Thursday, June 22, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - The Woods

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!

Growing up, our house didn't have a backyard. Our backyard was woods. It was really beautiful when it snowed - it looked like a real winter wonderland with all the ice and snow coating the branches of all the trees, and it was fun to go wandering and exploring. But during any other time of the year, it wasn't a place you wanted to go. It wasn't often scary-looking, but sometimes, when it was particularly dark and the cicadas and crickets and whatnot were particularly quiet, it made it tough to take the garbage out to the end of our driveway.

This week on Thursday Movie Picks, we're going into the woods, and.... well, there's one that immediately springs to mind, and the rest.... I REALLY had to stretch. Let's see how you think I did!

The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, 1999) Somehow, my family went to see this on a movie outing. I was 15 and my sister was 13. When we returned home from the theater, it was dark out, and pulling in to the driveway, we realized it was garbage night. It took all four of us to bring out one garbage can, because this movie had instilled such fear about the woods and the dark. I know it is now in vogue to dismiss The Blair Witch Project as solely a marketing gimmick, and/or to blame it for all the terrible found-footage horror films it spawned, but this is the REAL DEAL, dealing in genuine terror - the terror of the unknown, of the darkness, of what is lurking just outside your field of vision. It boils down an entire genre to its most basic elements - three people, investigating a legendary witch, lost in the woods, where there are creepy sounds and strange goings-on - and lets our own psyches fill in the blanks. The final scene of this is still the cruelest, most bone-chilling denouement of any horror movie I've ever seen.

The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2012) It's nearly impossible to summarize Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon's horror spoof without giving away it's big secrets, which are best left to be experienced while watching the movie, but it's another movie that boils down the horror genre to base elements: five horny teens, an old, semi-abandoned cabin in the woods and off the grid, and the dark of night. That it actually manages to be as scary as it is funny is pretty impressive... to anyone who didn't watch Whedon's TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer! The Cabin in the Woods is a total delight from start to finish, deconstructing the horror genre and satirizing it better, in a more serious and more loving way, than the Scary Movie series ever did.

Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009) You know what? I can't really in good conscience recommend this one. But GOD DAMN did it blow me away. The basic story is this: A nameless couple (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe, both fantastic) are struggling after the death of their infant boy (he crawled out an open window while they were having sex in the shower). He is a therapist and she a scholar. After she becomes so grief-stricken she can barely move, he decides to take her to their woodland cabin, Eden, where he starts having terrifying visions and she starts exhibiting increasingly violent sadomasochistic tendencies. It terrible, ROUGH stuff, but cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle has created some of the most beautiful images ever put on a screen for this, and the performances hold absolutely nothing back. It's a hyper-violent, super-pretentious movie, one that is quite possibly not for anyone at all, really. But as an exploration of grief and the masculine/feminine dynamic, it's quite stunning, and totally singular. Just don't say I didn't warn you.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Based On A True Story

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

Movies that are based on true events are strange beasts. Sometimes they are well-done and respectful of their subjects, other times they only take the bare outline of the events to make their story, changing the details entirely. Who's to say if those changes actually make the movie better or not, but sometimes it "works", and sometimes it doesn't. I'm not even ALWAYS on the side of making those kinds of changes. I remain, as always, on the side of good movies!

Which these mostly are.

127 Hours (Danny Boyle, 2010) The incredible true story of how one sorta-asshole found himself actually caught between a rock and a hard place, and how he found a sort of redemption. James Franco is flat-out incredible as Aron Ralston, an adventurer who went out one day without telling anyone where he was going, and got his arm caught under a boulder, which he couldn't push off. He spent the title length of time stuck in a random part of the desert with very little water and even less food until he finally had to do the unthinkable. Director Danny Boyle brings this to vibrant, fascinating life, aided by an incredible score and crushing sound design... and of course, Franco's justly lauded performance.

Pain & Gain (Michael Bay, 2013) The incredible true story of three idiot gymrats who extorted an asshole and tricked themselves into believing they were above the law just because the guy was an asshole. And got caught, of course. I'm generally not a fan of Michael Bay's movies, but this is easily the most interesting one he's ever made, and he's helped a lot by the stellar performances of Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie, and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. The tone of this is so tricky, walking a razor-thin line between pitch-black comedy and all-too-serious thriller, and miraculously mostly succeeding. It's a little too garish for its own good, but it works far better than it has any right to. It's the biggest indictment of rugged masculinity AND The American Dream that I've seen in a long time, from an entirely unexpected source.

The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, 2013) The incredible true story of idiot teens who somehow managed to steal enough clothes, jewelry, and handbags from stars that the stars noticed. And got caught, of course. Coppola's brilliant, perfectly cast movie is a perfect window into the Millennial mindset, where fame and labels and Facebook/Instagram likes and STUFF are more important than anything else, perhaps even actual money. The whole cast is great, but Emma Watson's spot-on, wickedly funny turn is the film's crown jewel. She's so good here, it makes you wish she would do more "character" roles more often.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Double Features

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!

Last summer, Film Forum in NYC ran a series called "Return of the Double Feature!" (exclamation point included, as in Moulin Rouge!) that I had a LOT of fun attending. What was great was that it wasn't always immediately clear why two movies were paired together until you really thought about it, or even until you sat down and watched them. It made me think about programming a series like that and how much fun it would be.

Well thankfully, our lovely wandering host has given us that opportunity this week, as the theme for Thursday Movie Picks is DOUBLE FEATURES!

Naturally, I came up with far more ideas than I have time to write up, but here are three of my favorites.

GHOSTLY CHILDREN DOUBLE FEATURE!
The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961)/The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001) Creepy old English manor houses haunted by ghostly children.... except the children aren't the ghosts! The Others is as close to a spiritual sequel to The Innocents as we're ever likely to get. Both films have a chilly formalism that doesn't make them any less scary or give them any less emotional impact, and their twists and turns will keep you guessing about what's REALLY going on all the way through in the best possible way. Plus, each possesses one of the greatest performances from a great actress: Deborah Kerr is utter perfection in The Innocents, while The Others gives Nicole Kidman a role that encapsulates all the best things about her screen persona. Both are perfection.

SEXUAL MORES DOUBLE FEATURE!
Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967)/Fifty Shades of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johonson, 2015) Basically, watch Bunuel's semi-surrealist masterpiece of sexual desire, and then watch Taylor-Johnson's slightly-better-than-expected erotic romance/coming-of-age drama and marvel at how far we haven't come in depicting sex on screen. In the former, Catherine Deneuve's frigid, bored housewife becomes a prostitute in a high-class brothel during her days, acting out her "depraved" sexual fantasies while leading a supposedly perfect life with her doctor husband. In the latter, Dakota Johnson's mousy college student becomes entranced by the local handsome billionaire, only to be repulsed by/attracted to his kinky sexual proclivities. Both depict women taking ownership of their bodies and sexual desires in ways women are rarely allowed to do in film, but for all the hype, Fifty Shades is barely more explicit and FAR less provocative than a film released fifty years ago with a major star.

TEENAGE 80S BANDS DOUBLE FEATURE!
We Are The Best (Lukas Moodyson, 2014)/Sing Street (John Carney, 2016) Two of the most adorable movies you will ever see, these films really get what it feels like to be a teenager and needing to express yourself in ways that no one else understands - and how music can unlock something special inside of you. Even if it's terrible music. Wonderful performances from debuting leads, great songs, and fantastic costumes/makeup fill both of these films, which couldn't be more different, but are also wonderfully similar. They will both leave you walking on clouds of joy by the end.

BONUS PICK
Grindhouse (Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino, 2007) This pre-packaged double feature from two hotshot directors is quite the tribute to the questionable-quality cheapie B-movies from the 70s, and has all the hallmarks of a late night double feature picture show: explosions, hookers, flat acting, fast cars, and FANTASTIC fake trailers in between the two halves. Rodriguez's zombie flick Planet Terror is more fun, but Tarantino's car chase/serial killer shot Death Proof has one of the greatest car chases ever filmed. All the actors are clearly having a blast, and most of them have never, ever been better.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Tall Buildings

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!

This week, on Thursday Movie Picks! Up, up, up to incredible heights! The heights of skyscrapers!

I really have nothing much more to say about tall buildings so.... let's just get right to it.

The Towering Inferno (John Guillermin, 1974) An attempt to recreate the "success" of producer Irwin B. Allen's previous hit The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno pretty much succeeds at that goal, offering more explosions, more stars, and... well... more of pretty much everything. If it's not quite as entertaining as Poseidon, well, that's because it perhaps follows that film's template a bit too closely. But it's still one of the best  - and certainly the starriest - of the '70s big-budget all-star disaster epics.

Sleepless in Seattle (Nora Ephron, 1993) Consider this me cheating a little, because I'm kinda getting two in one, one of which I haven't seen. You see, Meg Ryan's Annie Reed gets the idea to meet a man she has never met, only heard on talk radio, on the top of the Empire State Building, from the classic An Affair to Remember, a film which I am ashamed to say I haven't seen. But this one, I have, and it is such a delight. They just don't make great romantic comedies like this anymore, with enchanting leads (this is the second of three pairings of Hanks and Ryan, and easily their best), genuine conflict, and terrific, relatable supporting characters (Rosie O'Donnell is just the best, isn't she?). God bless Nora Eprhon for this.

Man on Wire (James Marsh, 2008) In 1974, French acrobat Philippe Petit walked on a tightrope between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. This is the story of how he accomplished this illegal, but magical, act. It's an amazing story, told through interviews, real footage, and recreated footage in a seamless assemblage that director Marsh makes feel like a thriller of sorts. It's exhilarating, funny, and endlessly entertaining - which you can rarely say for a documentary!