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.