Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Morocco

Written as part of the series hosted by the lovely Nathaniel R. at The Film Experience, THE essential site for film lovers and actressexuals of all shapes and sizes!

What becomes a legend most?

Not caring. Not having any ever-loving fucks left to give. THAT is what becomes a legend most. For what does a legend care for the peons of the world - those people beneath her who would grovel at her feet for the chance of getting a glance from her ever-shrouded eyes, the "little people" who encompass most of us? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

Oh, she may have her reasons. She could be so insanely talented that everyday trivialities are nothing to her. She could be so unbelievably beautiful that she simply cannot bear to look at anything not as lovely as she. Or, she could have been hurt so deeply and so often over the course of her life that she has realized that there's nothing left in this world she could possibly give a damn about.

Except maybe this man. Because let's be honest, who wouldn't?

Josef von Sternberg's Morocco wasn't my introduction to Marlene Dietrich (that would be Alfred Hitchcock's Stage Fright), but it was my introduction to the work that defined her (with von Sternberg), and somehow I hadn't watched it until now. Well let me tell you, the lady is AMAZING. Amy Jolly is the baddest bitch on the seven continents and then some. Help her pack up her luggage after it collapses open on a boat? Whatever. Employ her to sing at your café in the titular country and give her advice on how to work the crowd? Alright, fine, if you must. But you best believe that when she does deign to pay attention to you, she will only do so with complete and utter disdain:

Silver Medal

Basically, that same insouciance that makes Buster Keaton one of the silver screen's greatest comedians makes Marlene Dietrich one of its greatest Divas. She is the living personification of the old adage "Less is More," and it took me seeing Morocco to realize it.

Bronze Medal

Watch as one by one she singlehandedly disarms every single man around her! Thrill to her shocking performance in... SHOCK... menswear! Gasp as she works the crowd by kissing a woman full on the mouth! IN 1930!!!

She kissed a girl. She liked it.

But when she finally gets Gary Cooper alone, she reveals where that give-no-fucks, take-no-prisoners attitude comes from. She's been let down by a few too many men. Turns out, her strength comes from a place of deep sadness, a mask she puts on to get through the day. We finally see the real Amy(/Marlene) in this shot, just as Cooper's legionnaire tells her that he wishes he had met her ten years ago - before he joined the Foreign Legion:


He's all but told her he loves her, and she looks like she's just been told she has forty-eight hours to live, like she's going back into hiding after sticking her nose out of her hole. Von Sternberg even has her dressed in black and boxed into the frame - here she is, in the same trap she's found herself in time and again, and the only way out is to cut it off now, before she gets in too deep. Again. What a beautiful character moment - one that makes you see her in a completely different (but still drop-dead sexy) light.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - The Internet

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

This week on Thursday Movie Picks: THE INTERNET. Meaning, the thing that I'm writing on, and you're reading on at this very moment.

Well, I'm writing now, and you're reading in the future.

Wait. Or you're reading now, and I'm writing in the past?

Is this how time travel starts?

Anyway, there's one very specific movie about the internet that I'm sure everyone will pick this week, because blah blah blah GREATEST MOVIE EVER yadda yadda yadda.... and I just don't feel that way about it, so.... I'm just not going to pick it.

So there.

Unfriended (Leo Gabriadze, 2015) Cyberbullying, meet the found-footage horror film. Unfriended is completely ridiculous, and honestly not all that scary, BUT when watched late at night, with the lights off, on your laptop.... it really does become almost unbearably creepy at points. The premise - a group of friends chatting via Skype become haunted by a malevolent ghost in the machine, possibly their friend who recently committed suicide after an explicit video of her was posted on Facebook - is kind of genius, and if you want an idea of what the youth of today are up to when no one's looking, this is pretty hard to beat. But... a great idea does not make a great movie.

We Steal Secrets (Alex Gibney, 2013) I mean, you COULD bother with Bill Condon's The Fifth Estate, but other than Benedict Cumberbatch.... WHY? Especially when you have the real thing right here? Gibney's incredibly engrossing documentary wades deep in the moral muck surrounding the website WikiLeaks and its divisive founder, Julian Assange. It's fascinating, depressing, and deeply, deeply cynical all at once. An essential film for anyone currently living on planet Earth.

Julie & Julia (Nora Ephron, 2010) OH, the lengths to which I will go in order to NOT pick THAT movie this week, ladies and gentlemen! I know what you're thinking. "This movie isn't about the internet, it's about cooking!" To which I can only say, "Well, yeah, but it's ALSO about BLOGGING about cooking!" I don't know that Julie Powell was the first celebrity blogger, or the first to have her blog lead to a book deal, but Ephron's deliciously entertaining trifle is as much about being a blogger as it is about being a chef, or being a woman, or being an American abroad. And as such, it really feels like the best possible choice for a blogger to pick when picking films about the internet!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens

I have a confession to make: I am not a massive Star Wars fan.

I have said that I am on numerous occasions, and I'm sure I had good reason to, at the time. But the fact is, I am really only a casual fan. The original Star Wars was instantly my favorite film of all time upon seeing it, and it's still comfortably in my Top Five. I was a card-carrying member of the Star Wars Fan Club in my youth, read a few of the Expanded Universe books, and saw each film of the prequel trilogy on opening day. BUT... I wasn't really active in the Fan Club and let my membership lapse after only a couple of years, I still haven't read the Han Solo trilogy even though I've owned those books since middle school, and I never ever saw the need to see any new film at the first midnight screening.

The first shot is the inverse of the original's - BRONZE
I also don't have the sort of emotional attachment to the franchise that leads me to get into heated debate about which of the films is best and whether or not we should even pay attention to the prequels. I read stories of the fan restorations of the original trilogy with great interest but never particularly care to search for or download them. I also - God help me - only own the original trilogy, in the silver DVD box set that came out almost a decade ago now.

The original Star Wars may be a formative text for me - as it no doubt is for many nerds and cinephiles alike - but I have never really been anything more than a casual fan, and I'm okay with that.

It's for this reason that I greeted the announcement of a new trilogy with J.J. Abrams at the helm with a shrug and a Facebook post reading, "If I see so much as ONE lens flare, so help me, J.J....."I knew I would see it, but I saw no point in getting excited about it. Star Wars is a one-time-only thing, an improbable success that forever changes the landscape of what comes after in such a fundamental way that we still aren't quite aware of the full extent of its reach. The fact that Disney was making a new trilogy only served to me as evidence that the snake was now officially eating its tail.

So color me shocked that in the weeks leading up to the arrival of Episode VII - The Force Awakens, I was so excited about seeing it that at one point while buying the tickets, I actually started shaking. And my anticipation as I sat down in the AMC Loews Lincoln Square IMAX with my Mom (from whom I inherited my love of Star Wars) was at such a fever pitch that I was practically squealing with delight. And then the title came up to that blast of John Williams's iconic score, and I was seven years old again, clapping my hands and downright giddy at the prospect of watching another Star Wars movie, this time on the biggest of all screens, in 3-D!

And I never, EVER, get excited about 3-D.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Thusday Movie Picks - Aliens

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!

LET'S DO THIS (extra-terrestrial) THING!

(Sorry, I just finished a brain-dump list of the funniest films EVER, so I just want to get right to the point!)

Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) The grand-daddy of all alien movies, Ridley Scott's masterpiece starts out like a sci-fi film, but ends up being a killer haunted house flick, with the spaceship standing in for the house as a mysterious, flesh-hungry alien gets loose and starts picking off the crew members one by one. Every performance is memorable (Veronica Cartwright! Tom Skerritt! Ian Holm!), but movie characters don't come more iconic than Sigourney Weaver's "final girl" Ripley.

Galaxy Quest (Dean Parisot, 1999) What if satellite transmissions of Star Trek somehow made it into space to a not-particularly-intelligent alien race looking to be rescued from persecution? That's the question posed by Galaxy Quest, a definite contender for funniest film of the '90s. The answer? They come to Earth, kidnap the actors responsible for the iconic characters, and force them to man the ship and save their species in one last final episode of the show. Except that now, the show is real! I can't believe how perfectly cast this thing is: Tim Allen as the womanizing ship commander, Sigourney Weaver as the sexy (lone) female, Alan Rickman as the British "real thespian"/emotionless alien doctor, Tony Shalhoub as the nervous chief engineer, and Sam Rockwell as a "red shirt" (you know, one of those nameless, disposable extras who maybe had one line before they got unceremoniously killed off in their one episode gig). And then the brilliant Enrico Colantoni, Missi Pyle, and Rainn Wilson as the aliens. Plus, Justin Long as the ultimate fanboy. Galaxy Quest is a blast - even if you're not a Trekkie (I'm not)!

Lilo & Stitch (Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders, 2002) I make no bones about it: Stitch may just be my favorite Disney character. An alien science experiment hellbent on destruction gone rogue and pseudo-domesticated by a sweet little Hawaiian girl named Lilo, Stitch is just the cutest little agent of chaos you've ever seen. The film around him follows suit, ending up as easily the best of Disney's rather fallow output between the "Golden Age" of the '90s and the new computer-animated hits that have come in recent years.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

LIST: The Funniest Films

So, over at The Film Experience, Nathaniel posed the question to readers of what movies make us giggle the most. And honestly, I sort of randomly picked the first one that came into my head, but I could feel the floodgates opening, and then I had the kind of day at work today that made me need a really good laugh, so I decided to just do the damn thing and make a list! So here it is: My totally arbitrary, not at all thought through, probably missing a ton of titles, not in any particular order (but maybe it is...) list of....


 1. The Thin Man (Van Dyke, 1934)

2. The Producers (Brooks, 1967)

3. Airplane! (Zucker/Abrams/Zucker, 1980)

4. Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, 1938)

5. Clue (Lynn, 1985)

6. A Shot in the Dark (Edwards, 1964)

7. Some Like It Hot (Wilder, 1959)

8. Waiting For Guffman (Guest, 1996)

9. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Gilliam/Jones, 1975)

10. Young Frankenstein (Brooks, 1974)

...and more! After the break!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Queen Margot

Written as part of the series hosted by Nathaniel R. of The Film Experience, a great website where I contribute occasionally, and which should be required reading for all film bloggers.

I don't have enough evidence to prove this, but Patrice Chéreau's La reine Margot is probably the sexiest costume drama ever made. It's certainly the sexiest one I've ever seen. At points it practically drips with eroticism. That the film is also a tremendous tragedy would only be a surprise to anyone who doesn't know French history, but as that probably applies to most Americans, it's worth mentioning, especially since the last act is really, really great at it, and with all the sex and romance on display throughout the rest of the film, it's very easy to envision a version of this story that ends with at least a little happiness.

But, this being a French historical drama about the ruling class, it was never going to have a remotely happy ending.

I found it incredibly difficult to pick a best shot, narrowing it down to four, from which one singular shot simply wouldn't emerge. I would blindly point and pick one, but that would go against the whole concept of this series, so I had to sit here staring at my screen and thinking VERY. HARD. for quite a while in order to complete the task at hand. In the end, it came down to what I think the film is about, and which shot exemplifies that best. But first, the runner-ups.

Honorable Mention
In case you're wondering, that Isabelle Adjani's Margot and her two brothers. It is heavily implied throughout the film that Margot has had relations with her brothers, and certainly in this early shot they sure do seem pretty close. But I like this shot for exemplifying how brazenly open this film is about sex and sexuality - the opening scenes are dripping with homoeroticism, incestual tension, and a decidedly female gaze. I can't think of another historical costume drama that plays that way, and it's refreshing (and somewhat depressing, since this was made way back in 1994).

Bronze Medal
Ladies and gentlemen, the great Virna Lisi. The conniving, scheming mother Catherine de Medici who sets the whole plot into motion and keeps it going right on through its tragic end. Here, as she watches her son the King die of her poison, she looks like a witch - an old crone, or perhaps even a gargoyle, looking down on everyone from the upper regions of the church. But also in the shadows, where she would prefer to stay - out of the limelight, pulling the strings for her sons to rule how she wants them to. They say "absolute power corrupts absolutely". Well, I submit this shot as evidence of its truth.

Silver Medal
The film doesn't take a huge number of stylistic risks, but it does take one pretty big symbolic one that probably shouldn't work but does, quite brilliantly. King Charles, inadvertently poisoned by his own mother's hand, sweats blood as he dies. It's a striking image, watching blood-red sweat drip down his face as he tries to get some last comfort out of Margot, and an appropriate one for the character, who spends most of the film being too nervous and unsure of himself to do what he believes is right. So here, at his most nervous, at death's door, he sweats blood. The blood of the people who died in his name, who died at his (indirect) hand, and will die in the future because of him and his failings.

This one is all about the colors and the blocking. It's not just her milky white skin against his tanned, ripped body, but the fact that they mirror the marble pillars behind them almost exactly, and what that means. They're entwined with each other, they lean on each other, but they stand independently, almost in two different worlds. He is a Protestant and she a Catholic - together they could hold up the entire kingdom of France if they wanted, but instead they're wrapped in blood (the red blanket). The blood that came before, which brought them together, and the blood to come after, which will keep them apart. True tragedy is always inevitable, and this is a lovely bit of foreshadowing.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Spanish-Language Movies

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join the party by picking three movies that fit the week's criteria and writing a bit about them - it's fun and easy!

I'll admit. This was a hard one. So many films I wanted to pick aren't technically in Spanish, but rather Portugese. And one that I was going to pick (Under the Same Moon), had a pretty good amount of English in it, too (but it's SO. GOOD. despite the fact that it was marketed like an utterly average, overly sentimental melodrama). I wish I had more knowledge of older Spanish films - there are plenty on my list (Spirit of the Beehive, Cria Cuervos..., The Exterminating Angel, etc.), but there are simply too many films and too little time, especially recently! So we had to go all recent this week, but if you haven't seen these, you really need to do so. ASAP.

Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marston, 2004) Catalina Sandino Moreno deservedly got an Oscar nomination for her debut performance in this tight-as-a-drum thriller-cum-character study. Seventeen year-old Colombian Maria is working in what is basically a sweatshop to help support her family. When she dares to feel that she is being treated unfairly, she quits. And then finds out she's pregnant. And since she and her boyfriend don't love each other, she doesn't want to get married. What's a girl to do? Well, in this case, become a drug mule. Marston's incredible debut feature can be difficult to watch at times, but it is always compelling - both deeply humane and never, ever sentimental. Somehow, this works despite Marston (who also wrote the script) being about as far from the experiences of these characters as humanly possible. The film resists at every turn becoming an even slightly lesser version of itself, finding a perfect avatar in Sandino Moreno's perfect face, which remains hardened and implacable even as her eyes show you everything that's going on inside.

Timecrimes (Nacho Vigalondo, 2007) And now, for something completely different. Vigalondo's film follows an ordinary man who catches a mysterious bandaged man spying on him, and yadda yadda yadda ends up as the crux of a time travel paradox for the ages. Under close scrutiny, Timecrimes may fall apart just as most time travel tales do, but I actually think, given the explanations in the film's science, that it really may in fact hold together. But putting that aside for the moment, this is one hell of a ride, truly thrilling in every possible way. I'm honestly shocked an American version hasn't happened yet.

Undertow (Javier Fuentes-Léon, 2009) What would you do if you were forced to live a lie? To be with someone you may love, but not with your TRUE love? What would you do if your true love then died? And what would you do if they then came back to you as a ghost? From this conceit, Undertow spins pure cinematic gold. I can't say enough great things about this quietly gorgeous film. It is, quite simply, perfect.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - SHORT FILMS!!

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 really read, if you aren't already.

I'm not quite sure how Don Hertzfeld's World of Tomorrow came to be, and frankly, I'd rather not know. Because it is a glorious, glorious thing - totally juvenile yet utterly adult on every level in a way that is simply miraculous. And miracles are really better left unexplained, aren't they?

The film touches on so many things in its fifteen-minute length that it's astonishing. However, that means they all fly by at a relatively quick pace, which makes choosing a best shot potentially impossible. But shockingly, for me, it wasn't. I knew my best shot the moment I saw it, no thinking necessary.

Generally speaking, World of Tomorrow is an incredibly colorful film. The "background" images which float over, under, around, and through Hertzfeld's inimitable stick figures are pieces of pure technical wizardry (again, I don't want to know through what magic they came to be - they're better off that way), adding a strange sense of place (and no-place) to each scene. But here, there's nothing. Just darkness. A pure expression of the loneliness and sadness of the future. This is how Future Emily felt when her husband died, and still feels: "I do not have the mental or emotional capacity to deal with his loss. But sometimes I sit in a chair late at night and quietly feel very bad. When the night is at its most quiet, I can hear death."


That may be the most accurate description I've ever heard of mourning, especially when paired with that image. Future Emily introduces the future to Emily Prime as "The Outernet", a neural network that connects everyone, but for most of the film it's not clear whether that's a construct which they eventually leave or not. Emily Prime can change the colors just by thinking of them, and is able to interact with Future Emily's memories when she wants to, and Hertzfeld is purposefully vague about what exactly all this means. But in this short scene of pure blackness, we only ever see Future Emily. It's her despair made manifest in the most stark, striking way imaginable, instantly recognizable even to our "primitive" eyes, and utterly unique from the entire rest of the film.

I read some article a while back which said that when we experience loss - whether through death or a breakup or some other means -  our mind actually does not know how to handle it, so the mental "pain" we feel lights up the same parts of the brain that respond to physical pain, resulting in the feeling we call "heartbreak". Now, apply that to Future Emily here. She's a third generation clone of Emily Prime, and in her own words, only some slight signs of "mentool detarioration" have started to set in. It makes perfect sense that her brain's response to this kind of pain would have issues. But then, too, this is how many people in the present deal with loss. In a strange way, as desolate and isolating as this image is, it's also kind of comforting, showing us that even hundreds of years into the future, when people upload their "digital consciousness" to boxes which apparently cause a lot of pain that other future people apparently don't have the emotional capacity to understand, loss still affects us deeply, and we still don't have an easy way to deal with it.

And then, there's also hope in Future Emily's next sentence: "I am very proud of my sadness, because it means I am more alive."

There's nothing more human than that.
*                    *                    *

Stephan Zlotescu's True Skin isn't so much a short film as it is a VFX reel that basically serves as a trailer for itself (apparently Amazon has picked it up to develop into a series, which is a smart move on their part). It's the complete opposite of World of Tomorrow - a wicked case of style over substance. And by "wicked", I mean... DAMN, what WICKED style. There's nothing else out there that really looks like this (it's basically the future of Minority Report coated with the neon rush of Enter the Void), making it totally arresting visually even as it follows a basic, bare-bones noir "plot": In the future, people are tricking themselves out with synthetic parts, partially in order to live longer. Our protagonist, Kaye, has stolen a classified prototype chip of some sort, and the authorities are after him in Bangkok. Zlotescu (who also stars) and director of photography H1 (and, it must be said, the VFX team) cram an unbelievable amount of visual data into practically every frame, and in ways that make me crave to see it in 3D. Which is, I guess, why I ended up picking this as my best shot:

It kinda needs to be in motion to really do it justice, but pretty much everything that is unique to the film - the visual style, the android accoutrements, the overall almost-assault on the senses - is in this one frame, which is literally SCREAMING AT YOU to LOOK AT IT! Yes, that really is an advertisement for "EYES" hanging in the air in front of a guy actually selling synthetic eyes. It's doubling down a bit, but hey, it's neon-future Bangkok. That's probably exactly what it would look like.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Androids/Cyborgs

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. You can participate yourself by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and telling us about them. It couldn't be easier!

Another drive-by week.... I got back to good ol' NYC late Monday night, and the big annual fundraising Gala at work is tonight! ACK! If only I was a robot, this would be a lot easier.

Which brings us to our theme this week! Here are three of my favorite androids/cyborgs.

Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927) This is THE ONE. The mother of all sci-fi movies. Evil Maria is a cyborg for the ages. Lang's endlessly inventive, template-setting masterpiece is still a marvel to behold.

Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2008) Michael Fassbender's David8 is such an impressive characterization - just how sentient is David? What is he programmed to do and what traits has he acquired/developed over his existence? - that I long for the sequel only in hopes that he somehow survives. The rest of this Alien prequel is alternately fantastic and flawed.

Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015) Alicia Vikander won her Oscar (SHUT UP) for her incredible work as Ava, an android so believably human that when she puts clothes on over her chrome-and-wire body you would never know it, except for the slight stiffness in her movements. Alex Garland's film is one of the best of 2015, the thinking person's sci-fi (shoulda-been) blockbuster.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Death Becomes Her

Written as part of the series hosted by Nathaniel R. at The Film Experience.

This is going to be quick and dirty, because my sister's wedding has had me BUSY over the past five days. But it has also had me full of love, and I simply couldn't let this particular episode of Hit Me... to go by without showing love, because Death Becomes Her is a film I LOVE in all its brilliant, campy glory. Is it a perfect film? No. But it is a pretty great genre hybrid film, and one of the few outright great intentionally campy films, because going for camp is pretty much the only way to make a satirical horror/comedy not feel like an unfocused mess. Which the film actually might very well be. But I haven't seen it in a while, so I can't say for sure.

What I can say for sure is that there is a whole hell of a lot of joy in this film, from Meryl Streep's flawless diva-tude to Isabella Rossellini's flawless... well... flawlessness. When I think of Death Becomes Her (which is often), there are pretty much two things I think of: Isabella's slinky-sexy death-defying goddess (seriously, she just DEMANDS worship simply by just being on screen) and this little old shot right here:

NOTHING in the film makes me laugh harder, which is quite a feat considering how fucking funny the whole thing is. And actually, the VFX in this particular shot perhaps haven't held up quite as well as I remember. But Goldie Hawn plays it so perfectly. And Dean Cudney's camera knows that the best thing to do is just sit back and observe. Timing is everything in comedy, and Goldie's timing, along with the timing of the camera movement, are simply perfection.