Thursday, April 28, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Affairs

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 saying a bit about them. It couldn't be simpler!
Who doesn't love a good affair? Why, I'm off to an affair of my own in a few hours: my sister's wedding!

But in this case, I'm pretty sure Wanderer means "Affairs" in a romantic sense - like when someone is involved very seriously with one person and then begins having relations with someone else. Very fertile ground for drama, comedy, and great films. I look forward to seeing everyone else's picks. Here are mine, with no commentary except to say that I LOVE these movies.

The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967) RIP Mike Nichols. Probably Dustin Hoffman's second-best performance (after Tootise, of course). Also, that trailer is real, and it's REALLY awful.

Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945) Only one of the greatest films ever made, with two of the greatest performances in the history of the medium, and directed by the same guy who made Lawrence of freakin' Arabia. (This one's for you, Drew! We miss you!)

Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne, 1987) Look, can we all just agree to never let Glenn Close near any kitchen knives or bunny rabbits ever again? Okay? Good.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Throne of Blood

Written as part of the series hosted by Nathaniel R. of The Film Experience, a great website where I contribute occasionally, and which you should read regularly.

Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood both is and isn't an adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, but it is probably the best non-English language screen adaptation of the play. It is also quite possibly the best adaptation of any Shakespeare play to film. How much of this is because on some level it actually isn't an adaptation of Macbeth, who can say. But it works far better than most, streamlining the play to a film-appropriate length and providing indelible imagery impossible to recreate on a stage. Using conventions of traditional Japanese Noh theater, Kurosawa created something that stands completely apart from Shakespeare while also remaining true to the essence of the Bard's tale.

It begins with fog (the film's main set was famously built on the volcanic slopes of Mt. Fuji), and a deep-voiced chorus singing a mournful dirge of warning as we survey the ruins of Spiderweb Castle. Shortly thereafter, we are following two triumphant warriors through the Spider's Web Forest in the fog of night, and it's some of the most beautiful black & white cinematography I've ever seen. Especially when they come upon the evil spirit that makes the fateful prophecy that both makes and dooms Macbeth and Banquo, here named Washizu and Miki. The whites of the spirit and his dwelling are so impossibly white they practically glow.

This is where we get to the issue of theatricality on film, and how Throne of Blood both is and isn't an adaptation of Macbeth. In nearly every way that Shakespeare's play is English, Kurosawa's film is Japanese. The costumes, makeup, lighting, and staging are all straight out of the Noh theatre tradition, which is very careful and precise - basically the opposite of the Scottish Play, the Bard's most visceral and exciting piece. So yes, it means, the evil spirit doesn't get anything as catchy as "Double, double, toil and trouble/Fire burn and cauldron bubble," but show me one other vision of Macbeth that presents so perfectly its own culture's associations with magic and prophecy in the context of this story. It's singular, and marvelous.

Toshiro Mifune, Krosawa's muse, is incredible as Washizu. His wildly expressive face is put to perfect use in nearly every film the two made together, but with this role it gets a full workout, and Mifune is more than up to the task. What's interesting about Washizu is that we get a version of Macbeth that we see very rarely (although the reading can be supported by the text): one that is motivated by fear as much as anything else. As Washizu's Lady tells him, "[i]n this degenerate age, one must kill so as not to be killed." His fear of death, of betrayal, of losing, motivates him more than any lust for power, and Mifune brilliantly shows this in body language and the smallest of facial expressions - look at the moment when he must "screw [his] courage to the sticking place":

Memorable as Mifune is, though, it's his film's Lady that leaves the most lasting impression. It's here that the Noh influence pays off the most, as Isuzu Yamada's performance is almost eerily still as she tells her husband what he must do if he wants the prophecy of his rule to come true, and of his fall not to come to pass. Her face a practically unmoving mask, her body stiff and almost statue-like, she's a presence that is at once deeply unnerving and almost eerily calm. It's a perfect performance that could only come to life in the Noh tradition.

But what's really incredible about this Lady is that it doesn't take long for her to break - as soon as her husband leaves the room to do the deed, her composure practically goes flying out the window - her eyes widen, she runs scared as if she has seen a ghost. What Shakespeare does with language, Kurosawa and Noh do with movement.

But this is, on some level, Macbeth, and Lady M is one of the all-time great villains. And though any of the shots I've used here (especially that Mifune close-up) could have been my Best Shot, Kurosawa's stunning EEEEEEEVIL portrait of Yamada takes the cake:


On film, that's ten seconds of darkness before she reappears with the jug of spiked sake to drug the guards. Ten full seconds of dread and fear and suspense, before she reappears like a ghost from a horror movie. And here again, Kurosawa takes a very Japanese approach, pulling straight from his culture's longstanding history of ghost women to create a classic horror image. Macbeth has always had an element of horror to it, but leave it to the Japanese to make a film version that - at least in moments - truly embraces it.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Astronauts

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

I'm a little late posting this week, but it is Thursday, and thus, time for Thursday Movie Picks...

... IN SPACE!!!!!!!

I have always been fascinated by astronauts, and wanted to be one for quite a long time in my youth. I remember begging my parents to let me go to space camp but it never happened. Ah, what could have been!

But at any rate, my love affair with outer space took a serious hit upon seeing one of my picks for this week. I decided that it was far too dangerous a profession for me, and another one of my picks this week confirmed that not only was it dangerous, but that it mostly involved work on the ground on Earth. WTF?! Here are my picks, going from Earth to outer space.

Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997) I'm maybe cheating a little with this one because Jodie Foster's character isn't technically an astronaut, but she does go into space. Maybe. It depends on your interpretation of what actually happens in the film's last act journey. But what I love most about Contact - besides Jodie Foster, of course - is how it focuses on the daily drudgery of work related to outer space. It's comparable to archeology: Most of it is slow and procedural, but once in a blue moon something truly exciting and magical happens. Consider this the "thinking person's outer space movie," and a damn good one.

Apollo 13 (Ron Howard, 1995) This film looks at both what happens on the ground at Mission Control and what happens in space during an actual mission. Of course, this is one of those "based on a true story" movies, so most people going in already know what's going to happen (NASA has a bad case of Murphy's Law on the Apollo 13 mission to the moon, but through genius, outside-the-box thinking, manages to get their boys home), but that doesn't make any of Ron Howard's film any less suspenseful, surprising, or heartbreaking. The cast and filmmaking are rock-solid, and the special effects remain convincing to this day. The whole story did a number on me as an 11 year-old, though: After seeing it, I abandoned all desires to ever go into outer space. I'm still a huge astronomy nut, though.

Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013) ...that said, I don't think I've ever seen a single image in all cinema that has inspired such fear deep in the pit of my gut as the one that ends Gravity's bravura opening seventeen-minute continuous shot - showing Sandra Bullock's Dr. Ryan Stone tumbling away into the black vastness of space. That Alfonso Cuarón's masterpiece somehow only gets more intense and thrilling from there seems impossible, but it is gloriously true. I was so impressed with this when I first saw it in IMAX 3D that I went back not a week later to see it in regular 2D just to see if it held up, and boy did it EVER. This is the most thrilling film of the '00s, an explosion of pure cinema that restored my faith in the art's ability to inspire awe, and Exhibit A for why you should see movies on the biggest screen possible, not on your freaking phone.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Fish Out of Water Movies

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. All you have to do to get in on the action is pick three films that relate to the week's theme and write a little bit about them!

This week on Thursday Movie Picks: Fish Out of Water movies. Which is VERY convenient for me, since I just watched one for another project! So why don't we start with that one...

Witness (Peter Weir, 1985) Harrison Ford received his only Oscar nomination (CAN YOU BELIEVE?!?) for playing Philadelphia cop John Brook, forced to hide out in Amish country after he gets shot trying to protect a young Amish boy who witnessed a murder. Weir and cinematographer John Seale cast quite a spell here, making Amish country feel like a lovely place to live, even if they don't have electricity and believe themselves to be superior to everyone else. The scene where the whole community comes together to raise a barn for a newlywed couple is just magnificent in every way. That the film is so good with the quiet drama that comes in Amish country makes its facility with the thriller elements that dominate the first and last twenty minutes even more impactful. PLUS: early screen appearances from Danny Glover, Viggo Mortensen, and MISS Patti LuPone herself!

...but most good Fish Out of Water tales are comic as opposed to dramatic, so....

My Cousin Vinny (Jonathan Lynn, 1992) MARISA TOMEI FOREVER, BITCHES! Look, My Cousin Vinny isn't some masterpiece of cinema or anything, but it's still funny as all get-out thanks to director Lynn's knack for staging (he also directed the comic masterpiece Clue) and the inspired comic stylings of the Oscar-winning Tomei as Mona Lisa Vito, stealing the film right out from under the nose of Joe Pesci (who is no slouch in the comedy department here). A rogue's gallery of great actors in key supporting roles take the rote city-slickers-in-the-sticks courtroom drama of the script and make it indelible with go-for-broke line readings that just kill. You're probably reciting some of them right now.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006) One of the best movie-going experiences of my life was seeing Sacha Baron Cohen's masterpiece mockumentary with my sister in a packed theater two weeks after it opened. Some films are just meant to be seen with the largest, most diverse crowd possible, and Borat is the king of those. That one viewing has colored all subsequent viewings of this for me. If you were somehow living under a rock in 2006, here's the deal: Baron Cohen went undercover in disguise as Borat, a reporter from Kazakhstan purportedly making a documentary about America, on a road trip from coast to coast, meeting with different people, attending various events, and getting an unwitting picture of America and Americans at their best and worst (but mostly worst). To say the film's timing was perfect would be an understatement: we NEEDED to laugh at ourselves in 2006, and boy did Borat ever deliver that in spades. Since most everything in the film was real (all the non-celebrities, and even most of the celebrities, had no idea it was Baron Cohen under that mop and ridiculous mustache and crazy accent), Borat almost is an actual documentary about the state of American social mores in the mid-00s. Baron Cohen's unbelievably committed, completely fearless performance is a hilarious master class in improv, but the film is so much more than that. This is social satire at its most brazen and biting, a ruthless takedown of American imperialism and exceptionalism that will probably never stop being relevant and ahead of its time.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Witness

Written as part of the series hosted by Nathaniel R. over at The Film Experience, where I occasionally contribute.

Peter Weir's Witness is one of those films whose reputation precedes it. The movie was a HUGE hit upon its release in 1985, and also received the Oscar seal of approval, with eight nominations including Best Picture, Director, and Actor (for Harrison Ford) and winning two including Best Original Screenplay. Everyone I know who was an adult when it was released LOVES Witness - especially, perhaps, my mother, who has had a crush on Harrison Ford ever since Star Wars. So, you could say I went into this viewing with high expectations.

But then, the expectations game is funny. Because Witness is most often described as a thriller, and somehow I got it in my head that Witness is about what happens when Ford's Detective John Book investigates a killing in the Amish community, NOT what happens when a young Amish boy is the sole witness to a murder in a train station and Book must protect him while kind-of undercover in the Amish community. The film is really only a thriller for both its opening and closing 20 minutes. The rest of it, though, is really a quiet drama introducing people to Amish culture in the broadest of subtle strokes. I don't know how much my expectations got in the way of my enjoyment of the film (and to be clear, I did like it), but up until the last act I kept wondering if this was one of those "you really had to be there" hits that spoke to something ineffable in the culture at the time of its release.

Thankfully, Weir was working with the genius John Seale (arguably robbed of an Oscar this past year for his beautiful work on Mad Max: Fury Road), who is just a fucking painter with light. It's here where the film most earns its iconic status, for me. In its best moments, Witness is some straight-up Terence Malick magic hour Days of Heaven shit.

Here's the weird thing. While watching Witness for the first time, I thought there were not a whole lot of images I would choose as my best shot. And then when I went through it again to grab some screenshots, I capped AT LEAST a dozen shots that stood out to me for various reasons, like this one, which I HAD to capture in motion as the light goes down:


And then there's the scene in the garage, my second favorite scene in the movie almost solely because of how stunningly it's lit (and also because it's the most purely charming Harrison Ford has ever been):

Best Shot Runner-Up
My favorite scene, though is the barn raising, which I could just watch on a loop forever and ever until I die and be purely satisfied. It is so good that for those eight minutes, I was ready to give up all of my stuff for the simple life of the Amish.

Look at them all, all over that scaffolding like monkeys on a tree in the jungle, each tirelessly working away, singular yet also part of a whole, separate but connected. It's an extremely pleasing sight to behold. I don't know what the Amish community thinks about Witness (if they even think about it all), but this scene alone is enough to put them in a very positive light, a close, tight-knit community of people who focus on life's simplest pleasures, who live off the land and have no need for modern conveniences - because maybe we really don't need them when we work hard and have each other.

But anyway, to the business at hand: Selecting the film's best shot. The more I thought about this, the more it was really no contest. For all of the beautiful shots in the film, there was one where all of the film's craft elements came together for me in a magical way:

This comes right before that lamp shot up above, just as Kelly McGillis's Rachel learns that John Book is going to leave, to "go back to his world, where he belongs" in the words of her father-in-law, Eli. Eli tells her that they both know it's where he belongs, but this shot puts where Rachel herself belongs into question. She may be boxed in to the hand-built Amish house in which she stands, but her shirt color ties her to the outside world, where John is. The shot is just as beautifully lit as every other shot in the film, but it's just packed with meaning in a way that stood out to me.

Kelly McGillis, by the way, is FUCKING FANTASTIC in this. She does so much with just her face and no dialogue at all, conveying so many conflicting feelings that she could not even put into words if she tried.... Rachel has recently lost her husband, and here is this man from the "outside world" coming in and making her feel things she maybe hasn't ever felt before, and at any rate is not ready for. It's completely to McGillis's credit that it feels like Rachel might actually leave the world she has known her whole life for a man she barely knows. For someone I only knew as "the girl" from Top Gun, this performance was a revelation. And to think this was her first major role! People who were there, tell me: Was there REALLY no room for her in that year's Oscar lineup? Or was it one of those cases where no one could decide if she was Lead or Supporting? Or did she somehow not get good reviews?!?

*               *               *

But now that that's all done, can we please talk about the REAL star of this film? Ladies and gentlemen, MISS PATTI LUPONE:

Rocking a mullet like nobody's business.
Okay, okay, she plays Harrison Ford's sister and is only in two scenes, but still. How many women could pull off this look?
NONE. THAT'S how many.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - So Bad It's Good

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Come play along by picking three films that fit the week's theme and saying a little bit about them!

Thursday again?!? It seems like almost no time has passed since the last round of Thursday Movie Picks. And this week's theme, well, it was suggested by yours truly! Why? Well, because I thought it would be fun (and it was close to April Fool's Day). Everyone has those films that they know are so terrible, but they love them anyway. Here are three of mine. You... may notice a theme within the theme...

Conan the Destroyer (Richard Fleischer, 1984) Arnold Schwarzenegger's first big starring role, Conan the Barbarian is just plain bad. But its sequel, Conan the Destroyer, is so bad it's AWESOME. Yes, this is thanks mostly to the one and only Grace Jones, but Schwarzenegger is no slouch either. Far more at ease in front of the camera than he was two years prior, he's a full-fledged star here. Handsome to look at most of the time and utterly crazed and almost inhuman the rest of the time, it's the stuff camp dreams are made from, and so is the plot, which involves a ragtag group of medieval-ish rogues on a quest to take a princess to find a jewel that will awaken a Dream God. Or something. I don't know, it doesn't matter. What matters is that this thing is utterly ridiculous in every way.

Bloodsport (Newt Arnold, 1988) What Conan was to Arnold, Bloodsport was to Jean-Claude Van Damme, and they both share the characteristics of their respective stars. Whereas the first Conan film is bloated and lumbering, Bloodsport is short and swift. The acting is still terrible, though. However, the fights (aka the film's sole reason for existing) are all amazing to watch, and it's kind of hard not to be attracted to the Muscles From Brussels, as an American military man who travels to Hong Kong to compete in an underground martial arts tournament, in which fights often end only in death. It's ridiculous, but it's FUN once you give yourself over the hacky cliché of it all.

Gymkata (Robert Clouse, 1985) I mean, just watch the trailer. That should tell you everything you need to know about this ridiculous, addictive piece of 1980s B-movie junk. I mean, Kurt Thomas is even rocking a mullet FAR better than anyone should have the right to. I caught this one day on TV when I was home sick from school but old enough to be left alone (so probably around 11 or 12) and was utterly in awe that such a film could even exist. And that's where the obsession with these God-awful 80s "action" flicks started. Do you like any of these as much as I do?

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Gregory Peck Centennial

Written as part of the series hosted by Nathaniel over at The Film Experience, where I also contribute occasionally.

Gregory Peck is one of my favorite actors. I think it's the eyebrow - you know the one. The one that's always cocked upward in amusement or befuddlement or just winking in an old-school "how YOU doin'?" kinda way. I'm not sure how it nearly always stays up there, but it does, and it's amazing.

The other reason I love him, of course, is Atticus Finch. To Kill A Mockingbird is one of my favorite books, and Robert Mulligan's film version is the gold standard of page-to-screen adaptations as far as I'm concerned. Horton Foote's lyrical screenplay is a lovely distillation, of course, but there's also Mary Badham's precocious performance as Scout, and Peck's note-perfect portrayal of Atticus, the greatest father in the world. Tough but fair, friendly but fearsomely fierce when called for, and most importantly wise beyond anything.

The film doesn't put a foot wrong, starting right at the opening credits sequence, using a child's box of treasures and drawings - and Elmer Bernstein's perfect score - to immediately put you in the headspace of a six year-old girl. I don't think any film has ever put you so efficiently into the mood of the film - just watching the opening credits of Robert Mulligan's masterpiece makes you nostalgic for Maycomb, Alabama of the mid-1930s, even if you've never been there.

I love To Kill A Mockingbird so much that it's difficult to pick one shot as "Best". A large part of me wanted to highlight one of the unsung members of the supporting cast and pick one of the shots that they just knock out of the park (Mulligan hardly ever cuts in the middle of conversations or big speeches here, bless him) - like Rosemary Murphy as Maudie ("Some men in this world are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us."), or Frank Overton as Sheriff Heck Tate ("It's a sin. And I'm not about to have it on my head."). Or hell, even two of the meatier roles that somehow STILL manage to be unsung:

Brock Peters as Tom Robinson and Collin Wilcox Paxton as Mayella Ewell.
The greatest push-in in movie history?
 But the one I toyed with the most is the introduction to Robert Duvall's Arthur "Boo" Radley:

...because his face is so fucking gorgeous so ably portrays so many emotions while seemingly hardly doing anything at all.

And don't even get me started on any shot from the justifiably famous, perfect, tear-jerking "your father's passing" scene.

But there were two shots of Atticus that really captured me this time around, watching with this project in mind. The first is perhaps more notable for what's playing on the soundtrack while it happens:
Best Shot Runner-Up
This happens while Scout is sleepily asking Jem about their mother, and it's our first real insight into Atticus as something more than just a perfect father - he's kind of alone in this world. Peck's performance, combined with the dialogue, makes you wonder about what his life was like before his wife passed away, and how it affected him, without ever going so far as to suggest he is how he is now because she's no longer around. A tricky line to walk. Like the rest of the film, it's perfectly judged.

But it was this one that struck me most, in a way I wasn't quite prepared for.

We're never this far away from anyone at any point in the film. It reinforces the idea that Atticus is very much alone in his plight, possibly completely alone in his principles and how he sees the world. He's talking to Tom, his black client accused of rape, in jail, after an angry white mob attempted to take justice into their own hands (only to be saved by Atticus's own daughter). He's telling Tom that he will be alright, that they won't come after him again. That's not exactly true - Bob Ewell will come for Tom at the trial, as will the jury. Throughout all of it, Atticus stands tall, but he also stands alone, guided by the shining light of justice. He may be right, but it's still a lonely place to be.

*                *                *

I'd also like to talk about Roman Holiday a little, since Nathaniel wanted us to choose one and I missed the last two episodes of Hit Me With Your Best Shot. Plus, I really like Roman Holiday. It's not great, but it is charming beyond measure and pretty much a joy to watch. I mean, it's not every day you get to watch a STAR just blossom before you as fully as Audrey Hepburn does here. She's maybe not entirely deserving of the Oscar she won - she's VERY green and it often shows quite badly - but it's impossible to deny her presence, and when she lets loose one of those gorgeous smiles it's as if the sun is shining right on you; she makes you feel as though this smile is something special, that you have earned it somehow, and that she's smiling at you, only you. Which is perfect, since she's playing a princess.

But when I think of Roman Holiday, there's only one shot that I stands out for me as "best". It's true that the film gets lots of mileage out of its location shooting in Rome, but despite all the lovely architecture there simply aren't many shots that capture my imagination - and choosing one of Audrey smiling is just cheating; anyone could shoot that and make it look great.

No, the best shot of Roman Holiday is by far its very last one:

I have mentioned before that I am a hopeless romantic, and professed my love for a very specific type of romantic film - one about love that burns bright for a very short amount of time but cannot, must not, last. Roman Holiday is one of the ones that ends without the leads ending up together, and director William Wyler knows exactly how to make that ending work. After all the rest of the journalists leave, let Gregory Peck stay behind. Give one shot of him dwarfed by the palatial room, one shot/reverse shot of him watching where the Princess has just exited, and then, tracking shot of him walking out. All the way. Don't cut away, don't look anywhere else, just watch him leave. It's suspenseful even though we know she's not coming. It's impossible to look away from. It's the best possible way to end the film - in the sure, steady hands of Gregory Peck.