Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Splash

Written (for the last time?!? GOD I hope not!) for the series hosted by Nathaniel R. at The Film Experience.

1984 is the year I was born. So naturally, I'm not particularly well-versed in the films that came out around that time. It's nothing against those films, it's just that at the time I was far more interested in eating and pooping and didn't know what movies were. For a long time, though, I just sort of assumed that Amadeus was the greatest film ever made ONLY because it won Best Picture for 1984. Thankfully, it didn't disappoint one bit when I finally saw it years later.

But we're not here to talk about Amadeus. Oh, no. We are here to talk about that OTHER classic from 1984, Ron Howard's fish out of water tale Splash, starring the supremely unlikely couple of Darryl Hannah and Tom Hanks. I had seen bits and pieces of Splash over the years, but this was my first time seeing it all the way through. I have to admit, my reaction to it has somewhat soured knowing that the film was originally written as the story of a mermaid trying to adjust to life in Manhattan, but no one greenlit the script until they flipped it around and made the man she falls in love with the main character. Now, by all means, the original idea might have been the worse movie, but especially in today's cultural climate, I can't help but being a bit annoyed by it... OF COURSE the story originally had a female lead and OF COURSE no one would make it until they changed it to a male lead. AND, to make matters worse/more interesting, the recently announced remake starring Channing Tatum (of all people) in the Darryl Hannah role is said to be based off of one of the earlier versions of the script, meaning that once again the main character is going to be male.

Sorry for the tangent. I just really had to get that off my chest.

Because really, Splash is a perfectly fine film, one that plays just as well today as I'm sure it did back when it was initially released. Sure, Hannah is a little stiff, but that's partly the character, and she really shines in the gorgeous underwater close-ups Howard and DP Don Peterman (aka the guy who shot my beloved Flashdance) give her:

Friday, August 26, 2016

Against the Crowd Blogathon

It's that time of year again, folks! Time for Dell On Films's Against the Crowd Blogathon - this year co-hosted by KG (of KG's Movie Rants). In case this is your first time hearing about it (this is the THIRD ANNUAL blogathon), the rules as laid out by Dell are like so:

1. Pick one movie that "everyone" loves (the more iconic, the better). That movie must have a score of at least 75% on rottentomatoes.com. Tell us why you hate it.

2. Pick one movie that "everyone" hates (the more notorious, the better). That movie must have a score of less than 35% on rottentomatoes.com. Tell us why you love it.

I had a hard time finding movies for the second part of this last year, and this year, I had a hard time finding movies for the first part. Go figure. Anyway, I wanted to come up with something a BIT more universally beloved that I hated, but discussion of this movie happened to come up recently thanks to Thursday Movie Picks and, well, let's just say I had something to get off my chest...

I HATE David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Sorry 'bout it.

But also, #SorryNotSorry.

I can at the very least concede that formally, on the level of pure technique, this is hardly a terrible movie. In fact, the cinematography in particular has a lot going for it, as does the score. But at the basic levels of construction and character, Fincher and his team make a couple of absolutely terrible decisions that the film simply cannot recover from. The first is also arguably the best part of the movie:

Fantastic, right? OF COURSE IT IS. David Fincher got his start making music videos, so it shouldn't be a shock that he can make a fantastic opening credits sequence that can stand completely apart from the movie it introduces (a trick he also pulled on Se7en). But that's actually a huge problem for the movie that follows. As anyone who's read the Steig Larsson novel will tell you, the first hundred or so pages are a SLOG, an endurance test of slowly advancing plot and character development before we even get to the mystery at the center of the narrative. So putting a sequence with this much energy right at the front of the film sets an impossible bar that the film by its very nature can't even begin to climb over until it's a third of the way through - and it's a LONG movie - and even then, won't really reach until the climax. It's a lie, a promise of things that aren't going to come, and amazing as it is, it's an awful choice.

The second thing, and I fully expect to get some pushback for this (and PLEASE DO, as long as you can refrain from nastiness), is the film's treatment of Lisbeth Salander and Rooney Mara's portrayal of her.

By the time Fincher started making The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the entire Millennium Trilogy had become a publishing sensation, and the original Swedish film had become as big of a hit as any movie with subtitles is allowed to become these days. Lisbeth Salander, the reclusive genius computer hacker at the center of Larsson's novels, had already become a bit of a cultural phenomenon in her own right. And so Fincher does what Hollywood does best: He cast a relative unknown in the role and gave her entrance in the film one hell of a big build-up, following her from behind as she walks into her office building while her boss talks her up on the soundtrack, and then shoots her entire first dialogue scene from far away, so she's completely isolated one side of the frame. Great sequence, right?


The sequence is ENTIRELY WRONG for the character, and it sets the stage for what is essentially an act of character assassination. In the books, Lisbeth has issues - a full subscription's worth - but she's also a strong, independent woman. She may get abused by some men in her life, but she is never EVER a victim. She is smart, resourceful, and when she is wronged, she takes her time planning her vengeance... but she's NOT a superwoman. She's not larger than life. She simply IS. As set up by Fincher and as played by Mara, though, Lisbeth becomes an all-caps CHARACTER. Not quite to the point of "look at this freaky girl! Isn't she a FREAK? But a LOVABLE ONE?" but pretty damn close. And in the film (and novel)'s most gut-wrenching scene, Lisbeth's rape at the hands of her guardian, Fincher makes no mistake that his camera views her as the ultimate victim (who later becomes a variation on the "woman scorned"), and Mara responds in kind. It's not a bad performance, but it's an utter betrayal of the character Larsson wrote in the book, lacking the subtle dimensions of the page and, it must be said, the Swedish film and its star-making performance by Noomi Rapace.

Look, I'm all for adaptations of books and plays and even other movies ACTUALLY ADAPTING the source material, but at a certain point it becomes a different piece entirely, and Fincher's film is one of the worst offenders of this that I've seen. It's dumbing down a character that the audience already knows and loves in a really base, insulting way, and I honestly thought that David Fincher would have known better.

So, in short, after that energetic blast of an opening, the film is a (well-shot and scored) slog, and its central performance is completely misjudged.

Neither of which are problems that plague my second choice of movie for this project...

I LOVE Jerome Sable's Stage Fright

Yes, I do! And not even in a guilty pleasure way.

Look, I fully acknowledge that a musical comedy/slasher flick hybrid is going to have some tonal issues to overcome right from the get-go, but... well... this movie tackles them pretty much as well as they could ever be tackled, by setting itself up as a spoof.

And yeah, that's pretty much the easiest way to deflect any criticism of your bad movie (to set it up as making fun of bad movies), but Stage Fright is just so winning, thanks to an incredibly game cast (including Meat Loaf and Minnie Driver) and REALLY clever songs:

I mean, COME ON. That's HILARIOUS. And really sweet and sincere at the same time.

As you might have guessed, Stage Fright takes place at a summer musical theater camp, where sweet young ingenue Camilla Swanson works in the kitchen with her brother Buddy. The main production at camp this year is The Haunting of the Opera, a Phantom of the Opera knock-off musical made legendary by the grisly murder of its star (Driver) on opening night, by an assailant who wore the mask of the play's main villain, the Opera Ghost, and has never been performed again.

And as you might have guessed, our heroine just so happens to be that star's daughter, ten years after her mother's murder, and as you might have guessed, she auditions for the play and (as you might have guessed) gets cast in her mother's role, much to the chagrin of the camp's owner (Meat Loaf), who, as you might have guessed, was her mother's lover. AND, as you might have guessed, this new production gets a haunting of its own - by a killer who hates musicals and sings exclusively "heavy metal" songs.

The film had me right off the bat with its opening title card: "The following is based on true events. While the names have been changed to respect the victims and their families, the musical numbers will be performed exactly as they occurred." Perfect. Just a subtle enough hint of the tone of what's to come after the more straight horror opening. And from there, all the film's disparate elements are brought together REALLY well in set-piece after set-piece, blending together horror, comedy, and good-to-great songs almost perfectly. It is a loving throwback to 80s slasher flicks and to movie musicals, playing to the conventions of both in (amazingly) groaningly obvious ways... BUT THAT'S THE POINT.

No, Stage Fright isn't GREAT cinema. And no, it may not even be GOOD cinema. But it's made with a clear love for two genres that couldn't be farther apart and manages to bring them together far better than it has any right to. Add in some winning performances (and some perfectly teen-in-an-80s-slasher-flick BAD performances), and you have a really enjoyable movie that will leave you recommending it to all the friends who have the exact same taste in movies as you do.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Scandinavian Language Movies

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join in the fun and games by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and telling everyone a bit about them!
Well, here we go: This week for Thursday Movie Picks we are leaving the hot hot heat of summer in the city to go off to the lands of Scandinavia, where it is much cooler/more bearable. For those of you who may not be entirely sure what "Scandinavia" refers to (I wasn't entirely sure myself), it is the northern region of Europe comprising three countries: Denmark, Norway, and Sweden (and sometimes also Finland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands). For most film buffs, this means two things: Bergman and the Dogme 95 movement.

For me, it means one other thing:

You, the Living (Roy Andersson, 2007) Roy Andersson. One of the most unique voices in modern cinema. His films are all very similar: There's not really a plot so much as a series of vignettes with a static camera that have only the vaguest connection to each other. In You, the Living, the connection is the foibles of humanity, and my lord if it isn't the drollest thing I've ever seen! That isn't a word you can use to describe too many movies, much less movies today. I loved every single second of this. The humor - often but not always dark, and almost always played straight - is just right up my alley. If you haven't seen it, I urge you to seek it out and watch. At the very least, it is a unique experience you won't soon forget.

Okay. Now that we've gotten my great love out of the way...

The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1958) This is the one. The one that made Ingmar Bergman an international cause célèbre, ushered in the foreign art house era, and launched a thousand spoofs. The thing is, as much as The Seventh Seal has a reputation for being seriously dour and pretentious (a knight of the Crusades does play a chess game with Death, after all), it's actually not. Well, I mean, it IS, but it's also REALLY entertaining and surprisingly funny in large enough doses to counteract the seriousness. The film totally lives up to its reputation, but in surprising ways, which for me meant it not only lived up to its reputation, but surpassed it. One of the greatest films ever made, no doubt about it.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Niels Arden Oplev, 2009) AKA the BETTER Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. You've heard of this one, right? An investigative journalist gets hired by a rich old man to investigate the forty year-old murder of his favorite family member, and he in turn asks a reclusive hacker girl named Lisbeth Salander for help? If you haven't read the book, read it - if you can get through the first hundred pages it totally sinks its teeth into you and won't let you go until you've finished the whole trilogy. If you have, then you know the story is pretty irresistible, and that Noomi Rapace simply IS Lisbeth Salander. If there is nothing else to take away from this film (a perfectly serviceable thriller that doesn't skimp on the character study lurking underneath), it's that Rapace is a tremendous actress and deserves to be a much bigger star than she is. And that sometimes, it's best to leave films in their native language ALONE.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

LIST - Best of the Century(?) Thus Far

...so, the internet did that thing it does at least once a year again the other day, when The BBC published a critics' list of the Top 100 films of the 00s. They say "The 21st Century", I say "the 00s", because they include films from the year 2000 in the list, which is objectively incorrect (the century technically began in 2001), but who am I to argue?

Anyway, it's an interesting list, made more interesting when you look at the individual lists and notice that everyone was only allowed to choose 10 films. 10? Really? That's IT? Which of course begs such questions as, "People really think Movie X is one of the 10 BEST films SINCE 2000?!?"

But of course, these things always even out in the end, and the Top Ten at any rate is pretty unimpeachable (actually, I would only question one), even though you may quibble with the order. And in case you haven't heard, that order is:

1. Mulholland Drive (Lynch, 2001)
2. In The Mood for Love (Wong, 2000)
3. There Will Be Blood (Anderson, 2007)
4. Spirited Away (Hayao, 2001)
5. Boyhood (Linklater, 2014)
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry, 2004)
7. The Tree of Life (Malick, 2011)
8. Yi Yi (Yang, 2000)
9. A Separation (Farhadi, 2011)
10. No Country for Old Men (Coens, 2007)

And of course, I looked at that list, said "Well, there's that. Everything seems to be in order here," and moved on with my day.

Except people wouldn't shut up about it, and I found myself in the position of feeling the need to come up with my own "corrective" Top Ten of the 00s just because everyone else was (jeez, peer pressure is really something, isn't it?). The shocking thing was, it came out rather easily. Almost too easily, actually. So I figured, why not post it on the blog and elaborate a bit? So strap yourselves in, folks! Here are my...


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - The Get Down (Episode 1)

I've been reticent to participate in the TV episodes of Nathaniel's Hit Me With Your Best Shot series. Often, a film's best shot won't become apparent to me until the whole thing is over, when the conclusion has been reached and all the film's themes have come fully into view. But an episode of TV is just one big piece of a whole - the show's most important themes may not fully snap into place until the very last episode, or at the very least the last episode of any particular season. So I always shied away from doing them. Until now, when our benevolent overlord has assigned us the first episode of Netflix's new series The Get Down. Why, you ask? Well, it just so happens the series was co-created by mad Aussie genius Baz Luhrmann (director of Strictly Ballroom, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, Australia, and of course, Moulin Rouge!), and he also directed the first episode. I will follow Luhrmann ANYWHERE, but if he's going to the Bronx in the 1970s to chart the creation of hip hop? DONE AND DONE. TAKE MY MONEY. FEED MY EYEBALLS NOW.

I don't think there's another filmmaker alive today who so gets the full-on rush of adolescence AND the act of creation on the same level as Luhrmann, and I have been dying to see what he would do in a more grounded, less fantastical setting. So I was very eager to watch The Get Down. Even after the very mixed reviews - Luhrmann tends to inspire love-or-hate reactions. But then I actually watched it.

There's no two ways around it: The Get Down is an unholy mess of a thing. BUT - and this is a VERY BIG but - somehow the mess feels right. It's been reported that production on The Get Down started before the creative team really knew exactly what it was, and the first episode especially reflects that. But on the other hand, you can see exactly WHY it was so difficult for them to get a handle on just what it was they were creating. Music - and hip-hop in particular - is so tied to the culture of its creation that you can't just make it about the music. You have to also explore the community in which it was created. And hip hop - as far as I understand it - was basically birthed in 1970s New York, one of the wildest, most sprawling, multi-faceted communities ever. So by necessity, you have to have all these additional elements - cultural, political, economic, religious - because they are embedded in the very fabric of the story you're trying to tell. And given the amount of time you have to tell a story in a TV show, you can actually delve into all those elements.

So The Get Down may be a mess, but it's a necessary mess, and it is BEAUTIFUL within that mess.

But I had the exact problem I had predicted with attempting to choose a Best Shot from the 90-minute pilot episode: Which of the show's myriad elements is going to really take off after this first episode? Is it going to be the young love story between young poet/nascent rapper Ezekiel and daughter of a preacher man/wannabe disco diva Mylene? The political corruption subplot with Jimmy Smitts? The criminal underbelly of the world headed by Lilias White's Fat Annie? The coming-of-age story that connects all the teenagers? Or the magical realism that spreads throughout the pilot but is most apparent during the scenes with hustler/sometime graffiti artist/aspiring DJ Shaolin Fantastic?

I've now watched three episodes of The Get Down, and it's still a bit of a mess, but I think I know where the heart of the series lies, and what makes it special. The Get Down is completely unlike anything else on TV, and what contributes most to that is the show's elements of magical realism. They're spread out throughout each episode, but they're important. Music is what connects most of the main characters (if not all of them), and it mainly serves as an escape from the oppressive nature of their world. Their community is basically a ghetto, with buildings burning down and funding for firefighters disappearing, plus it's summer, when the city gets hot, sweaty, sticky, and cramped - when nature itself is at its most oppressive. Music provides an oasis of cool and calm, and when it appears, the series becomes something new, something different. The feeling of those sequences is unlike anything else I've ever seen, but I couldn't find one shot in the pilot that sums them up. But there is this shot:

It's a little hard to tell in this screengrab, so click and make it bigger. This is the main crew (dubbed The Fantastic Four Plus One by Shaolin Fantastic) walking home late, late at night. Past a burnt-out vacant lot, by the light of various solitary streetlamps. It almost looks like something out of a fantasy, except it's not. This is all too real. But the magical feeling of making music together at an underground DJ session/rap battle infuses the very air with something extra, making the might feel magical, maybe even a little beautiful. Finding something deep in your soul like that, connecting with others when the world outside is unfriendly and harsh and hot, can make even the deadest of dead end streets look like the most beautiful place in the world, and Luhrmann (and DP William Rexer) captures that to perfection in this shot.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Crime Gone Wrong

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!

Well, what a week to forget what day it was last night! "Crime Gone Wrong" is the theme for this week, and my first thought this morning as I logged into my email and sat and stared in shock horror at the day of the week and proceeded to Wanderer's sight to get the theme was "....doesn't that describe MOST crime movies?" I'm sure it doesn't, but having to think quickly before the work day technically starts and I have to jump on a conference call it certainly felt that way! Because where's the drama if the crime doesn't go wrong? AH, but there are OH SO MANY WAYS a crime can go wrong that each film feels so different. Let's start with...

Four Lions (Christopher Morris, 2010) ...incompetency. You wouldn't think it would be possible to make a comedy about terrorism in the post-9/11 world, but leave it to Brit genius Chris Morris to prove you wrong. Four Lions is about a group of British jihadists who probably couldn't find their way out of a paper bag if they had to, let alone carry off a massive-scale bombing. The film is deeply, DEEPLY funny despite being about such a nauseating subject, but doesn't completely shy away from that nauseating aspect either, and therein lies its genius. It also features Riz Ahmed, so if you're really enjoying The Night Of, you definitely owe it to yourself to check this out.

Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992) Well, what doesn't go wrong with this crime? Although it probably all starts with the undercover cop right in the middle of the merry band of pop-culturally savvy robbers. Tarantino's first film features nearly all the stylistic flourishes he would return to and refine over the years: a gleefully anarchic pop soundtrack, chapter divisions, deliriously smart and quotable dialogue, tension-building long takes, and of course, bursts of hard-to-stomach violence. It almost feels like he arrived fully formed as a filmmaker, except we know he only got better and better from here on out.

Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955) Moving on now to that other old chestnut, "the dead body that may not be so dead after all." Christine and Nicole are the wife and mistress, respectively, of the headmaster of a second-rate boarding school. He treats both women awfully, in addition to the children, so the women conspire to murder him. Except when the body doesn't stay where they left it to be found by the police. And what follows is a film so perfectly taut and thrilling that no less a personage than Alfred Hitchcock was jealous of it. So jealous of it, in fact, that he pre-bought the movie rights to the next book by the authors of the book that inspired this movie, before it was even written. Which turned out to be a pretty good thing, because that movie turned out to be his masterpiece: Vertigo.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Writing/Writers of Novels

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join in the fun  - and it IS fun - by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and writing a bit about them!
AH writing. Sometimes the muse is with you. Sometimes it is not. Of course, there is more drama when the muse is NOT with you, so that explains why most of the movies about writers (both fictional and non-fictional, but for the rules of this week we're sticking to the fictional) are about writers dealing with writer's block.

Young Adult (Jason Reitman, 2011) One of the best movies of the '00s, Young Adult follows Mavis Gary, a writer of a once-popular series of young adult novels that is now being cancelled. Living a rather lonely existence in Minneapolis after a bad divorce, she goes back to her home town after receiving an invitation to the naming ceremony of her old high school boyfriend. And... well... things don't go so well. What's so amazing about Diablo Cody's script and Jason Reitman's direction is just how much of that story I just described is told in the background. But when you have Charlize Theron giving an unbelievable performance of one of the trickiest characters seen on screen in ages, you can afford to let the story simmer on the back burner. Theron gives an absolutely tremendous performance as the acidic Mavis, and she brings the best out of scene partner Patton Oswalt as a crippled former high school classmate.

The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, 2010) Perfectly cast and designed, and directed with Polanski's typical chilly precision. Only with this story, chilly precision is EXACTLY what's called for: A ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) is brought in to write the memoirs of a shady politician (Pierce Brosnan). Scandals start to swirl and before long, the ghost writer starts to think he may be marked for death because of what he knows and what he's seen. Perhaps not a brilliant thriller, but a really goddamned great one, with a flat-out brilliant, perfect ending.

Stranger Than Fiction (Marc Forster, 2006) Well, I mean, it's all right there in the trailer, isn't it? Emma Thompson is having a particularly nasty case of writer's block while writing her new novel. AND it turns out, through a metaphysical twist, that the character she's writing - IRS agent Will Ferrell - actually exists in the real world, and what she's writing is having a direct effect on his life. Perhaps a little too clever for its own good, Stranger Than Fiction is still enjoyable thanks to the sly performances of Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman, as a professor of literature whom Ferrell contacts to try to figure out what's going on, an the surprising chemistry between Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal, as a baker he's auditing.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Some Like it Hot

One of the things that it's easy to forget about Billy Wilder's comic masterpiece Some Like It Hot is that it's actually a bit of a gangster movie. In fact, the opening minutes are so good at it that you'd be forgiven for thinking someone mixed up the reels and put on a Warner Bros. picture instead.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Gambling

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. If you don't know the deal by now, join us by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and writing a bit about them! If you do know the deal by now, then why aren't you playing along yet?

This week on Thursday Movie Picks, we're going gambling. True story: I love gambling. When I was at summer camp, there was always one Casino Night per session, and I always killed at craps. In college, friends held a monthly poker night and had we been playing for actual money I would have made a very healthy sum. On my thirtieth birthday, I went to Atlantic City and doubled my money playing Roulette (granted, I didn't put out a whole lot of money, BUT it paid for a really nice dinner, so there's always that)! Like anything else, gambling can be a lot of fun in moderation. If you go to far, well.... let's just say things don't always turn out so well.

21 (Robert Luketic, 2008) One game I'm not very good at is Blackjack. Maybe it's because I never figured out how to count cards, like this team of MIT students did. Yes indeed, this film is based on a true story of college students who beat the casinos at their own game. Pretty impressive! The film is fun, especially whenever Kevin Spacey is onscreen, but mostly forgettable (Jim Sturgess is a nothing, #SorryNotSorry). I remember the basic plot and that I mostly enjoyed watching it, but nothing else.

The Cooler (Wayne Kramer, 2003) William H. Macy is what's known in the Vegas lingo as a "cooler" - a man so unlucky that he turns people's good luck into bad just by standing near them. Turns out, that's because he's a sad-sack lump of a man. But when Maria Bello's cocktail waitress takes an interest in him, his luck starts to turn, and his abilities as a cooler with it. The three central performances (Macy, Bello, and Alec Baldwin, Oscar-nominated for his role as the casino boss Macy works for) really make the film (which is not nearly as much of a comedy as this trailer suggests).

Croupier (Mike Hodges, 1998) Clive Owen is the hotness, and that's all I will say about this excellent film, which has a plot so twisty and weird that it deserves to be seen as unspoiled as possible.