Thursday, December 29, 2016

Awards Contenders In Brief - Fences

Sometimes, films are just performance pieces, and that's okay. Such is the case with Fences, Denzel Washington's adaptation of August Wilson's stage play. Plays do not always have to be "opened up" for the screen, especially when the material is strong and you have great actors tearing up the screen in every scene. This film version of Fences is dynamic and engaging thanks to the script (credited posthumously to the playwright himself) and the performances, especially those at the center.

Viola Davis and Denzel Washington create an entirely believable relationship that is thrillingly alive in every moment - there is never even one second where you don't want to be watching them. This is the best work Washington has done in ages, breathing fiery life into the character of Troy Maxson. And Davis is every bit his equal, taking everything we have seen of her in various roles on screens large and small and mixing them together into the most incredible performance by an actress this year (just don't let the campaign fool you - SHE IS A LEAD, and deserves recognition as such).

All told, this is easily the finest acting ensemble of the year, but thankfully Washington is no slouch in the director's chair, either. The direction here isn't flashy, but it's still smart and restrained, constantly emphasizing how the characters are either boxing themselves (and others) in or breaking out. And the few instances where the play has been "opened up" are well-chosen and beautifully shot. This is as ideal an adaptation of this play as one could hope for, containing a superb cast doing career-best work all around. And that's nothing to sneeze at.

Thursday Movie Picks - Coming Home

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

Well, here we are again, one last edition of Thursday Movie Picks before the end of the year!

And what a year it's been, huh?

My biggest thanks to Wanderer for hosting this, and for continuing to do so in 2017! This has been a great way for me to get in the habit of writing weekly, and I'm FINALLY starting to write for real here (Jesus that took forever lol)! And it really is all due to this little project right here. So thank you.

ANYWAY, on to the matter at hand. The theme this week is coming home, which can be a very emotional thing for people, especially after a long time away.

Manchester By The Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016) I'm pretty open about how I do NOT understand the INSANE critical praise for this, but it's still very, VERY good. Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler, a sullen janitor in Quincy, MA, who has had A Traumatic Event (TM) in his past that pushed him away from his home town (the title, duh). Now, his brother has died, and he has to go home to make arrangements, including serving as guardian for his young nephew (the fantastic newcomer Lucas Hedges). As a film about grief, how if we leave it unchecked it can eat away at us slowly until it leaves us completely hollow, this may be unparalleled, and it's pretty funny to boot. Add in Michelle Williams's brief, devastating turn as Lee's ex-wife (their scene together at the end is one of the best scenes of this year, or indeed the past few years), and it should be a recipe for great success. But instead, for me, this one unfortunately ended up being less than the sum of its parts.

Garden State (Zach Braff, 2004) I don't care what anybody says, I love this movie. So much about it is unique, and it's very moving. It also contains one of Natalie Portman's greatest performances, as the free-spirited weirdo who gets Braff's too-heavily-medicated Andrew (back home for his mother's funeral) to finally feel something. And that soundtrack, even when calling attention to how great it is, is pretty damn great. I defy you to not get at least a LITTLE emotional when Frou Frou's "Let Go" comes up in that perfect last scene.

You Can Count On Me (Kenneth Lonergan, 2000) Sammy and Terry Prescott lost their parents in a horrific car accident years ago. Now, Sammy (Laura Linney) is still living in their hometown in upstate New York, and Terry (Mark Ruffalo) is a drifter, coming home because he needs money. These two people could not be more different, but familial bonds are strong, and they would do just about anything for each other. Linney and Ruffalo are beyond fantastic here, and Lonergan gifted them with one of the greatest scripts of the '00s, one that is beautifully attuned to sibling relationships in a way that few films are. I love this beautiful movie so much.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Awards Contenders In Brief: Jackie

Natalie Portman is a great actress, but even in her best roles she is often highly mannered, very tightly controlled. Which in many ways makes first lady Jacqueline Kennedy the part she was born to play. Thankfully, the film Pablo Larrain has built around her is a true marvel, rising to heights most biopics can only dream of.

I don't think I've seen a biopic that is so on the wavelength of its subject AND so in tune with the time in which it was made. This is a film that could only have been made right now, and indeed, it is in many ways a film that NEEDED to be made right now, ruminating as it does on just what (or, indeed, who) makes a President's legacy when so many just want to push right on past him into the future, and also commenting on what the press demand of our public figures and why, and where exactly public figures will draw the line in their use of the media.

It is a fascinating film on many levels, all swirling around Portman's downright astonishing central performance. She gets the overly manicured voice and stiff mannerisms of Jackie down pat, going through every mix of emotions under the sun as she feels, suppresses, and works through her grief. But Chilean director Pablo Larrain doesn't let her do ALL the heavy lifting. He knows how to frame her to emphasize the loneliness even among many people, the fragility among such strength, the woman under the public face. Noah Oppenheim's smartly written screenplay provides the foundation, and Larrain constructs a mausoleum of American politics around it, with the White House as ground zero. And then he brings in Mica Levi for the score, providing the perfect notes for the despair, determination, and rage of a woman in mourning.

It's all too much to talk about. It must be seen, must be experienced on a big screen to fully comprehend how brilliant it is. This is one of the finest films of 2016, no doubt about it, and it deserves to be remembered for much more than its great leading lady.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Parties

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

Are you a party animal? I'm not, generally speaking. I mostly prefer my own couch, a mug of hot tea, and Netflix, but this time of year there are so many parties around that I get out and about more than usual. And I will admit, I usually have a pretty good time. So it's fitting that this week on Thursday Movie Picks the topic is parties. I've picked three movies that center around three very different types of parties. Party on!

The Party (Blake Edwards, 1968) Maybe not the funniest collaboration between director Blake Edwards and star Peter Sellers, The Party is still manic fun. Largely improvised, Edwards just lets Sellers's Indian actor Hrundi V. Bakshi loose at a lavish, over-the-top Hollywood party and watches the insanity that ensues. Something is going on in every square inch of every frame, and watching people react to Sellers is a large part of the fun.

Can't Hardly Wait (Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan, 1998) The ur-90s teen movie, with a cast of just about everyone who was anyone in that decade, taking place at the graduation party to end all graduation parties. Ethan Embry is in love with Jennifer Love Hewitt, recently back on the market after ending things with jock Peter Facinelli, only she doesn't know who he is. Seth Green is determined to have sex, but he's affected a white gangsta persona so off-putting it's made him a joke. And everyone else just wants to have a rager. I never went to a party anywhere to close to this in high school, and maybe that's why I like this movie so much.

Bachelorette (Leslye Headland, 2012) Three friends from high school get asked to be a fourth's bridesmaids for her upcoming wedding. The only problem is, the bride is no longer the party girl the other three still are... and they're also kinda mean girls. But they're played by Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, and Lizzy Caplan, so they're VERY fun to watch, even while ruining the titular party for the very sweet Rebel Wilson. The movie's mean streak goes a long way to making it more fun than your average female-led comedy, actually, and it's a much better movie than any of the similar Hangover movies.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Awards Contenders In Brief: La La Land

So you may have noticed that I don't really do reviews on this blog. Which may have struck you as somewhat strange, given that this is a movie blog and all.

The simple fact of the matter is, writing a full review, for me, takes a LOT of time. I endlessly obsess over wording and details and getting things perfect. And in the end, I'd much rather spend that time WATCHING movies, especially since there are so many I haven't seen.

But I DO post short review-like things on my Letterboxd page, so read some of my past ones there. Going forward, I'm going to try to post those here, under this new "In Brief" label, so that I don't feel bound to write a full-length review.

So of course for the first of these, I'm going to pick a movie that I actually COULD write a full-length review of.

La La Land is, quite simply, my favorite film of the year. But let's be clear: Y'all know my nom de internet. And you'll know just from watching any of the trailers for this movie that have been released over the past couple of months that this movie was basically created in a lab specifically for me. So my naming it my favorite film of the year should come as absolutely come as no surprise, and should probably be taken with a grain of salt.

I really say all of this because I desperately don't want to oversell La La Land. It's fantastic, but it's also slight, and if you don't like movie musicals, this very likely won't be the one to change your mind - especially if you're immune to the charms of Emma Stone and/or Ryan Gosling (although, I personally don't understand how anyone could be, but I have been made to understand that somehow such people do exist).

I also desperately don't want to spoil this movie for anyone. Nothing else I experience for the rest of the year (I know it's only a couple of weeks but just go with me) will come close to matching the experience of seeing La La Land for the first time, so I want everyone else to enjoy it just as much as I did - by knowing nothing ahead of time except what the trailers told me.

So, here it goes: Gosling is Sebastian, a jazz pianist with dreams of opening his own jazz club. Stone is Mia, an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop on a studio lot. They meet and eventually fall in love. That's all I'm telling you of the plot. But the plot doesn't really matter. As with all the greatest movie musicals, what matters is the style with which the story is told, and La La Land is full to bursting with some of the greatest style of any movie released in quite some time. It pays homage to nearly every musical the Hollywood studio system ever produced, and takes direct inspiration from the single greatest movie musical ever made, Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In so doing, it contains not one, not two, but three of the best single scenes of any film to be released in 2016, scenes of such bravura moviemaking magic that I actually applauded through tears in the theater.

Gosling and Stone have the chemistry of the greatest screen pairings - Hepburn & Tracy, Bogie & Bacall, Astaire & Rogers... to name a few - and that, along with their full-on charm offensive, is essential to making this movie work (it's almost impossible to imagine this working nearly as well with the original casting choices, Emma Watson and Miles Teller). It's a pleasure to watch them, because not only are they clearly enjoying themselves, not only do they make it look easy, but their faces are so open and honest that it's incredibly easy to feel for them. It's the kind of star power and chemistry that Old Hollywood used to cultivate with almost clockwork precision, but which has gone somewhat out of fashion nowadays. They also both have lovely, natural singing voices - they don't sound like professional singers, exactly, but the film is better off for it - and are wonderfully fluid dancers (bless Mandy Moore for her joyous choreography).

The score (music by Justin Hurwitz, lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul) is tuneful and romantic, with six original songs that you will be humming for weeks, and some lovely instrumental numbers. The film is as much about movie musicals as it is about anything else, so the music is very important. If I say that the film starts with its two weakest numbers, just know that they're still damn good, and each is shot so distinctively that it more than makes up for whatever the songs themselves are lacking.

I just... I have nothing bad to say about this film. Every single element works in perfect harmony together to create a perfect old-school movie experience. Everything about it has the look of one of the great MGM technicolor movie musicals, but it feels and sounds thoroughly modern. It is the perfect movie musical for the modern age - a perfect meeting of nostalgia with a contemporary sensibility. It is as much about the thrilling, transporting power of movie musicals as it is a perfect example of one, and as a lover of musicals, I couldn't possibly ask for anything more.

One week later, I'm still not over it. When my screening on opening night was over, I wanted to go straight to the box office and buy a ticket for the next available showing. I also wanted to go Monday after work, and also every day after that, because I just can't think of a better way to spend a little over two hours. And that's the highest praise I can give it.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Video/Arcade/Board Game Movies

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. You can participate, too! All you have to do is pick three movies that fit the week's themes and say a little something about them!

Is it really Thursday again, you guys?

Sorry, it's now been six days since seeing La La Land, and I'm still not over it. I don't know what time it is or what day it is anymore.

Which makes it even harder for this week's Thursday Movie Picks, because we are picking game movies. Whether this means movies based on a pre-existing game, or movies centered around a game, it is unclear, so I will cover as many bases as I can this week! Ready? Let's go!

Clue (Jonathan Lynn, 1985) One of the most delicious comic ensembles of all time gets to take on the iconic board game characters in a cleverly twisted murder mystery. Which is complicated by the fact that the film was released with the gimmick of having three different endings.... just like the game, right? No, not really. So, of course it was a flop in theaters that got resurrected on home video, mostly because of that downright brilliant cast. It's nearly impossible to pick an MVP between Lesley Ann Warren's vampy Miss Scarlett, Eileen Brennan's kooky Mrs. Peacock, and Madeline Kahn's deadpan Mrs. White (just to name the women), but I have to go with Tim Curry's all-out performance as an invented character, the butler Wadsworth, which finds a perfect balance between madcap physical comedy and dry British wit.

Jumanji (Joe Johnston, 1995) This one centers around an invented board game that has some serious juju issues. You see, once you start playing, you MUST finish, and the silly things that would normally move you back a square or lose a turn or whatever become all too real. When young Alan Parrish finds the game buried near a construction site and begins to play with his friend Sarah, after a turn or two, the mysterious crystal ball in the center of the board reads: "In the jungle you must wait, until the dice read five or eight," and thus gets sucked into the board game. Sarah, understandably, freaks out, and the game gets buried for twenty-five years... until young siblings Judy and Peter play the game and release Alan from his jungle prison. Which is a good thing, because they're going to need his know-how to survive as the game starts taking over their idyllic New Hampshire town. This is a fun family adventure from a time when such films were taken seriously as entertainment for the WHOLE family - it doesn't try to be hip or cool or snarky, just to provide everyone with a good thrill ride. Which it succeeds at wonderfully. The visual effects have held up pretty well, too.

Silent Hill (Christophe Gans, 2006) And lastly, one based on a video game. Rose is worried about her young daughter, Sharon, who has problems with sleepwalking. She decides to take her to the town of Silent Hill, WV, which Sharon keeps repeating the name of over and over. But upon reaching the town, they get into a car accident and Sharon disappears. Rose has to find her, and in so doing, unlock the mystery of what the town of Silent Hill is and why Sharon feels such a connection to it. Let me make one thing clear: This is NOT a good movie. Not by a longshot. Approximately nothing in it makes any sense, it's insanely overblown, and none of the performing styles ever really meld. BUT, it does boast an absolutely tremendous performance from the terminally underappreciated Radha Mitchell, as well as some of the most sublime surreal imagery I've ever seen in a mainstream movie. Plus, a deliciously campy scene-stealing turn from Alice Krige as the leader of the town cult. Silent Hill may be a failure, but it is at the very least an incredibly interesting one - one that I'm quite fascinated by. Just.... enter at your own risk.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Movies Based on Toys

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 saying a little something about them!

It's Christmas season, which means everyone will soon be packing our nation's malls and big box stores trying to get that one perfect present for their favorite someone. And we all know what that means. Fights over who gets the last Tickle-Me Elmo! Or whatever the hot toy is this year, I personally have absolutely no clue.

In the spirit of the season, this week's programming on Thursday Movie Picks is centered around movies based on toys. Not a particularly illustrious group, and the three I've picked this week couldn't be more obvious, but they also cannot be bettered. I dare anyone to try.

Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995) The movie that introduced the geniuses at Pixar to the world is still an utter delight to watch on just about every level, and it's based on a hook so simple it's hard to believe no one had ever thought of it before: the life of children's toys when their owners aren't around, and how they react to the hot new toy shoved into their midst. Equal parts funny and sweet, it's easy to see why this was such a big hit and an enduring favorite among Pixar's stellar output.

Toy Story 2 (John Lasseter, 1999) The Empire Strikes Back of animated sequels, it's almost impossible to believe that this was originally going to go direct to video. Personally, I think this is one of the best films of Hollywood's most recent annus mirabilis, taking complex themes of abandonment and ownership of one's own identity and dealing with them - VERY seriously - through a story about children's toys, of all things. And it's just as funny and exciting as the first.

Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010) I don't think, 10-11 years after Toy Story 2, that anyone was particularly clamoring for a second Toy Story sequel, making this a trilogy or, God forbid, a series... but then it came out, and made just about everyone in the world cry ugly, ugly tears, including this guy right here. I would blame the 3D glasses, but I don't think that would account for the great big heaving SOBS I cried in a theater packed full of children and their parents. Whatever alchemy was going on behind the scenes at Pixar when they wrote the last act of this movie, I can only hope that it's still there, and will be for decades to come, because as far as I'm concerned, this is the studio's crowning achievement, a complex, well-thought-out film that stands on its own AND as the completion of a trilogy, both a complex meditation on death and a rollicking adventure story that is equally enjoyable whether you're 5 or 105,

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Comfort 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 writing about them; it's fun and easy!

Happy December everyone! It is now officially okay for you to start putting up Christmas decorations and playing Christmas music. I hope you all enjoyed Thanksgiving. I had the pleasure of having not one, not two, but THREE Thanksgivings between Wednesday and Sunday, which is why I was MIA for Thursday Movie Picks last week (for those of you who may be wondering, my three Western picks would have been Johnny Guitar, High Noon, and A Million Ways To Die in the West, with the huge caveat that I don't particularly like Westerns). They were all delicious, but very different levels of enjoyable (ah, family - can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em!)

Anyway, this week, it's the movies that we play whenever we're feeling down - the cinematic equivalent of chicken soup. So this week was pretty easy.

Le fabuleux destin d'Amelie Poulain (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001) Is there a nicer movie than Amelie? I honestly don't think there is. The story of a lonely French girl (Audrey Tautou, utter perfection) who discovers great joy in devising elaborate schemes to give other people joy - but cannot work up the courage to give herself the greatest joy, a man who loves her - Amelie is just a perfectly playful delight from start to finish, and has so many moments that just make me sigh with contentment. Plus many more that thrill me, make me laugh, and maybe even make me cry a little. Aside: When I had a car, Yann Tiersen's buoyant score was always in the CD player, and quite often soundtracked my drives. I highly recommend this; it adds a certain je ne sais quoi that makes the journey that much more enjoyable.

Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1998) I just... I can't even talk about this movie anymore. That perfect script, those luminous performances, that swooningly, achingly romantic score. This is romantic comedy done so, so right, and if people can't see that it's just as well-crafted, and thus just as deserving of Oscar's love, as any serious-minded war film, then I would almost go so far as to argue that they don't truly love movies, they only love certain types of movies. Which is fine, but just be honest and open about it! Anyway, the pleasures of this are so many, and so great, that I may even like it MORE each time I watch it.

Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, 1964) I mean, insert pretty much any Disney Classic into this slot, but today my pick is this one. When I was young, we had a VHS tape of this that was taped off the TV. My sister and I wore it out fast-forwarding through all the commercials. Thankfully, the constant stopping and starting didn't have any impact whatsoever on the film's joyousness. Easily the best live action film Disney has ever done, and with one of the studio's best original scores, this one really is as close to cinematic chicken soup as I have ever experienced - it never fails to make me feel better when I'm sick.