic, perhaps, but it's also illuminating on several levels. Gibney gets to the heart of not only what Scientology's roots are, and what it is currently, but why someone would be drawn in, and why they would leave, which makes for some pretty fascinating viewing in spots. He is of course helped by utterly believable interview subjects and unbelievably, ridiculously crazy/scary footage of the church's big annual gathering. I'm almost surprised this didn't make the Best Documentary nominee list. Almost.

I'll See You In My Dreams - Blythe Danner's lovely performance has gone completely overlooked this awards season, and that is a damn crying shame. Few dramas are this clear-eyed and modest in ambition yet so perfectly executed in that vein - and even less about senior citizens. There's not a thing I didn't like about this engaging, quietly affecting little gem of a film. Even while sort-of half-watching it, it pulled me in and accumulated poignancy all the way through, leaving me misty-eyed and smiling. It's also a damn crying shame that the title song, which fits in so perfectly well with the rest of the movie, at a key moment, isn't an Oscar nominee. That category is always screwed up, but still.

Tom at the Farm - Strange, insinuating little thriller that, despite wearing its influences on its sleeve, constantly goes in surprising directions. The basic story is this: Tom, a city boy in every way, goes to the country for his partner's funeral, only to find that the family doesn't know their dearly departed was gay. Except for his brother, who goes to great lengths to keep up a fantasy for his mother and forces Tom to play along. The brilliance of Xavier Dolan's film adaptation of the stage play by Michael Marc Bouchard is to make the inner dialogue of many gay men external through a menacing force. I have a feeling it would make an interesting double feature with Stranger by the Lake for that reason. It's slightly unsatisfying as a whole - probably because it doesn't really end well - but it's a good ride.

Crimson Peak - How on earth Guillermo del Toro's gorgeous gothic romance didn't get included in the Oscar nominations for Production Design and Costume Design is beyond me. That said, they're pretty much the only things worth seeing Crimson Peak for. Though the film goes to great lengths to remind us that this is a "story with a ghost in it" as opposed to a ghost story, it doesn't ever go far enough with even its most basic conceits for me. I kept wanting more of just about everything the film was giving me, which is sometimes a compliment but not in this case. The idea of a house so old and precarious that it sometimes functions like a living thing is brilliant, and almost nothing is done with it (we don't even get to the title house until the halfway point of the film). The florid camerawork and design elements are certainly worth seeing, but ultimately this did nothing for me, and coming from this creative team, that was disappointing.

Trainwreck - This was my family's choice for pre-Thanksgiving viewing (I tried to get them to watch Inside Out, but the resistance to "cartoons" is strong in some people), and it plays perfectly fine at home, which is totally unsurprising coming from Judd Apatow. Amy Schumer is now a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood, and good for her because she's a funny, funny lady. HOWEVER. This was a perfectly average rom-com in every way. Just because you have a guy doing the chasing doesn't mean you've done something unique or even praise-worthy (it's been done before, and better). I laughed, sure, but most of these jokes have been told before and the sense of diminishing returns was all over this. Needed approximately 72% more Tilda, an absolute hoot as Amy's men's mag boss.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Obligatory Oscar Nominations Reaction Post

So, yeah, the Oscar nominations happened this morning. And they were....




Look. This was a crazy year. What little consensus there was to be found among precursors was for either films everybody had long since written off, films that came out of nowhere at the "right time", or films that we could only pray would have such good luck with AMPAS. So it shouldn't be shocking that what (few) surprises there were this morning weren't exactly exciting ones.

And it shouldn't be surprising either that the nominations are very heterosexual, very white, and very male. Because THE MAJORITY OF FILMS PRODUCED tick those three boxes, either together or separately. You can come up with any number of fixes to this problem, but to quote Emmy Winner Viola Davis, you cannot win awards for parts that simply aren't there.

But I'm not one to talk about the politics of... well, of anything, frankly. So, on to the nominees, and my reactions.

Best Picture
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Nice. I've only missed Bridge of Spies and The Revenant.... WAIT. STOP. WHERE IS CAROL?!?! Although I should note that this was only a shock because at the point in the announcement, Carol had gotten six nominations, so it looked like Best Picture was a real possibility again.

Best Director
Lenny Abrahamson, Room
Alejandro G. Inaritu, The Revenant
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
Adam McKay, The Big Short
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
You cruel bastards, to give us Lenny Abrahamson (who did wonders with Room) but deny us Todd Haynes?!?! But, they've never cottoned to him before, even when his films have gotten other nominations, so I guess this is par for the course.

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Saiorse Ronan, Brooklyn
This is really pretty good. Although I haven't seen Joy or 45 Years yet, the other three are firmly at the top of my list for the year. My heart weeps for Lily Tomlin, though, who was just brilliant in Grandma in that way that only she can be. But instead, Jennifer Lawrence gets to be the youngest actress to 4 nominations, so....

Best Actor
Brian Cranston, Trumbo
Matt Damon, The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl
Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs
What. The. FUCK. There are only two women nominated here who actually deserve to be here (Leigh and Winslet). Two of them are emphatically LEADING PERFORMANCES (Carol is told largely from Mara's perspective and Vikander is arguably the freakin' TITLE CHARACTER), and the last is a performance from an actress I love who has barely anything to do and does the bare minimum with the part. How Julie Walters in Brooklyn or Joan Allen in Room or even Jessica Chastain in The Martian couldn't break into this field I will never know.

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Sylvester Stallone, Creed
It's alright. Just alright. To be honest, there weren't many inspiring performances for this category this year. I would have preferred to see Michael Keaton represent Spotlight (Ruffalo overdoes it), and would have preferred to see anyone in The Hateful Eight make it in over Bale, but he's fine. The other three I haven't seen, but it sounds like it's Sly's to lose. To Rylance, my personal hero.

Best Original Screenplay
Bridge of Spies
Ex Machina
Inside Out
Straight Outta Compton

Best Adapted Screenplay
The Big Short
The Martian
They did pretty well with the Screenplay categories this year. The only one that doesn't seem to fit is Straight Outta Compton (which admittedly I haven't seen), but what to put in its place? I'm glad Tarantino didn't make it in this time (Hateful Eight is easily his worst screenplay), but the ones I would have rather seen make it (Grandma, I'll See You In My Dreams, It Follows) were never big enough hits, commercially or critically, to ever break in at the Oscars. Frankly, I'm just thrilled that Inside Out, the year's most original, inventive film made it. And we got Brooklyn, Room, AND Carol in Adapted, so I don't feel as awful as I thought I would that Aaron Sorkin's brilliant Steve Jobs script didn't make the cut. Especially since a lot of The Big Short works where it probably shouldn't have, and The Martian is as enjoyable as it is largely due to the surprisingly funny screenplay.

Best Film Editing
The Big Short
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Frankly, I thought The Big Short was over-edited, but there's always one in this category that is really "Most" as opposed to "Best". The other four all deserve their spots and I would really only add Room, because the escape sequence is the best thriller filmmaking of the year, mostly due to the editing. This nomination for Star Wars made me think it was in play for Best Picture. It missing there is probably for the best, though.

Best Cinematography
Ed Lachman, Carol
Robert Richardson, The Hateful Eight
John Seale, Mad Max: Fury Road
Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant
Roger Deakins, Sicario
Best category of the year. Easily. Not one of these doesn't belong here, and while it would have been nice to acknowledge the difficulty of filming in the Room set, Abrahamson's Directing nod I guess makes up for it. This is such a wonderfully diverse set of films, cinematography-wise, and they all look stellar. I can't even pick a favorite.

Just kidding. It's Carol.

Best Costume Design
Sandy Powell, Carol
Sandy Powell, Cinderella
Paco Delgado, The Danish Girl
Jenny Beavan, Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
Such a good category, and then.... The Revenant. Let's nominate some dead animals! Where, oh where, are those GLORIOUS Crimson Peak creations? Or those impossibly cool Man From U.N.C.L.E. duds? BUT, double Sandy Powell, who really outdid herself this year on those two films. BRAVA!

 Best Production Design
Bridge of Spies
The Danish Girl
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Why do outer space movies always get nominated here? All space stations/shuttles in movies look exactly alike to me. Really, outside of the big rigs of Mad Max, nothing here is particularly inspiring. Crimson Peak would eat all of these films for breakfast.

Best Visual Effects
Ex Machina
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
FUCK. YES. EX. MACHINA. Ava is the single best special effect of the year, bar none, and their budget was miniscule compared to the rest of the films on the shortlist. So glad it was nominated, especially alongside the incredible practical effects and gonzo stunts of Mad Max.

That's all for now. The dirty (bakers') dozen. Really, pretty much all I feel comfortable talking about. You can (and by now, probably have) find the whole list of nominations elsewhere. What did you think of the nominations?

Thursday Movie Picks - Post-Apocalyptic World

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 a bit about them!

I'm sure this week's theme has NOTHING AT ALL to do with the fact that the Oscar nominations happened this morning, but my lateness in posting this does. Thankfully, AMPAS didn't completely scorch the Earth with their nominations (although Carol missing Best Picture is still confounding and depressing) in the way various forces did in my picks for this week.

28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002) I'm not entirely sure this qualifies, but the early scenes of Danny Boyle's reinvention of the zombie flick are some of the creepiest post-apocalyptic visions I've ever seen. And those fast-moving zombies are pretty damn creepy, too.

I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence, 2007) From zombie apocalypse to vampire(-ish) apocalypse, and from Great Britain to the United States. This remake of the Charlton Heston-starring The Omega Man (and the Vincent Price-starring The Last Man on Earth) offers visions of post-apocalypse New York City that rival 28 Days Later's visions of London. Will Smith gives a great, under-appreciated performance in this.

WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008) What happens after humans have destroyed the Earth and evacuated on a giant spaceship? All but one of the robots they left behind to clean up their mess have stopped working. And the one little guy still around has developed quite the personality. There is so much to love about Pixar's film - the photorealistic, nearly silent first half, the gorgeous score, the hilarious slapstick of the second half - but my favorite is the little title guy himself, a robot who becomes an Everyman with a heart of gold.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Downstairs People

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join in the fun - a new year's the best time to start something new! - by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and writing a little something about them.

A new year, a new slate of Thursday Movie Picks! Wanderer has kindly posted this year's schedule, including a couple of topics suggested by yours truly! For this week, we're talking about the Downstairs folk. As in Upstairs/Downstairs. So, maids, butlers, kitchen staff... your Daisys, your Mrs. Hugheses, your Annas and Mr. Bateses... sorry, Downton Abbey just started a new season and I'm back to being obsessed again. Anyway, to the task at hand, this week's picks! Join me on this journey through history...

Farewell, My Queen (Benoît Jacquot, 2012) Sidonie Laborde is a servant in the court of Marie Antoinette. She's just gotten a promotion of sorts to be the Queen's reader. Even as things start to fall apart in France, Sidonie stays by the Queen's side, seeing life in the court and life in the servants' quarters from an increasingly unique perspective. Jacquot's film is notable, and all the more enjoyable, for showing us what life was like behind the curtain of the royal court - has there been another film that showed life in the servants' quarters of a grand palace? Plus, Léa Seydoux and Diane Kruger give excellent performances as Sidonie and Marie Antoinette, respectively.

Gosford Park (Robert Altman, 2001) Turns out, there's a hierarchy among downstairs folk that mimics that of the upstairs folk! Who knew? The lives of the downstairs side of the Upstairs/Downstairs equation is the real hook to Julian Fellowes's script, not the barely-even-solved murder mystery. Well, that and the performances by that murderer's row of great British thespians. Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith may have gotten the Oscar nominations, but Clive Owen, Kelly MacDonald, Emily Watson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Michael Gambon, Stephen Fry, and even Ryan Phillippe (among MANY others) do excellent work.

Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) Poor, poor Mammy. Oh, how she tries to help Scarlett O'Hara get through the South's loss during the Civil War. Lord only knows why she even stays with her afterwards, given that Scarlett is a right bitch to anyone that isn't named Scarlett or Ashley, but she does. Maybe it's to look after Prissy, who, let's face it, is kind of useless. I mean, REALLY. She doesn't know NOTHING about birthin' no babies?!? There's no use beating around the bush: Gone With the Wind is both glorious and maddening in equal measure, and I'm never quite sure on which side of that fence I stand. But hey, it's still the All-Time Box Office Champion when adjusting for inflation (and nothing will ever touch it), and there's good reason for that.