Thursday, May 25, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - TV EDITION: Time Travel

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through The Shelves. Join us as every week, we pick three titles that fit the week's theme and tell everyone a bit about them!

We are traveling again this week, this time through time, on the small screen. And I'll be honest, there's really only one TV show about time travel that I really care about right now, and it took some time for me to think of two others. But think of them I did, and they had something rather surprising in common...

Life on Mars (2008-2009) Based on the UK series of the same name, this one season wonder starred Jason O'Mara as a present-day cop who gets hit by a car and wakes up in the '70s. He's still himself, and he gets flashes of his life via his TV set somehow, but he's living in the '70s, no doubt about it! Thankfully, he's still working as a cop. But the style of police work is much different from what he's used to, as exemplified by the police chief played by Harvey Keitel - which should be all I have to say about the character for you to get the picture. A bumpy ride, perhaps a bit too concerned with the mystery of the time travel (although the way they wrapped it up was very clever, I thought), but it's a lot of fun once you stop worrying about that.

Terra Nova (2011) The one season wonder starred Jason O'Mara as a cop in the year 2049, who travels back in time with his family to the Cretaceous period, as their world has become near-uninhabitable. But he almost gets detained for trying to smuggle their newborn baby with them, and once he sneaks through, has to convince the leadership on Terra Nova that his skills as a cop are vital. Thankfully, there's a rebel group of settlers working for a corporate interest causing all sorts of havoc, so he's allowed to stay. When it fully embraced the sci-fi elements at its core, Terra Nova was kind of thrilling, but it was too simplistic and nonsensical overall to really hold together - although LORD did Jason O'Mara REALLY try!

Doctor Who (1963-1989, 2005-present) The world's longest-running TV series (I'm PRETTY SURE), by virtue of its lead character: A time-traveling alien from the planet Gallifrey, known only as The Doctor, who can regenerate himself into a different body when he "dies". The original series is fun in a kitschy, almost-campy, Saturday morning show for kids kind of way, but the new series ups the stakes and the visual effects to create something truly thrilling. This is long-form, serial storytelling at its absolute best, with tremendous performances from each of the thirteen men who have stepped into the Doctor's TARDIS (that's "Time And Relative Dimension In Space" to you, and yes it looks like a British police call box, and YES it's bigger on the inside), as well as from most of the pretty young things who play his earthly "companions" in his travels. In any given episode, Doctor Who can go anywhere and be anything, from horror ("Blink") to romance ("The Girl in the Fireplace") to allegory ("Cold War") to slapstick comedy ("The Lodger") and absolutely everything in between. But mostly, it's just a lot of fun, with overarching plots that actually hold together on both the macro and micro levels, and consistently satisfying individual episodes littered with great performances from a veritable who's-who of great British thespians.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Moonlight

Everybody rejoice, Hit Me With Your Best Shot is BACK! And boy, has Nathaniel picked a doozy for the first episode of the season: Our most recent Best Picture Oscar Winner, Barry Jenkins's gorgeous Moonlight. In both image and theme, Moonlight is one of the most beautiful movies I've seen in a long time, so beautiful that I was drawn back to the theater to see it a second time, and purchased the Blu-Ray recently. It is a film I hold very close to my heart, both for the story it tells and for how it tells it.

Moonlight - if you've been living under a rock for the past year or so - is the story of a young black man named Chiron. It is told in three parts, each named after one of his alter egos. Part one is what everyone calls him as a child, "Little". Part two is his given name, when he's a teenager, and part three is the name he adopts for himself as an adult, "Black". Identity and perception are the twin strands that run through each of Moonlight's three parts, and Chiron's story is mirrored in that of his childhood friend Kevin.

Kevin and Chiron are two halves of the same coin - Chiron is an introvert, Kevin is an extrovert; Chiron is unsure of himself, Kevin is very self-possessed; Kevin is an optimist, Chiron is more of a pessimist. Kevin innately understands how others perceive him and how important that is, Chiron doesn't really, partly because he's so unsure of himself and who he is. Chiron needs Kevin. And Kevin doesn't realize how much he needs Chiron. It's interesting, though embedded in the very nature of the piece, that we are always more sure of who Chiron is than who Kevin is, even though Kevin is ostensibly more sure than Chiron. Is Kevin gay? Bisexual? Or straight-but-open-to-experimentation? It's completely open to interpretation.

Not that any of this necessarily matters when it comes time to picking my best shot. But there's such a surefit of potential best shots in Moonlight that I don't even know where to begin. I mean, right from the beginning, cinematographer James Laxton does an incredible job of putting us right into the mindset of Little Chiron:

As his tormentors rage outside, the camera bobs and weaves around Little in the darkened room of the abandoned crack den in which he's hiding, making the space seem about to cave in on him. Little feels cornered, not just in the moment, but in his life in general. He has no place to run, nowhere to go when everything comes crashing down around him, as he's sure it's going to.

Each of the three sections of Moonlight contains at least one perfect scene. In the first part, that's the "middle of the world" scene, where drug dealer Juan, who's fast becoming Chiron's surrogate father, teaches him how to swim.

It's a perfect image, because of how it reinforces Chiron's independence: Swimming is a solitary act, especially after the person teaching you how to stay afloat lets you go. And in telling Chiron that when he's alone on the water, he's "in the middle of the world", Juan is telling Chiron that Chiron himself is the middle of the world - that he's the only thing that matters. All he needs is himself and the water.

And sure enough, in the second part of the film, when Chiron is feeling particularly down, he heads for the beach. And you can hardly blame him, when his school practically swallows him whole:

Bronze Medal

And of course, it's there, on the beach, that we get another perfect scene, as Kevin and Chiron smoke some weed, kiss, and...

...I trust that's all I have to say, right? That one image pretty much sums it all up, right?

But in all this talk about Chiron, let's not forget that this is just as much a story about his mother, Paula. Paula seems like a decent parent when we first meet her - she's tough, and wary of Juan, but clearly cares for and worries about Chiron. But it's slowly revealed that she's a drug addict, and puts her needs before those of her son, for whom she has some less than motherly feelings. But, despite all of that, she's blood, the one person Chiron can't shut himself out from, the person he will always have to answer for. And we're reminded of that in the most horrifying way:

"I'm your mama, ain't I?" - Silver Medal
A drugged-up, direct address to the camera, the first time a character has looked directly into the camera in the whole movie. But lest you think this shot is all about performance, at the very end of it, Laxton and Jenkins push it into slo-mo, letting her linger a second longer than she should, a ghostly, haunting visage that will follow our hero around until the day he dies.

The third section's perfect scene lasts for most of its entire length: The reunion of Chiron and Kevin after about a decade or so, in a diner where Kevin is working as a cook. He also happens to look like this:

Soooooooo.... yeah, Chiron doesn't really stand a chance, no matter how many defensive walls he's built up over the years.

I really can't say enough about how freaking amazing this scene is. It's a perfect little one-act play unto itself, one in which lingering gazes and interrupted conversations take on the rhythms of a thriller in the most incredible way.

But in selecting the film's best shot, I had to do the obvious thing that I HATE doing, and choose this, the very last shot, which also happens to be the title shot:

Coming as it does after Chiron and Kevin have gotten back together, after Chiron has made his long-overdue declaration to Kevin, after he has finally admitted out loud, to himself and someone else, who he really is, this flashback to Little Chiron is just LOADED. It's a callback to a story Juan tells about his childhood in Cuba (an old woman said to him, "in moonlight, black boys look blue - you're blue!" to which Chiron asks if Juan's name is blue), and a reminder of who Chiron was when he started on this journey. But it's also a direct address to the audience: This boy could be anyone. You could know this boy. And when he is lost and alone, he could turn to you for guidance. What kind of person are you going to be when he does? Are you going to let him struggle to come to grips with himself all on his own, or are you going to offer him the love and support he needs to accept himself? Will you accept him, or will you turn him away?

This final shot is packed with meaning, offering a beautiful end, but not an easy one. It's perfect.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - The Renaissance

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

This week, ladies and gentlemen, we are going back in time. Back in the centuries to a time of magical scientific discoveries, a time of great wealth and horrible poverty, a time of exploration, war, and enlightenment: The Renaissance. I myself am a big fan of renaissance faires (I even dress up on occasion), but people often seem to widen the historical definition of the period a bit to include their favorite costumes or other "middle ages" ephemera. For the purposes of this week, we're using the historically-defined period of the 14th-17th centuries.

Queen Margot (Patrice Chéreau, 1994) Putting the lie to the idea that period films must be stately, buttoned-up, over-serious slogs of costume pageantry, Queen Margot is deliciously dirty and sexy. Isabelle Adjani plays the title role, a Catholic sister of King Charles who is forced to marry another prominent Catholic in order to consolidate power and suppress the uprising of the Protestant Huguenots. But after the bloody St. Barttholomew's Day Massacre, she falls in love with the Protestant La Môle, which may undo everything the neurotic King and his scheming mother Catherine de Medici (a brilliant Virna Lisi) have done. Queen Margot may be close to three hours long, but it doesn't feel it at all, moving along at an involving pace with brilliant performances and some stunning design and cinematography (which I wrote about here, if you're interested).

Dangerous Beauty (Marshall Herskovitz, 1998) Meet Veronica Franco, a beautiful, smart, young Venetian woman. She has everything one needs to get everything one wants in the world... except she's too low-born to marry the man she loves. So her mother suggests that she go into the "family business" and become a courtesan. Upon learning that doing so would grant her access to libraries and education in addition to all the men she could ever dream of sleeping with, she decides to do it. She eventually becomes the top courtesan in Venice, called upon to use her body as well as her mind to influence foreign heads of state... until the Inquisition tries her for witchcraft. This isn't a truly great film, but it's very interesting, looking at the world's oldest profession in a very different light than most other films. And it's based on a biography of Veronica Franco, so much of it is true!

The New World (Terence Malick, 2005) The familiar story of the fateful settling/exploration voyage to America led by John Smith and John Rolfe, where they meet a native chief's daughter, Pocahontas. But this telling is unlike any other you've seen - as you may have guessed upon seeing Malick's name as the director. And look: This is a long, slow, indulgent movie. I'm not going to deny it. However, it is also an unbelievably gorgeous one, possibly the most beautiful looking (and sounding) movie Malick has ever made, in a career not at all lacking in beautiful movies. Appropriately for a movie titled The New World, at times it really feels like you're seeing our planet for the first time, and good God is it a sight to behold.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Deserts

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

This week, on Thursday Movie Picks, it's hot and dry. Not a drop of water to be found, we are surrounded by the yellow sands of the desert. Feel the sun beating down with oppressive heat, feel the grits of sand that get caught in orifices you didn't even know you had... it's not fun, but thankfully, we only have to watch, not actually experience it ourselves!

Morocco (Josef von Sternberg, 1930) Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Marlene Dietrich, in a tuxedo, swanning through a French song with nary a care, kissing a woman full on the lips. Ah, the glorious days pre-Hays Code! Movies have never quite recovered from that, have they? Anyway, Morocco is all about how the heat of the desert can inflame passions to the point of explosion, as Gary Cooper's foreign legionnaire romances Dietrich's lounge singer despite the fact that they both admit that neither one of them is in a good place to be having a romantic relationship. If you've never seen it, it's VERY much worth a watch.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994) From the sublime to the FABULOUS! Three Australian drag queens hop on a bus to travel to a gig across the country, upending expectations and bringing fabulosity wherever they go. When they aren't squabbling, that is. Featuring some beautiful scenery, mind-blowing costumes, and three unbelievably against-type performances by Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving, and Guy Pearce. Priscilla looks at how the harshness of the desert landscape can bring out the harshness within us, if you aren't careful.

Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999) Extrapolating Herman Melville's famous novella Billy Budd into an elliptical examination of toxic masculinity and repressed homosexuality, Claire Denis's Beau Travail is completely brilliant, if you have the patience of a saint. Not gonna lie, this is a tough sit, but an utterly beguiling one, as a group of foreign legion soldiers in Djibouti is disrupted by the arrival of a pretty, young, innocent thing by the name of Sentain, who invokes the ire of their leader, Galoup. Passions can run high in the desert, so you need to watch your back.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Clones/Doppelgangers

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

Never fear, I am alive!

I'm just... I've been BUSY the past couple of weeks.


You see, three weeks ago, I was offered a new job (YAY! This is a VERY GOOD THING!), and they gave me a start date of May 1. Awesome, right? I get to give two weeks notice and take a week off to relax and start the new job fresh as a daisy, right? WRONG. As it happens, our Annual Benefit at my (then-current, now-former) job was on April 27. And leaving right before the Benefit would just be a massive dick move, which I just couldn't do, even though it meant that my last three weeks there would be hell, because I would be doing extra extra work for the Benefit on top of my normal workload, and on top of that, I would be doing transition/end-of-job work. And then I would go into my new job having only had a weekend to recover. And of course, the Benefit was on a Thursday, so I was crazy busy with a million things and just didn't get the time to participate in this. I would feel worse if I had literally anything to say about cop TV shows.


But now, I'm back(!) and better than ever(?)!

Only..... are there THAT MANY movies about clones? Hmmmmmmm... let's see how outside the box I can get.....

Possession (Adrzej Zulawski, 1981) I don't even know if I can accurately describe this fever dream of a movie, but I will at least make a valiant attempt: Sam Neill returns home from business (what type of business is never exactly explained, but it's vaguely espionage-adjacent) to find his wife, Isabelle Adjani, distant, cold, and probably cheating on him. They split, but when he finds that she is neglecting their son, he becomes more obsessed with just what, exactly, is happening with her. We're eventually shown what is happening, but even then, and even after watching this COMPLETELY FUCKING INSANE MOVIE twice, I'm not entirely sure what it is. Most of Polish great Zulawski's films start at about a 9 on an intensity scale of 10, and never let up. Possession, made when he was going through a divorce, starts at a 10, and only escalates from there. It is the most intense, visceral break-up movie I've ever seen, completely earning its place in the horror genre even though it's not REALLY horror (don't let the Carlo Rambaldi credit fool you), by dialing perfectly normal situations and conversations to 11 and letting them play out with two terrific actors told to go for broke. Neill has never been better, and Adjani more than earns every award she received (including the César and Cannes Palme for Best Actress) for her breakdown in the subway alone. Utterly hypnotic even when it frustratingly refuses to make any sense, Possession is completely unlike any other movie you will ever see, and more than worth a watch. Oh, and both Adjani and Neill play their characters' doppelgangers in the movie, although I'm not going to spoil how for either of them.

Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) Sam Neill double feature, y'all!! Look, technically the dinosaurs are clones. Just sayin'.


City of Lost Children (Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro, 1995) Krank was created on a massive oil rig by a mad scientist sort, and is now a mad scientist sort himself. Unfortunately, however, he is unable to dream, which is causing him to age prematurely. So he has invented a machine that extracts dreams from children. In order to get children, he has help from some of the original mad scientist's other creations, including a brain named Irvin and six childish clones. Some movies are style over substance, but in Jeunet's films, the style becomes part of the substance, and the dream-like feel of everything here contributes to the "fractured fairytale/bedtime story" vibe of the whole enterprise, creating a totally original, completely new, entirely self-contained cinematic world that I would gladly visit again more times than I would any of our current "Cinematic Universes".

The Island (Michael Bay, 2005) Look, it's not like there's really such a thing as a "good Michael Bay movie", but goddamn did I enjoy this one. It's the story of two beautiful people who look like Scarlett Johansson and Ewan McGregor who live in a dystopian futuristic society that has a lot of arbitrary rules but one saving grace: Every so often, there is a lottery, and the winner gets to go to "The Island", nature's last remaining paradise. Except, SWITCHEROO, it's NOT a dystopian future, but the real world (more or less), and everyone who lived where they lived are actually clones of "real" people who paid insane amounts of money to have a clone for when they need things like a kidney or a heart or anything like that, and this is what actually determines the lottery. It's patently ridiculous, but also fun, with both McGregor and Johansson turning in deliciously calibrated movie star performances.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - A Disappearance

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join in by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and writing a bit about them - we won't disappear on you!

Fear not, my friends! I haven't disappeared, I'm just CRAZY busy and tried to do this on my lunch break at work but that didn't work because I haven't really had a lunch break all week. Anyway, this week's theme is disappearances, which can be traumatic - for the disappeared as well as the ones they left behind.

The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2016) A Puritan family is exiled from their village after their views are deemed too extreme (which, since we're talking about Puritans, must have been pretty damn extreme!). They settle on the edge of a wood and before long, when teenage Thomasin (a star-is-born performance from Anya Taylor-Joy) is playing peek-a-boo with her baby brother, the baby disappears. As it turns out, he was stolen by a witch who lives in the wood, and the young twins insist that the family goat, Black Phillip, is talking to them. One of the best films of last year, The Witch (or, if you prefer, The VVitch) is supremely chilly, a tense, beautifully shot freakout that never feels anything less than completely authentic, and features outstanding performances from Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson as the heads of the household.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975) On Valentine's Day in the year 1900, three schoolgirls and their teacher disappeared during an outing at Hanging Rock in Victoria, Australia. This didn't actually happen, but after watching Peter Weir's gorgeous masterpiece, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was based on a true story. The film knows that not knowing what happened is scarier than giving a definitive answer, and it accumulates a lot of power in its depiction of the disappearance and its aftermath.

L'Avventura (Michaelangelo Antonioni, 1960) A woman disappears during a Mediterranean boating trip, and her fiancée and best friend become attracted to each other during the course of the investigation into her disappearance. Because of the ennui of the Italian socialite set. Or the landscape. Or something. I don't know. I just don't like this movie. No one is likable and the pace is too slow. I'm sure it all MEANS SOMETHING, but I could care less about these poor sad beautiful rich people.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Rivalry

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

Another Thursday, another round of movies to pick! The theme this week is rivalry. Rivalry can take many forms, be it between siblings, friends, colleagues, or even natural enemies. I didn't mean to focus on male rivalries this week, but it's what ended up happening. I generally find rivalry between men not nearly as interesting as rivalry between women (you are all watching Feud, right?!? So rich and complex... GOD I LOVE IT), but in these movies, they are entertaining to watch.

The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006) I know I've picked this before not too long ago, but I had to again because it is the single best movie I've ever seen about male rivalry. Robert Angier and Alfred Borden were friends and apprentices to a great magician but became estranged after an accident ended up killing Angier's wife. Ever since, they became great rivals, each trying to outdo and outsmart each other, to the point of obsession. Boasting outstanding performances from Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, fun support from Michael Caine and David Bowie (ingenious casting as Nikola Tesla), gorgeous cinematography, and a smart, dark-and-twisty script that is even better than the novel on which it's based, this may just be Nolan's best film. It's certainly his most underrated. (And also: THAT TRAILER. One of the all-time greats, no?)

Grumpy Old Men (Donald Petrie, 1993) John Gustafson and Max Goldman were once friends, but became rivals after John married Max's high school sweetheart. Ever since, they've spent their days fighting and pulling pranks on each other. When a vivacious college professor moves in across the street, their rivalry intensifies. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau's chemistry is still great, even if the movie isn't. But the two of them and Ann-Margaret (as the love interest) are nothing if not troopers, and they know just how to elevate the stock material.

This Means War (McG, 2012) GUILTY PLEASURE ALERT!! I know this spy vs spy romcom isn't any good. I know that Reese Witherspoon has never been stiffer, that Tom Hardy has never been blander, that Chris Pine has never been more forgettable. But goddammit, this movie makes me laugh at all these assholes SO. MUCH. Plus, you know, Tom Hardy's lips. They are delectable pillows of goodness and I just want to sink into them. They make it possible to deal with a LOT.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Cars/Racing

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

If there's one thing I really miss now that I've been living in New York City for the past two and a half years, it's driving. I miss getting into my car, revving up the engine, putting my foot on the gas, and just GOING. There's such a feeling of power and freedom that comes from being behind the wheel, and I love it and miss it.

But thankfully, I have these movies to watch whenever I miss driving too much.

It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Stanley Kramer, 1963) One of the greatest, funniest, and largest casts ever assembled drives their way through this madcap comedy on their way to find buried treasure. Yes, it's schticky, but so what? Schtick is what you watch these greats for, and they are GREAT at it. As a bonus, the car chases are GREAT, and super funny to boot.

The Love Bug (Robert Stevenson, 1968) I mean... if you didn't love this as a kid, I'm not sure there's anything I can do for you. Yes, it's all formula and it's all very easy comedy, but... it works, dammit, because everyone on screen really believes in the ridiculousness they're selling, and commits like it was an adaptation of classic literature destined for Oscar glory. It's all just perfectly right, not over- or underdone. (Okay, fine, maybe a little overdone. But it still works!) That's Disney magic for you!

Trafic (Jacques Tati, 1971) After satirizing vacationers in Les vacances de M. Hulot, modern technology in Mon Oncle, and popular culture in Playtime, French clown extraordinaire Jacques Tati turned his infallible eye (and obliviously accident-prone character, M. Hulot) to the modern automobile in Trafic, and the result is a sublime, gag-after-gag treat of a film. It's not as strong overall as his previous films, but it's still damn funny, and it's centerpiece car accident is one for the ages.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - TV EDITION: Period Drama

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

Wow, the month of March went by FAST, huh? We're already at the next TV Edition of Thursday Movie Picks, which means it's the last Thursday of the month! I can't believe it. Time is going by so fast, and this week we are looking at shows that take place in the past. I can't think of too many of those that I've watched, actually, so there's not so much a larger point I have to make here, other than "these are some period dramas I have watched, and probably enjoyed."

Downton Abbey (2010-2015) I mean... where did Downton even come from? It really seemed like, all of a sudden, millions and millions of people were watching PBS on Sundays and EVERYONE was talking about the new Upstairs, Downstairs. It was very strange. But anyway, how could you not fall in love with this show's first season, which took things as seemingly boring as inheriting titles and lines of succession and property ownership and made them sublimely entertaining? A brilliant cast leads us through the early 1900s in the life of a British manor house after the male heir dies on the Titanic and the next closest relative is a middle class (as in, "Oh, how VERY middle class...") lawyer who must be taught the ways of the British upper class. I know I just said the cast is great, and they ARE, every last one of them, but there's really no question who the star of the show is: Dame Maggie Smith, in what is hopefully not her last great role as Dowager Countess Violet Crawley. Not only does writer Julian Fellowes give her ALL the best lines, but she delivers like you would not believe. There are a million tribute videos to her on YouTube, and every single one of them is just absolutely delightful.

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries (2013-2015) Miss Phryne Fisher is the most fabulous detective you will ever meet. And this Australian period mystery series is maybe the most fun you will ever have solving murders! Essie Davis swans about in the most insane 1920s clothing you have ever seen while solving murder after murder in the most stylish way imaginable. With her trusty maid, Dot, butler Mr. Butler, and drivers Bert and Cec, Miss Fisher constantly runs circles around local Detective Inspector Jack Robinson's official investigations, using a combination of women's intuition, keen eye for detail, and wickedly sharp wit. The whole thing may feel like just a lot of frothy fun, but there's a deeper level of feminism running through it all that adds quite a lot. Well worth seeking out!

Spartacus (2010-2013) You know how people say about TV shows all the time "you have to give it a few episodes, but trust me, it gets SO GOOD"? Well... you have to give it a few episodes, but TRUST ME. Spartacus gets SO. GOOD. You already know the story of the slave-turned-gladiator-turned-rebellion leader, so come for the male nudity and stay for the storytelling and surprisingly well-drawn characters. It's certainly not a show for the squeamish (although the blood in the earliest episodes really does look badly fake), but if you can stomach it, Spartacus is one of the most rewarding shows in recent years. In fact, it's incredibly easy to pinpoint exactly where the show got good (episode 6 of the first season), AND exactly where it got GREAT (episode 9 of the first season). That it rarely took any downturn after that is what makes it essential. Yes, the way of speaking may seem ridiculous, and yes, it's incredibly bloody, but you've never seen ancient history like this - and by all accounts, it's pretty damn accurate to how the Romans actually lived. Plus: Lucy Lawless, better than she's ever been as the mistress of the house run by character extraordinaire John Hannah. The entire arc of the four season show is nearly flawlessly done, and the performances by everyone (including original Spartacus Andy Whitfield, who died of cancer after the first season and was replaced with the just as good Liam McIntyre) are strong. I really can't recommend this show enough, especially since it looked in the early going like it was going to be a bad 300 rip-off. Boy, did it ever transcend that!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - The Underdog

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!

"There's no need to fear, UNDERDOG is here!"

Yes, it's everyone's favorite canine cartoon superhero, here for your entertainment this week on Thursday Movie Picks. I remember being a young child madly in love with cartoons (weren't we all?) and loving the little overserious mutt with his uniform and cape. Oh the many hours I would spend just waiting for the next epi...

...I'm sorry, what?

...oh, NOT that underdog?




Apparently, we are talking about the "accomplish goal with impossible odds" kind of underdog. Which I suppose makes more sense. Lord knows we Americans love a good underdog story, so there are loads to choose from. Here are a few of my favorites.

The Mighty Ducks (Stephen Herick, 1992) The power of nostalgia is STRONG with this one. It plays straight from the Bad News Bears playbook: Loutish, formerly great sportsman is forced to coach team of the worst kids at his preferred sport, teaches them how to believe in themselves and win the big game, too. It is pure formula all the way down the line, and I ATE IT UP when I was a kid. I still do now, actually, and I'm not the least bit ashamed to admit it. It comes down to the casting, which is perfect all the way down the line. The kids have such a great natural rapport with each other that it's easy to overlook their at times not-so-great acting skills, and Emilio Estevez  proves to be a perfect adult lead for this. There's a reason why this got two sequels AND an actual hockey team that took its name.

Cool Runnings (Jon Turteltaub, 1993) Yes, it's another Disney about a winter sport from the '90s, but what can I say? You can't get much more of an underdog than 1988 Jamaican Olympic bobsled team. I've since learned that practically nothing happened in real life the way it did in the film, and they certainly could have stayed more true to life and still had a compelling narrative, but when the performances are this good (especially John Candy, in the last performance he was alive to see completed) and the film is overall as fleet and filled with good feeling as this, what does it matter? My sister and I still quote this movie to each other TO THIS DAY.

Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008) A case where a movie about an underdog became an unlikely underdog itself, narrowly escaping a direct-to-DVD release to win every award in sight, including the Oscar for Best Picture. Boyle's kaleidoscopic film about a poor young Indian man who against the odds makes it on the Indian version of the TV show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and realizes that the experiences in his life have given him all the answers he needs to win and lift himself up out of poverty may be too full of contrivances and conveniences for some, but I was totally engrossed in it from the start, and right alongside the characters emotionally until the euphoric ending.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Ancient World

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

We've been under siege by snow here in NYC recently, to the point where I had Tuesday off from work, which has thrown my whole sense of time off. Yes, that's a somewhat long-winded way of saying that I forgot today was Thursday so I'm doing this at work now (SHHHH - don't tell!). But that's okay, because we're time-travelling this week, back to the Ancient World. Now, this leaves a bit of leeway, but I'm taking it as a B.C. sort of thing. Biblical epics and dinosaurs, y'all!

The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille, 1954) If I've said it once, I've said it a hundred times: This is the most entertaining biblical epic ever devised, and there is simply no topping it. You've got Heston at his staunchest, Yul Brenner at his most intense, Vincent Price and Edward G. Robinson being themselves for some reason, and, above all, MISS Anne Baxter, wrapping her moist red lips around every juicy line like watermelon in a desert, making a meal out of the single word "Moses". Add to that the truly biblical narration by the Voice of God, Mr. DeMille himself, and of course, the greatest special effect in movie history, the parting of the red sea. It may be four hours long, but damn if it doesn't keep me involved for every single second, no matter how many times I've seen it.

Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963) From the sublime to the ridiculous, we have one of history's most notorious flops, but not because it wasn't a bit of a box office sensation. No, audiences flocked to see Elizabeth Taylor as the famous Egyptian ruler, but the film was so expensive that it never recouped its costs. Every bit of its massive budget shows onscreen, but unfortunately the film is kind of a snooze, despite its beauty. Oh, it's always entertaining to watch Taylor and Richard Burton, but when they're not sharing the screen, Cleopatra is a bore, not engrossing enough to be a Serious Historical Drama, not camp enough to be an Entertaining Biblical Epic.

Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979) "He's NOT the Messiah; he's a VERY NAUGHTY boy!" Every film Monty Python ever made is hilarious, but for me it's a close race between this and Holy Grail as their funniest. Taking the biblical epic and giving it an even more satirical twist than Mel Brooks's very funny History of the World, Part I, Life of Brian imagines the story of Jesus Christ through the life of a boy born next door on the same night, culminating in a famous scene of the crucified singing their advice to "Always Look On the Bright Side of Life". The film has been accused of blasphemy ever since it was released, but in my opinion, you can make fun of ANYTHING as long as it's funny. And dear God, Life of Brian is FUNNY.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Remakes/Sequels/Reboots Of A Movie You Want To See

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

Well, I suppose it was inevitable this topic would come up! Remakes and sequels and "reboots" are all the rage in Hollywood these days. To be honest, I am mostly not a fan. If a movie was good once, that does not mean that it will necessarily be good again with a different team, as movie after movie after movie has proven.

HOWEVER. There are some films that have great concepts that resulted in mediocre-to-bad movies, and that's where I think Hollywood should be focusing their remake/reboot energy. Movies, perhaps, like these.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Stephen Norrington, 2003) This is as great a premise as they come: A rogue's gallery of sci-fi, fantasy, and adventure characters (Captain Nemo, Tom Sawyer, Dr. Jekyll, Dorain Gray, etc.) team up for a secret mission. Unfortunately, the film absolutely squanders this great premise with a director who didn't seem to have any clue what he was doing. The comic books the movie was based on had a sort of deadpan fun with the audacity of the concept, but the film takes it at face value. In fact, Showtime's series Penny Dreadful does a much better job of this, going full-on melodramatic Victorian Gothic horror show, but you don't even have to go that route. Just infuse the concept with some of the audacity and fun of the comic books and it could be really great, instead of just fine.

The Brothers Grimm (Terry Gilliam, 2005) Look, I LOVE me some Terry Gilliam, and I LOVE me some "fairy tales are real" nonsense. But this is an unholy mess of a movie, in part because it's too focused on plot, which has never been Gilliam's strong suit. He's great at creating worlds, and does a fantastic job of that here, too. But after that, the whole thing falls apart, from the script to the casting to all non-design artistic decisions. Recast it and give the reigns to Guillermo del Toro. He'll know what to do with this concept.

The Happening (M. Night Shyamalan, 2008) You remember the trailers for this, right? INCREDIBLY creepy. And there's a whole lot of that creepiness in Shyamalan's first R-rated film, too. But unfortunately, it's also saddled with appallingly terrible Z-grade acting from A-list stars and an explanation (it's not even worthy of being called a twist) that is pulled out of nowhere, thus robbing the movie of everything it has going for it. Hand the script over to Stephen King and then give the director's chair to Bryan Bertino (The Strangers), and this would be much better. Oh, and maybe change that stupid title, too?

Friday, March 3, 2017

Mt. Rushmore of Movies Blogathon

SOOOOOOOO.... I saw these posts on Dell on Movies and Rambling Film and I thought to myself "Mt. Rushmore? OF MOVIES?? I MUST WRITE!" And then I realized I had only a day to decide on a topic and pick the ultimate FOREVER four. And such things are usually NOT easy.

But then I realized I had one. THE one. The one where I could pick the absolute indisputable four for ever and ever of all time to be carved in stone and displayed for the masses. So here we go:

(aka, The Great Three-Hankie Weepies)

Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) That entire last scene at the airport is just beyond perfect: "...the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that. Here's looking at you kid." ...AND CUE TEARS.

Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945) How cruel that these two don't even get a proper goodbye: "I must go." "Yes you must," and his hand on her shoulder. CURSE YOU, Dolly Messiter and your awful timing!

Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1998) Another absolutely perfect final scene: "You will never age for me, nor fade, nor die." "Write me well." And she lives on, as his heroine for all time. Glorious.

In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000) This one hurts differently than the others. This one hurts after our two lovers have taken their leave, as he whispers his secret love into a hole, covers it with mud, and leaves it there, never to be shared or spoken of again., YOU'RE crying! I just have a piece of grit in my eye...

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - On The Run

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join us each week as we pick three movies that fit the week's theme and tell each other about them. It's fun!

Uh oh.

You've just done something bad. Something wrong. Something you weren't supposed to. And the wrong person found out.

What do you do?

You go on the run.

Just like the people in this week's Thursday Movie Picks!

No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007) Poor Llewelyn Moss. He happens across the aftermath of a violent shootout with no apparent survivors and a briefcase full of money. He thinks it's his lucky day. Unfortunately for him, there's a tracking device in the briefcase, and both sides want it back. As do the police, naturally. And even more unfortunately, one of the men after the briefcase is one Anton Chigurh, a quiet, possibly insane, deadly force. The Coen Brothers' thriller won the Best Picture Oscar and it's a tense, brutal film with killer performances and beautifully bleak cinematography. It's too bleak for me to enjoy, but I do respect the hell out of it.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969) Butch Cassidy runs the Hole in the Wall Gang of outlaws. The Sundance Kid is his right hand man. After a train robbery goes awry, the two of them find themselves on the run without the gang and with Sundance's lady. I probably don't need to tell you what happens from there in this American classic with two devastatingly handsome star turns from Paul Newman and Robert Redford, but if you don't know, you should see this. The final standoff may feel a little tame after Bonnie & Clyde, but the film builds it up into a pretty emotional climax.

North By Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959) Roger Thornhill is having a VERY bad time of things. First he gets kidnapped by some nattily-dressed thugs thinking he's someone named George Kaplan, then they drug him and send him home behind the wheel of a car after he fails to convince them of his true identity. Then his mother has to get him from prison, no one at the house the kidnappers took him to admits to recognizing him, and when he finds the man who owns the house, that man is stabbed in the back while in Roger's arms. Yeah, you'd run in that situation, too! Writer Ernest Lehman wanted to write "the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures," and by George, he just might have done it. I've probably seen this more times than any other Hitchcock film, and it's just as entertaining every time - probably the most purely entertaining film he ever made. Cary Grant is perfect as Thornhill, James Mason a deliciously suave villain, Eva Marie Saint the perfect Hitchcock blonde, and the entire supporting cast is chock full of great turns. An All-Time Favorite of mine, for sure!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Best of 2016 (Part Two)

AND NOW! We move on the more marquee categories - the actors, actresses, writers, and directors who made my favorite contributions to their films in 2016.

Best Adapted Screenplay
The Little Prince
The Handmaiden (WINNER)
Everyone and their mother has attempted to adapt Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince to film, but this was the first that truly captured the spirit of the novel, with the stroke of genius of making it as much about the act of reading The Little Prince as it about the plot itself. Elle is yet another example of why we should call a novel "unfilmable" at our own risk. Arrival's screenplay plays its hand so subtly that the big reveal both is and isn't a total surprise - a pretty neat trick! Moonlight's words are pure poetry, but never sound writerly. But how anyone could read Sarah Waters's Fingersmith and make The Handmaiden, which aside from completely changing the time and place of the novel, is actually even crazier than the novel, is mind-boggling.


Hell Or High Water
The Lobster (WINNER)
Manchester By The Sea
The Witch
Even setting aside the perfect use of period language in The Witch, it unfolds at a perfect pace for maximum scariness. Zootopia may be a little bit TOO on the nose, but damn if its insightful political commentary doesn't play like gangbusters, as does its clever comedy (sloths at the DMV!). Hell or High Water has the year's tightest, most quotable script, if not the most groundbreaking. Kenneth Lonergan continues to prove that he understands human beings and how they grieve better than just about any other writer with his near-perfect script for Manchester By The Sea. And in The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos found a perfect vehicle for his pitch-black sense of humor and deadpan, with an allegory that will touch anyone who has ever been single deeply.


Mahershala Ali, Moonlight 
Tom Bennett, Love & Friendship
Alden Ehrenrich, Hail, Caesar!
Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash (WINNER)
Lucas Hedges, Manchester By The Sea
Lucas Hedges brings a great "real-kid" quality to his performance, and his nervous breakdown is as heartbreaking as it is hilarious. We can feel Mahershala Ali's presence long after his character is gone from Moonlight, such an indelible character does he create in such limited time. The rhythms of Tom Bennett's speech patterns in Love & Friendship are completely unlike anything else I've ever heard - a truly original comic creation that left me needing to pause and replay his scenes after I had stopped laughing. Alden Ehrenrich would make this list even if the only scene he had was "Would that it were so simple," but he does so much more. But his scene partner Ralph Fiennes truly outdid himself in A Bigger Splash, playing one of those annoying people who always has to be the center of attention, and gets it through the expenditure of lots of energy and volume. It's a tour de force you can't look away from, even if you wanted to.

Olivia Colman, The Lobster
Naomie Harris, Moonlight (WINNER)
Lupita Nyong'o, Queen of Katwe
Molly Shannon, Other People
Michelle Williams, Manchester By The Sea
Everyone in Manchester is always doing their best work when in a scene with Michelle Williams. That's not an accident. Whatever emotional impact the film has, it's all due to her performance. Lupita Nyong'o gets to show lots of range in Queen of Katwe as the titular chess prodigy's young mother, and she tops even her great Oscar-winning performance in 12 Years a Slave, telling us all we need to know about this woman just by the way she walks. Olivia Colman is the perfect vessel for Lanthimos's deadpan dialogue as the Hotel Manager; thanks to her, you'll never look at a toaster the same way again. Even though her character is dying of cancer, Molly Shannon makes sure she comes alive, bringing her natural good humor to bear, equal parts defense mechanism and genuine good feelings. Pity poor Naomie Harris, though. Were Viola Davis not fraudulently competing in this category at the Oscars, her fierce, raw portrait of an addict mother at three stages of her life would likely have swept awards season, and justifiably so.
 Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Connor Jessup, Closet Monster
Peter Simonischek, Toni Erdmann
Denzel Washington, Fences (WINNER)
Jessup lets us see the genuine fear and longing battling it out for dominance in his sensitive portrait of a damaged gay teen coming of age. Ryan Gosling does it all in La La Land - sings, dances, plays piano - and he does it all with the same effortlessness that marks his off-the-charts chemistry with Emma Stone. Grant's bottomless charm goes a long way towards making St. Clair a sympathetic character, but he's also sneakily funny as Florence's devoted husband/failed actor.  Jack Nicholson sure has big shoes to fill in the godforsaken Toni Erdmann remake, since Simonischek is so effortlessly sympathetic and weird simultaneously. It's a tricky balance that he pulls off to perfection. No one this year can touch Denzel's Troy Maxson, though. He's a true force of nature in Fences, swinging the entire world over to his axis wherever he goes. This is the best he's been in ages, and it's not like he's ever been one to phone it in.

Jessica Chastain, Miss Sloane
Viola Davis, Fences (WINNER)
Krisha Fairchild, Krisha
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Natalie Portman, Jackie
The opening and closing close-ups of Krisha Fairchild's face are astonishingly precise - and the rest of her performance as a recovering alcoholic whose return home does not go as planned packs quite a wallop.  Isabelle Huppert has the trickiest part of the year in Elle, but thankfully the character couldn't be better suited to her gifts, and hot damn does she deliver as a woman who isn't sure what she's feeling, or even what she should be feeling, after getting raped. Jessica Chastain gets to sink her teeth plenty of scenery as the year's ultimate "nasty woman", and since she never lets subtlety get away from her entirely, it's a perfectly satisfying four-course meal. Natalie Portman was born to play Jacqueline Kennedy, but her portrait of a first lady in mourning isn't just about her perfect voice and looks, it's about the modulations in her speaking tone that speak volumes, and in how hollow she goes behind the eyes as she moves through her grief. But no one this year gave a more volcanic performance than Viola Davis in Fences. She's so disarmingly fun and flirty with her lout of a husband in the opening scenes that when the big snot-filled breakdown monologue comes, it's like a tidal wave hitting the audience. As she unleashes the full force of her pent-up anger and fear and love and grief, and stands up for what she deserves, it's not just Rose Maxson doing so - it's every woman who has ever been taken for granted and taken advantage of, for every woman who has suppressed her own hopes and dreams for a man, for every marginalized person who has watched and patiently waited and suffered in silence as others simply took what they wanted. She is all of us. And we will not be ignored.

Park Chan-Wook, The Handmaiden
Damien Chazelle, La La Land (WINNER)
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster
Pablo Larraín, Jackie
The totality of Larraín's vision for Jackie is absolutely stunning. Would that all biopics could be this focused and powerful. Barry Jenkins made Moonlight one of the most thematically, visually, and sonically beautiful films ever. No one else could have made The Lobster, one of the year's most unique films in terms of plot and tone, and Yorgos Lanthimos shepherded every single element together to make something completely singular. The Handmaiden is one of the most demanding films of the year - it's also one of the most purely enjoyable, so fleet on its feet and so willing to go where few other films would dare. Park Chan-Wook also makes sure all the technical elements are impeccable. Damien Chazelle made La La Land a technical dazzlement that feels entirely current despite using a form and technique rooted in the past. It's a perfect blend, reinvigorating the musical by going to places modern-day audiences aren't used to going. This was his dream project, and you can see the thought and care put into every frame.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Best of 2016 (Part One)

So many movies are released every year that it's nearly impossible to see them all within the confines of January 1 - December 31. So I usually give myself until the Oscars to see everything. After all, that's when the year in film truly ends, right?

Anyway, I'll post my Top Ten (or whatever it is this year) tomorrow, on Oscar day. But for now, let's look at all the other things Oscar will be awarding tomorrow. Starting with the tech categories...

 Closet Monster
The Dressmaker (WINNER)
Florence Foster Jenkins
The Handmaiden
Sing Street
Florence Foster Jenkins is the showiest of these, what with all the period styles and sick makeup for Meryl, but there's careful attention paid to the differences in class and how people of different social strata present themselves. Sing Street gets to the performative, shifting nature of identity that occurs in adolescence in fun ways. The Handmaiden is mostly here for the wonderful hair creations that sit atop Lady Hideko's head - each one some new gorgeous marvel. Closet Monster and The Dressmaker both have makeup as central to the story. Closet Monster's looks appropriate for a talented teen, but The Dressmaker wins for how it underscores the film's central themes about the power of outer transformation.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - TV EDITION: Superheroes/Super Powers

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 everyone a bit about them!

Another month, another TV Edition of Thursday Movie Picks, so my apologies if you were coming here looking for movie recommendations. They're not on the menu at the moment. Please, though, come back soon!

This week, we're looking at the small screen's superheroes. And it took me about five seconds to come up with my favorite:

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) It's one of the stranger things in recent memory that an utter failure of a forgettable teen movie was later turned into one of the All-Time Great TV shows by the film's own writer. But that's just what happened with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the story of a butt-kicking California blonde who is a mystical "chosen one" who was chosen to rid the world of vampires (and other supernatural beasties). Setting our heroine's high school on top of something called The Hellmouth (trust me, it's exactly what it sounds like), was a stroke of genius, allowing creator Joss Whedon and his writing staff to externalize all the myriad internal adolescent issues we've all experienced as quite literal demons. And he set the template for every other great serialized drama that was on air after. All hail.
Favorite Episodes: "Hush" (S4.e10), "The Body" (S5.e16), "Once More, With Feeling" (S6.e7)

Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997) Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher were the Clark Kent and Lois Lane the '90s needed, okay?!? This probably isn't a great show, really, but good lord I wouldn't have been caught dead missing an episode back when I was ten years old!

Arrow (2012-present) Darker and more emotional than your average superhero tale, this television adaptation of the Green Arrow comic was appointment television for a while for me, and not just because of star Stephen Amell's body of work. The hook (bilionaire playboy returns home after having been thought dead for years, bent on taking revenge on those who wronged his father and his city) is pretty irresistible, and the quality of each episode is outstandingly high. Complex characters and brilliant performances made me keep tuning in long after the storyline itself changed focus and lost my interest.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Shakespeare Adaptations

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. If these posts seem like fun to you, play along! All you have to do is pick three movies that fit the week's theme, and tell us a bit about them. Couldn't be simpler!

Oh, Wanderer.

You have no idea what you've wrought this week.

You see, I'm a bit obsessed with the adaptation of stage plays to film. And I'm more than a little obsessed with the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare. Ever since I read a VERY abridged version of Romeo & Juliet when I was in fourth grade, I've loved him. I took several courses on him in college, and worked for an Off-Broadway theater company focused on Shakespeare and classic drama for five years. Shakespeare adaptations are kind of my thing. So I'm going to go a little bit crazy this week. Please, bear with me. There's LOTS to talk about.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Prodigy/Genius

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 a bit about them - it's fun, promise!

I am sitting in my warm apartment watching the snow blow around outside, and I must admit that I feel very content. This is my favorite thing in the world, especially with a mug of hot cocoa (check) and a fire in the fireplace (not happening in a one bedroom in Manhattan, unfortunately). Next to movies, of course, which is why I haven't moved from the couch all day.

But it's Thursday, which means I have some picking to do! This week's TMP theme is geniuses. I'm not one, although I do have my moments! The point being, I should be so lucky to do something so brilliant as these people that I get a movie made about me.

Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984) One of the greats. A movie about the rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a bona fide genius, and Antonio Salieri, an almost genius. The Best Picture Oscar winner of 1984 (which made it my favorite film sight unseen for a long time - I was born in 1984) is deliriously entertaining, one of the best films to win Best Picture. And F. Murray Abraham's performance as Salieri is one of the all-time great performances.

Searching For Bobby Fischer (Steven Zaillian, 1993) An ordinary man discovers that his seven year old son is a chess prodigy. He and his wife find a coach for the boy as he goes and plays in the park against random men. Except that in the hands of writer/director Zaillian, this is so much better and more complex than that plot sounds. This is easily one of the best films of the '90s.

Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant, 1997) Will Hunting is a math genius, wasting his days as a janitor at MIT and his nights hanging out with his buddies on the south side of Boston. One day, a professor posts an impossibly difficult math problem in the hall, and Will solves it. Naturally, the professor wants to work with his brilliant mind, but Will has a lot of issues, so he must go to see a therapist (played by Robin Williams in an Oscar-winning performance). I love this movie so much. Written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and it's kind of amazing that they haven't written anything since, although it's clear from their performances here that they were always movie stars.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Awards Contenders In Brief - Hell or High Water

True sleeper hits feel like a total rarity these days. So when a film becomes one, it feels like a bit of an event. David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water was a genuine sleeper hit this summer, which could have been because the Summer of 2016 was a pretty dire time for movies, let alone completely original stories, let alone westerns. So it's pretty big that this film stuck around like it did, made the money it made, and made it all the way to the Oscars with four nominations.

And really, if I'm being honest, it's pretty much perfect. Taylor Sheridan's screenplay is as notable for what it does as it is for what it doesn't do. It doesn't give us the whole story right off the bat, doling out bits and pieces of the plot throughout the entire running time. It doesn't provide any easy answers for us or for the characters, putting those that survive the main action (this is a western crime drama, you know there's gonna be some deaths) in a morally compromised position and not giving any real sort of closure. It also doesn't stay in one genre - it's a western, but feels modern; it's a crime story, but doesn't feel like a thriller; it's a slow, thoughtful drama, but it's also funny as hell. And it is perfectly paced. Sheridan, with help from director David Mackenzie, is also really good at social commentary - I don't think I've ever seen a film that so perfectly captures the desolate desperateness of America's more rural areas while showing exactly why conservative politics that put big business first are precisely what they DON'T need. This is easily one of the best screenplays of the year, an utter delight from start to finish.

But also, if I'm being honest, there's nothing particularly new or surprising here. Just a solid story told exceptionally well. There's a lot to admire in the performances - who would have guessed Chris Pine could make stoic masculinity so compelling? Props to the casting department, who made perfect choices all the way down the line - especially in how they slowly accumulate detail until it feels like we know these characters completely. It's an incredibly smart film that doesn't "feel" smart. It's just one helluva ride.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Movies About Artists

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

And now, back to your regularly scheduled TMP programming: MOVIES!

This week, we must pick movies about artists, specifically painters. I've tried to pick three movies as different from each other as possible for this, so... ENJOY!

The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (Raúl Ruiz, 1978) Look, I could describe the "plot" of this to you, but that really would kind of be beside the point. It's ostensibly "about" an art collector who six of seven canvasses of a legendary 19th century French painter who creates extremely elaborate tableaux vivants of each of the paintings he does have in order to try and figure out what the fourth in the series (stolen long ago) might have been. But really, it's about art itself, how we create it, experience it, critique it, and look at it. It's a viewing experience completely unlike any other I've ever had, and yes you may find it unbearably pretentious, but I don't care.

Frida (Julie Taymor, 2002) A bit of a mess, but then, could a film about the great, provocative Mexican painter Frida Kahlo be anything but? At least Julie Taymor's biopic takes risks most films would never dream of in both form and function. And Hayek, who nurtured this project from conception to completion, is great fun to watch.

Tim's Vermeer (Teller, 2014) Sometimes, life gifts you with a perfect story: Penn Jillette, one-half of the famous magician duo Penn & Teller, had a friend named Tim who was obsessed with the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, who many consider the greatest painter that ever lived. Specifically, Tim is obsessed with how Vermeer captured light so perfectly. So obsessed, that he builds a device that allows him to paint a perfect recreation of whatever is in front of him, like he believed Vermeer used. And Penn & Teller filmed it. It's an absolutely fascinating story, and watching it will make you view painting in a whole new light.

 "Vincent And The Doctor" (Doctor Who, 2010, S5E10) I didn't pick the long-running BBC program Doctor Who for our sci-fi TV edition of TMP last week, but I had to mention this episode this week, because it's one of my favorites. Our intrepid time-traveling Galifreyan and his spunky companion Amy Pond end up visiting Vincent Van Gogh, whose inner demons have been made thrillingly external as a scary black beastie. He is depressed because he is going through all these awful things and no one cares about his art, into which he pours his heart and soul. So in the end, just this once, the Doctor allows the person he helps to see his future, and this scene happens, and I turn into a puddle of tears. EVERY. TIME. Just beautiful.