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!