Thursday, June 30, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - High School Reunion

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. You can take part, too! Just pick three movies that fit the week's theme and say a little bit about them. It couldn't be easier!

If there is anything worse than high school, it's high school reunions. My ten-year one was four years ago now, and I didn't go. Everyone who I wanted to see, I was either still in contact with through Facebook (thank God for Facebook!) or saw semi-regularly anyway. So I didn't feel the need to spend money to eat catered food in the place we had our Senior Prom and stand around looking at other people I barely remembered making small talk about our lives.

Not that all high school reunions are bad! My mother still fondly remembers the first reunion she went to where she realized all the cheerleaders who made her life hell in high school, and had married their jock boyfriends, had not only peaked in high school, but were basically still living it. And had gotten fat.

Perhaps it's due to my ambivalence towards these types of events that I haven't seen enough movies about them to fill out the full three picks this week. I mean, I know of plenty of others - Peggy Sue Got Married, 10 Years, Romy & Michele's High School Reunion - but I haven't actually seen them. And that's kind of a rule I set for myself with these things: I have to have seen the movie in order to pick it. So I only have two this week. Here goes nothing.

Veronica Mars (Rob Thomas, 2014) Yes, this is the movie that kickstarted (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?!?) the craze of using Kickstarter to fund movie projects. No, it's not great. And no, I don't particularly care. As a huge fan of the canceled-too-soon TV show about a whip-smart teenage outcast/private eye (Kristen Bell) and her former Sheriff/current private investigator father (Enrico Colantoni) living in a deeply divided California town, this movie was like catnip to me, and delivered just about everything I wanted from a Veronica Mars movie. Snappy dialogue, noir-ish murder mystery plot, and smart commentary about the intersection of race/class and privilege. After moving as far away as possible from the town that caused her so much heartbreak, soon-to-be lawyer Veronica comes back to her hometown of Neptune, CA after a call from her ex-boyfriend asking for her help exonerating him from a murder charge. And it just so happens that her high school reunion is taking place at the same time. What's a girl trying to get on the straight and narrow to do? Yes, there's a bit of a bar to clear if you didn't watch the show, but I have to think that most of it would still be enjoyable anyway.

Grosse Pointe Blank (George Armitage, 1997) One of the best films of the '90s, Grosse Pointe Blank tells the story of one Martin Blank, a professional assassin whose most recent job is to kill someone in his hometown. And it just so happens that his ten year high school reunion is taking place at the same time! And it ALSO just so happens that the man he's been hired to kill is the father of the girl he still has a crush on from high school. Ironic detachment has rarely been done better than this movie, and while it's definitely a product of its time, the great performances from John Cusack, Minnie Driver, Dan Aykroyd, and Joan Cusack (among others) keep it feeling fresh, and the zippy pace makes the film just fly by. This is a really fun one if you haven't seen it.

...and that's it for me this week, folks! I got nothin' else!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - To Catch a Thief

To Catch a Thief is one of my favorite Hitchcock films. If I'm being honest with myself, it's not one of his best, but it is oh so very good at being what it is - an entertaining, luxe, escapist thriller - that it is always in my Top Ten Favorite Hitchcocks. Few of the Master of Suspense's Hollywood films are so purely entertaining, and none have as much glamour.

I love many things about To Catch a Thief, but we are here to discuss cinematography. And there are three things I really love about the cinematography of To Catch a Thief.

1. The location photography, including best rear-projection driving scenes in Old Hollywood.

2. The visual wit. This is one of Hitchcock's wittiest films visually.

"Un poulet!"

3. The green-ish nighttime hues.

"Mother, the book you're reading is upside down!"

That last one is my favorite moment in the film, a perfect example of the film's wit. But I felt weird picking it for the Best Shot, since what makes me laugh is the placement of that line of dialogue. My Best Shot comes near the end of the film, as Cary Grant's retired cat burglar John Robie hides out on the roof waiting to catch his copy cat. We've only just found out that the costumed gentleman dancing with Grace Kelly's danger whore Francie all night was not John but rather the insurance adjuster working with him to protect the jewels he has insured, and Hitch cuts right to John on the roof and does the magnificent pull-out (which I wasn't able to gif):

It's so stunningly lit, and the camera moves so perfectly, and it puts you right into John's slightly vertiginous head space - he knows what he's doing, he's in his element, but he's nervous. If he doesn't catch this guy, he's going to jail for something he didn't do. And might also lose a beautiful woman in the process. It's an effortless shot, just like the whole film.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - School Competition

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. You can play along by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and saying a little something about them.

Ah, school competitions. Whether it's music, recitations, or science projects, they are a hotbed of young talent. Sometimes. Other times, you just have to sit back and wonder at the state of the education system that these untalented, awkward youths before you are the very best the modern world has to offer. Usually while laughing and shaking your head.

HOWEVER! There is only one school competition I really care about: The National Spelling Bee. When I was in elementary school, I wanted to win the Spelling Bee SO. BAD. I actually got pretty close, considering I wasn't one of those kids who spent all their free time studying a dictionary (I made it to the final ten of my regional competition one year). I still watch the bee every year, and usually cover the area of the screen where the word it so I can "compete" alongside our nation's youngest and brightest spellers. It's fun. And these movies are pretty fun, too.

Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz, 2002) The movie that basically made the National Spelling Bee a must-watch for millions of people, this documentary is pretty basic but very well done. Like my beloved Mad Hot Ballroom (which came later), it looks at America through the prism of the students competing, showing how cultural differences not just across socioeconomic lines but across cultural heritage determine How We Live in the US. And it shows just how much of a pressure cooker it really is up on the national stage, in the ridiculously suspenseful competition sequences.

Akeelah and the Bee (Dough Atchison, 2006) Ladies and gentlemen, witness the birth of a STAR. Keke Palmer is the heart and soul of this movie, carrying it all on her tiny little shoulders with the confidence and poise of actors decades older than she. Sure, it helps that she has Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett as scene partners, but most of it is just her. As a smart girl from a poor community who falls into her talent as a speller, Palmer is impossibly assured and incredibly winning, somehow avoiding nearly all the usual child actor traps. The movie is one of the few that embraces its status as a "feel-good movie", but always leavens those qualities with a tough, lived-in sense of grit.

Bad Words (Jason Bateman, 2014) ...and now, for something completely different! This movie is incredibly, possibly irredeemably stupid, but I'm not gonna lie: I laughed my ass off. Jason Bateman plays an irascible middle-aged man on a mission: To win the National Spelling Bee for reasons unknown. Along the way, he meets a young Indian boy who worms his way into his stone cold heart, and takes the kid under his wing, teaching him the value of breaking a rule or two every once in a while. Look. I'm not saying this is great cinema, and the ending is a total flub, but if profanity used by or around children makes you laugh for almost no good reason (GUILTY), then you'll enjoy this.

Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (Bill Duke, 1993) How do you improve on the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Sister Act? Add some talented singing kids, that's how. especially if one of those kids is the prodigiously talented Lauryn Hill. Sister Mary Clarence has gone back to the life of a headliner, but the nuns she bailed out last time now need her help to save their school. So she does the EXACT SAME THING SHE DID LAST TIME (create a choir to win a competition), except now with kids. The supporting cast of nuns remains a riot (Mary Wickes! Kathy Najimy! Dame Maggie Smith!), and the kids are game, if perhaps a little too stereotypically "urban". If you're not impressed by their singing in this, then I just don't know how to help you.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

Written as part of the series hosted by everyone's favorite Nathaniel R. over at The Film Experience.


Yes, it's Pride Week! Which means it's time to watch some sad, depressed, horrible gay people abuse each other on film!

Yes, it's Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant! And what you see in the title is EXACTLY what you get. Bitter Petra von Kant and lots of tears. All while looking FABULOUS!

Sorry. I know I'm not giving this film the write-up it really deserves. It's just.... IT'S PRIDE WEEK! And this film really ruined my buzz, man. But more importantly, there is A LOT to unpack in this movie, and I feel like I need to see it at least once more before I can even begin to do that. Suffice it to say, that if you are at all a fan of actresses acting circles around each other, this a must see, featuring an absolutely unbelievable performance from Margit Carstensen in her film debut as the title character. She is fucking tremendous in this part, nailing Petra's fashion designer hauteur and performative nature as well as the bruised, wounded woman underneath. It's all the more astonishing for some of the clothes and wigs she had to wear while giving that performance.

Fassbinder and his cinematographer, the legendary Michael Ballhaus, manage to find every possible angle to film characters in the space the entire film is set in, Petra's combination bed/sitting room-cum-design studio(?), resulting in a film that is never not interesting to look at. It is really kind of incredible, but what struck me more than the lighting or the camera movements (which were at times incredibly expressive) was the blocking of characters in the space. Particularly Marlene, Petra's put-upon assistant, who is constantly in the background of scenes, ever so slightly out of focus.

And they also make wonderful use of mirrors and windows, which often cause people to be both talking to each other and not at the same time, showing how Petra views and relates to other people (i.e., only in terms of herself):

And the use of the giant painting that takes up one whole wall of the room is just stunning, too, instantly presenting the beautiful Karin, whom Petra takes as a lover/muse for a time (and who, of course, ends up leaving her. For a man) as a gift from God:

But I keep coming back to two things about Bitter Tears: Marlene and the mannequins. I was absolutely fascinated by and utterly taken with Irm Hermann's performance as the silent, black-clad Marlene, the very definition of a "long-suffering assistant" who may or may not be actually doing all (and I do mean ALL) the work of Petra's design business. It's very clearly the work of a very green actress, but in the opening credits, Fassbinder dedicates the film to her, and it's easy to see why. She is the film's heart and soul, and even if the actress appears to have none of the character's inner life, there are moments when her eyes cut right through you:

And they use her smartly, perfectly encapsulating everything about the character - just how much she suffers, and just why she does it - in just one shot:

But as expressive as that shot is, I had to go with the mannequins for the Best Shot. So much of the film is about the performative aspect of sex/sexuality - how we present ourselves, how we lie and play parts, how we hide or ignore or knowingly exaggerate one way or another - and I was drawn to how Fassbinder constantly had Petra's mannequins posed around the space as if they were mirroring the action (or in at least one case, gossiping on it). And then, near the end of the film, when Karin is long gone and Petra is in deep, DEEP despair, her former bedroom now completely empty but for the wall painting, the shag carpeting, and a phone that Petra desperately waits for Karin to call her on, we see this:

Petra (or Marlene, who knows?) has staged her mannequins in bed, two having sex and one watching. It's a bit ambiguous: Are the two in bed meant to represent Petra and Karin, with the watcher being Marlene? Or society? Or are the two in bed Karin and a random lover, with Petra watching? Either way, what matters is that this is all Petra and Karin ever were - they weren't REAL when they were together. Petra didn't want to hear truth from Karin (or perhaps from her ex-husband), she wanted what she wanted to hear. Karin knew this, and it's part of why she got bored and part of why she left. Petra's feelings towards Karin weren't love, but obsession. She was reaching for something we want to be easily definable but in reality is anything but. She was going through the motions, trying to find something to fill a void, and desperately trying to make it fit. You can pose yourself however you like, but it's not love unless you're real.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Store/Supermarket/Mall Movies

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join us by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and telling us about them, so we can choose our weekend viewing!

Yes, it's true! This week Thursday Movie Picks is going to the mall! Or, you know, a record store. Or grocery store. Or book store. Or department store. You know. A place where you go to buy things.

I have to admit, all those movies and more crossed my mind, but I had either used them before, or they had maybe one or two scenes that fit, which is really not enough in my mind. So it was difficult picking these, but here we are! And I'm pretty happy with these three. I hope you like them, too!

High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000) Let me get this out of the way right off the bat: The book by Nick Hornby is one of my All-Time favorites. The movie isn't. But as far as adaptations go, I gotta say this one is pretty dynamite. John Cusack works in a record store with Jack Black and Todd Louiso, and together they form a sort of all-knowing trio of too-cool-for-school music snobs, constantly rating things in Top Five lists. Cusack's Rob is finally in a relationship he thinks will stick, except that she meets someone else, and he spirals into a funk trying to figure out his life, even to the point of looking up his exes to find out where those relationships went wrong, and if maybe possibly he could get them back. All of this sounds insufferable, and to be fair, if you can't stand Cusack (or Jack Black, perfectly cast as he may be) it might be. But I found this to be far funnier and more delightful to watch than I ever could have possibly imagined.

Miracle on 34th Street (George Seaton, 1947) This is the one. The best Christmas movie ever. Says me. Who does not celebrate Christmas. At the very least, it is the most American Christmas movie ever made, interrogating (however lightly) our consumerist culture and what we truly think the "Spirit of Christmas" is. Is Edmund Gwenn's Kris Kringle really Santa Claus? Does it even matter? Everything about this movie is just charming, from Gwenn's infectious smile, to Natalie Wood's early onset teen angst, to Maureen O'Hara's gradual opening up to joy. Both the joy of Christmas and the joy of buying things at Macy's. Aw, I joke because I love! Also: This is one of my favorite trailers EVER. I mean, they don't even use more than 5 seconds of footage from the film! Not even a HINT of what it's about! BRILLIANT.

Chocolat (Lasse Hallström, 2000) This may be stretching the theme a bit, but Juliette Binoche's Vianne Rocher does open a shop where she sells chocolate (in a town, of course, that is overly pious and sees sweets, ESPECIALLY that lustful, sinful chocolate, as the devil's food). And also, this deserves a re-evaluation by people who think little of it because it (undeservedly) received a whole lot of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. I'll freely admit that it's not THAT good, but it has its pleasures, not the least of which are Binoche and Judi Dench's performances as the earthy, sensuous Vianne and the local old crone, respectively. It's simple, but very sweet, not unlike most really good chocolate.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - One From the Heart

To call Francis Ford Coppola's One From the Heart "stylized" would be an understatement. To call it "artificial" would be even more of an understatement. It is, by a pretty good margin, the strangest American film I've ever seen, and were it not for Nobuhiko Obayashi's completely batshit insane House, it would be the absolute weirdest fucking film I've ever seen, period.

To begin with, it takes place in Las Vegas, and takes the artificiality of that city as far as it can go: The entire thing is shot on a soundstage, and looks it. BOY does it look it.

Then, there's also the almost expressionistic lighting, shading nearly every scene in neon shades of red, green, blue, and yellow.

They're about to do it, so they put on the red light

And on top of all that, it's mostly shot in a series of long takes, which often overlap with others that may or may not be taking place in the same place/at the same time, sometimes to wondrous effect, sometimes to disastrous effect. I say "disastrous" because of that whole "may or may not" caveat. There are times when characters appear to cross paths (they actually cross right in front of each other, in full view, and we watch them do it), except then the camera pulls back to reveal that the second character is actually not in the same place at all. Which makes it more confusing when it happens later and the two characters actually ARE in the same space at the same time.

And as if ALL THAT weren't enough, it's all set to a song score by Tom Waits that is near-constantly blaring on the soundtrack. If ever there was a musical film that was ashamed to be a musical, it's this one. The characters never sing, the songs just play like a third-person narrator or Greek chorus that we never see. Except that the songs don't really ever make that much of an impression, partly because they all sound very similar, partly because it's occasionally difficult to make out the lyrics over the dialogue, and partly because the lyrics don't always seem to fit quite right with the story as it's presented. Songs in musicals come organically out of the narrative, when a feeling is so strong or a situation so important that expressing what's happening in mere dialogue simply isn't enough. But the songs in One From the Heart aren't really used that way. Or at least it doesn't feel like it.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Immortals

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Take part in the fun by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and telling us about them - couldn't be easier!

What an interesting, tantalizingly vague topic for this week's Thursday Movie Picks! Immortals, huh? Like, gods? Or vampires? Or legends, who may die but will live forever in other ways?

Somehow, I managed to not quite go down any of those routes. Although I had initially wanted to be very cheeky and pick three movies with legendary actors playing legendary people (like, say, Lincoln, Amadeus, and Ali... not that it necessarily would have been those three exactly, but you get the idea), I decided against it because somehow, it just didn't feel quite right somehow. But still, I think these three fit the bill for this week quite nicely.

Death Becomes Her (Robert Zemeckis, 1992) What would you do if you had the opportunity to remain young forever, WITHOUT becoming a vampire? I don't know about you, but of the many, MANY things I would do, fight with my best frenemy about a wimpy, mustachioed Bruce Willis is not one of them. Oh, I kid, I kid. Willis is actually damn funny in this, as the man torn between Meryl Streep's actress Madeline Ashton and Goldie Hawn's author, both of whom have taken a potion provided by Isabella Rossellini (who else?) that provides eternal youth. This zany camp classic has aged remarkably well, and I'm not just talking about the groundbreaking visual effects. This gets to the heart of the love-hate relationships between women better than perhaps any other movie released in the modern era. It's also perfectly cast from top to bottom.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (Albert Lewin, 1945) Oscar Wilde's immortal story of a young man so beautiful that his portrait takes on all the rot of age and moral decay for him is far more tantalizing to read than to watch, but even this early filming of the tale gets at the horror of the story in ways the book does not. Hurd Hatfield is a perfect Dorian Gray, and Angela Lansbury is lovely as the gutter girl Sibyl Vane who may have stood a chance at stealing his heart, if it hadn't already turned black as pitch. Plus, the horrifying ending really exploits everything you can do with film, as pure a coup de cinéma as has ever existed.

Beetlejuice (Tim Burton, 1988) What? I had to throw in something remotely off-center! You can't deny that the "ghost with the most" isn't immortal - he's been around for over 600 years, and given the number on his ticket in the waiting room final scene, he's going to be around for a whole lot longer than that! So what if he's technically part of the after-life? He is living there, after all! Michael Keaton's performance as the titular "bio-exorcist" (a ghost who gets rid of the living) is one of the greatest comedic performances of all time, a hyper-committed work of near-insanity that creates a wholly original character out of nothing. There's nothing else like it. And come to think of it, there's nothing really like this movie, either. It's the ultimate horror-comedy, deliciously designed, perfectly cast (really, AMPAS, you couldn't find room at the Oscars for ONE of the film's magnificent Supporting Actresses?!?), and undoubtedly the work of an utterly singular director. It's a pity what Tim Burton has become over the past decade. The likelihood of getting something as fun as this from him again is LOW.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Trevor


This is easily the hardest episode of Hit Me With Your Best Shot I've ever participated in, and I'm including in that the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon episode, which I didn't participate in because despite trying three times, I found myself unable to remember that I was supposed to be looking for a best shot, so caught up was I in Ang Lee's deft, magical storytelling.

It's not just that Trevor is a very, VERY good short film, and that I could very honestly pick pretty much any shot from it and come up with a justification for why it's the Best. It's that I had never seen the short that birthed The Trevor Project before, and I didn't put two and two together and realize that this lovely short was even related to that SUPER important organization before watching it, and was thus totally unprepared for what I was about to watch.

I LOVE the little Harold & Maude phase Trevor goes through at the beginning

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Wedding Movies

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join us in holy matrimony by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and writing a bit about them!
Hello, everyone! Love is in the air this week on Thursday Movie Picks, and, if you will, please indulge me a bit...

This week is Wedding Movies, and, well, my sister got married exactly one month ago. And despite the unseasonably cold, wet weather on the day of the wedding, it was a beautiful, beautiful day - she looked so beautiful and so happy, and I got unexpectedly choked up watching my parents walk her down the aisle. So please just indulge me for one second as I bask in the beauty just once more...


Okay, back to the matter at hand. Movies. About weddings.

This was tough because there are so many to choose from. So I wanted to do movies that I love that I haven't mentioned on the blog yet. I kinda hope it also coincides with movies no one else picks, but just know that if you haven't seen these yet, you probably should. To know them is to love them.

Well, except maybe the last one.

Monsoon Wedding (Mira Nair, 2001) There's something about traditional Indian weddings, isn't there? The pomp and circumstance, the tradition, the symbolism, the MONTHS-long preparation... it all really makes the day itself feel like a big event - a culmination as well as a kick-off. Which is appropriate, since a wedding is essentially the line between one's single life and one's married life, especially in the case of an arranged marriage, like the one at the center of Mira Nair's kaleidoscopic portrait of modern India. Joy, tears, fights... it's all here, and all so relatable. It is so deeply felt on the levels of film craft and performance that we feel so much for ever single character, no matter how little time we spend with them, or how little they speak. This is how you do a big ensemble family film.

Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008) I have gotten into knock-down, drag-out fights about the quality of this one, so let me tell you right up front: I think Rachel Getting Married is a masterpiece. The family dynamics are so keenly observed - in Jenny Lumet's super-smart script, in Demme's unadorned direction, and in the incredibly astute performances. Anne Hathaway was robbed of an Oscar for her stunning, against-type work as Kym, a recovering addict on a weekend pass out of rehab for her sister's wedding. She's been away from her family for quite a while, but it doesn't take long for her to completely upend the delicate balance that has been built in her wake, and the long-held, deep resentment among various family members boils up at all the perfect (read: ABSOLUTE WORST) times. Rosemarie Dewitt is low-key brilliant as the titular bride, Bill Irwin and Debra Winger all kinds of wonderful as the divorced parents, one open-hearted and warm, the other closed-off and prickly, and then there's the always lovely Anna Deveare Smith as Dad's new wife, and the shockingly natural Tunde Adebimpe (lead singer of TV On the Radio) as the groom. Add in the ever-present musicians, and you have the perfect recipe for a delightful/awful wedding weekend. And the wedding, the centerpiece of the film, is just stunning: a swirling, deftly edited, wondrous piece of film that seemingly brings every character arc and plot turn to a close almost completely without dialogue. I love this movie so much, and even moreso after my sister's wedding, because now I know firsthand just how deeply true it all is.

The Wedding Date (Clare Kilner, 2005) I WARNED YOU. Remember that long-ago episode of Thursday Movie Picks where I picked three "Crappy Rom-Coms That I Love Anyway"? Well, this one almost made the cut. I mean, what's not to love about Debra Messing hiring Dermot Mulroney - the world's foremost male escort - to take to her sister Amy Adams's wedding? With Holland Taylor as her mother? Actually.... quite a lot. This is a preposterous, ridiculous movie, with characters constantly being in places they would never be doing things they would never do. But Messing and Mulroney are so goddamn charming that I kind of enjoy it anyway. Call this one a favorite Guilty Pleasure, while my other two picks are All-Time Favorites.