Thursday, August 31, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Television Edition: High School

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 telling us about them!

I'm off to my annual retreat in the woods this evening, so here's a quick run-down of three of my favorite high school TV shows. If you've ever thought "jeez, all high school shows seem the same!" well, then, you're kinda right. These shows couldn't be more different, but you just might see a formula somewhere...

Sabrina The Teenage Witch (1996-2003) What if you woke up on your sixteenth birthday to learn that you were the descendant of a long line of (good) witches, and that you were a witch yourself? This is what happens to Sabrina Spellman (the great Melissa Joan Hart), and as if high school weren't hard enough, now she has to learn lessons from her aunts Hilda and Zelda, as well as their familiar, Salem (a witch cursed into the body of a talking black cat for trying to take over the world). Caroline Rhea and Beth Broderick are sitcom perfection as the doting, adoring aunts, Nick Bakay makes Salem a maniacal delight, and Hart proves that her performance on Clarissa Explains It All wasn't a fluke, making Sabrina one of the most relatable teenage characters ever, despite her highly unrelatable situation. Due to Hart's popularity and the fun, satisfying quality of the show's humor and heart, it was the top-rated show of ABC's "TGIF" lineup for all of its four years on the network. After that it moved to The WB, also the home of...

Popular (1999-2001) What if you woke up one morning to find out that your mom/dad met and fell in love with the dad/mom of someone in a clique on the opposite side of the social spectrum from you? That's what happens to Brooke McQueen (Leslie Bibb) and Sam McPherson (Carly Pope), and as if weren't hard enough being a teenager, now each of they have to become sisters in a high school created by Ryan Murphy. Yes, this is the Crown Prince of Television's first series, and the template of all Ryan Murphy shows begins here: Great pilot, diverse casting, living on the cutting edge of social issues like obesity and homosexuality, a dash of surrealism... and the unfortunate tendency to go off the rails after a solid set-up. While Bibb and Pope hold the show together admirably as the leads, it's the supporting characters who really stand out, in this case the villainous Nicole Julian (the delicious Tammy Lynn Michaels) and her second-in-command, Mary Cherry (Leslie Grossman), one of the most original, flat-out hilarious TV characters ever created. To even describe what happens in one episode of Popular would be nearly impossible, given how many ingredients Murphy and co-creator Gina Matthews throw into it, but it's always entertaining, and very unique.

Veronica Mars (2004-2007) What if your popular best friend was violently murdered and your father, the town Sherriff, was crucified for going after one of the town's favorite sons, causing you to lose your social standing and your perfect boyfriend? Such is the tale of Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell), junior detective for hire. And as if it weren't hard enough being a teenager, she has to balance school with work (her Dad's PI office), side jobs from her classmates, and solving her best friend's murder. Wise beyond her years, the once-popular Veronica is now a calloused, cynical version of her former self, struggling mightily to keep herself and her dad (the great Enrico Colantoni) afloat in a city that would rather they both just die. Bell gives one of the best performances of a teenager on TV, delivering creator Rob Marshall's quips with a keen ear for hard-boiled private dick dialogue but never ever losing Veronica's heart, and the relationship between her and Colantoni is one of the most sharply-drawn father-daughter relationships I've had the pleasure to witness. All that, and the mysteries - both episodic and season-long - are involving and just twisty enough to keep you guessing until the last moment. It's one of my all-time favorite TV programs, and now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go watch it all the way through again, for the third time.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - The Stage

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join us, leave your field to flower - just pick three movies that fit the week's theme and write a bit about them!

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts
  -William Shakespeare, As You Like It, II.vii

It's true, and in my time I have played many parts. Ever since I was an infant, I loved putting on a show for people. I would climb up on top of chairs or stools and perform, even before I could speak intelligibly, if my mother is to be believed. I didn't REALLY get into theater until middle school, right around the time I first saw Singin' in the Rain and told my Mom that I wanted to be Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor, prompting her to sign me up for tap dancing lessons. Suddenly, I was a triple threat - good singer, good dancer, good actor - and got cast in shows I auditioned for outside of school plays. My love affair with the stage continues to this day, even though my last stage performance (playing Professor Bhaer in the musical version of Little Women, and making my mother cry) was in February of 2014. Living in NYC means an abundance of professional theater but a scarcity of truly amateur opportunities - everyone's trying to make it here - so I haven't tried. But once you're bitten by the bug, the itch to perform on stage in front of an audience never really goes away, and I'll be back performing soon. Just you wait.

These are three of my favorite movies about life on the stage (minus Shakespeare in Love, which I've picked for these things WAY too many times, and Birdman, which I expect will be picked a lot today).

To Be Or Not To Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942/Alan Johnson, 1983) Pick your flavor, the elegant Lubitsch touch or the Brooks-ian Borscht Belt. To my mind, they're both great. The story in both versions is the same: A husband and wife team are stars of the Warsaw theater scene of 1939 (Jack Benny/Mel Brooks and Carole Lombard/Anne Bancroft). Every night while the husband is performing Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be..." speech, a young Lieutenant pilot (Robert Stack/Tim Matheson) leaves the audience... to go backstage to romance the wife! She keeps seeing him because she likes the attention, but has no intention of actually leaving her husband. Eventually, the Nazis invade and our intrepid young Lieutenant becomes aware of a spy in the ranks. Mistaken identities, cross purposes, and lots and LOTS of hilarious scenes ensue as the theater troupe works together to fight the Nazis in whatever way they can. The plot is WAY too complicated to attempt to explain here, but in both versions it provides for ample comedy of all kinds, and tremendous performances from the stars. Since each version is essentially the same story tailored to the talents of its stars, they're just different enough to be good in their own way. I honestly can't choose which one I prefer. All I can say is they're both hilarious and worth a watch, especially in the current moment.

The Last Metro (Francois Truffaut, 1980) During the Nazi occupation of Paris, a Gentile actress (Catherine Deneuve) struggles to keep her Jewish husband (Heinz Bennent) hidden in the theater's basement, while both acting and directing (for him) a new play. Gerard Depardieu plays the leading actor in the play, who is also a member of the resistance. The title refers to the last train of the evening, which all Parisians had to catch because of a Nazi curfew. Like many of Truffaut's films, there's a lot here that's a bit dull, but the moments when it comes alive are truly thrilling, and the combined star power of French Cinema Gods Deneuve and Depardieu is just amazing to watch. As with all of Truffaut's best films, this feels personal, and it was: Both his father and uncle were members of the French resistance, and were once caught passing messages (a scene he recreated in this film - one of its best sequences).

Being Julia (Istvan Szabo, 2004) Julia Lambert is the greatest stage actress of her day. But being a woman of a certain age, she is starting to be pushed out for younger, prettier actresses. An affair with a  young American reinvigorates her lust for life, but when she realizes he is using her to advance his career and social standing AND ALSO sleeping with a rival ingenue, Julia begins to plot her revenge. Annette Bening is delicious as Julia, tearing into the juicy part with the energy of a hungry lioness, and she receives great support from Jeremy Irons, Michael Gambon, Juliet Stevenson, and especially Lucy Punch as her rival. I could watch the scene where Julia hijacks the play to get revenge on Avice on a loop forever and be perfectly satisfied.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Against the Crowd Blogathon 2017

Yes, it is time once again for Dell on Movies and KG's Movie Rants's Annual Against the Crowd Blogathon! And I have to say, while I adore this blogathon, it gets harder and harder to do every year, because I generally don't see movies that get bad reviews - life is too short and funds are too scarce to waste on bad movies, y'all.

BUT! I persevere. I do it for you, dear reader. And, I mean, I also do it for me, because I like writing these, but...

This seems to have gotten away from me. ANYWAY. To the business at hand!

In case you somehow don't know what this blogathon is, go here, or read on. The basic idea is to rip apart a movie that "everyone" loves (75% or better on Rotten Tomatoes), and defend a movie that "everyone" hates (35% or worse on Rotten Tomatoes). So here I go, ready to tear to shreds...


For what it's worth, I didn't hate this completely. For the first three-quarters, it's a masterpiece of escalating tension. We watch a family of three in a post-apocalyptic world euthanize the grandfather of the family unit (surmising that he has succumbed to whatever disease infected most of the world), go about their daily lives trying to just make it to the next day alive, and then deal with a younger man foraging for food and shelter for his wife and young son. They decide to grant this new family shelter, and for a while they get along just fine. But then, the movie so epically shits the bed that I ended up wondering what the whole point was, other than "People Are Awful". It moves from a tension-filled dark fable to an exercise in miserablism in the stroke of a single plot point, and even reading interviews where Shults said he came up with the story after the death of a close family member didn't do anything to make me see the movie in a different light. Why choose to tell THIS story in this way? It doesn't make sense. And neither do the great reviews.

And also, if you call your film It Comes At Night, maybe, I don't know... SOMETHING SHOULD FUCKING COME AT FUCKING NIGHT.

But anyway, if that offended you, prepare yourself, because I'm about to defend...


For what it's worth, I don't think this is some unheralded masterpiece of cinema or anything. I just think it got a lot more flack than it deserved. A lot of people took issue with the fact that movie centers around Chris Pratt's decision to wake up Jennifer Lawrence against her will (because he somehow falls in love with her just by looking at her and reading about her), and then lies to her about it for a long while. But the thing is, he doesn't make that decision lightly, and the movie gives great weight to his decision - and never lets him off the hook for it, either.

Once you're able to put that aside (and I really don't think it takes very much to do so), Passengers is a slick slice of classic Hollywood sci-fi escapism. It's beautiful to look at and listen to, and requires almost no work from your brain. It may not be a GREAT movie, or even a really good one. But it's pretty far from what I would call terrible. The expensive-looking production design and visual effects and combined charisma of Lawrence and Pratt elevate it from merely passable to good. I enjoyed it a whole lot more than I ever thought I was going to based on the reviews, from critics and movie fans alike.

And there you have it! I'm not swimming too hard against the crowd here (I rate both of them 2.5-3 stars out of five), but what can I say? Recently, I've pretty much been with the consensus. These were the two most notable exceptions I could think of.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Rescue

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

This week on Thursday Movie Picks, we're off on a mission to rescue these three movies from obscurity! Or maybe not, since most of them have a pretty decent following, but I couldn't resist that opening.

The Rescuers (Wolfgang Reitherman, 1977) Not exactly a high point in Disney animation, but one of my favorites all the same, because of fond childhood memories and a sterling voice cast including Eva Gabor and Bob Newhart as a pair of intrepid mice on a mission to rescue a young girl from the clutches of Geraldine Page's Madame Medusa, who needs the young girl to retrieve the Devil's Eye, the world's largest diamond. It's standard, silly Disney stuff, but the voice performances really do make it.

The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984) A soldier is sent back in time to save the mother of the man leading him in the resistance against machines, after an invincible cyborg assassin was sent back in time to kill her. I know it sounds ridiculous, but in the hands of action wizard James Cameron and stars Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, and of course Arnold Schwarzenegger, it's a breathless rollercoaster ride of a movie, as relentless as its title character.

Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012) The true story of a CIA rescue mission to save six Americans caught in the middle of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. How'd they do it? By saying they were filming a sci-fi film and disguising the escapees as the crew. A fine winner of the Best Picture Oscar, Affleck's film is entertaining throughout, but the best part is the escape from the country - even though I knew the ending to the story (because, you know, history), I was on the edge of my seat (which was in the front row of a sold out theater, which I never do because I HATE IT, but it was worth it to see this opening night) the whole time. Truly suspenseful, thrilling stuff, anchored by such a terrific cast of character actors that it doesn't much matter that Affleck is a bit of a dud in the central role of the agent leading the rescue mission.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Summer Blockbusters

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

Let's face it: Summer blockbusters are now just mostly recycled crap, franchise films that are at best enjoyable but almost never exciting. In the 1990s, though, they were something else entirely - visual effects-driven dramas with surprising casts that were more often than not completely original stories. There was no need to create a "cinematic universe" or set up a potential sequel, because the movie itself was enough, and next year audiences would move on to the next thing.

To my mind, these three movies are the Holy Trinity of Summer Blockbusterse: well-made, entertaining films that actually engage you in their fantastical situations with grounded characters.

Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996) You simply could not escape this movie when it came out on July 4, 1996 - or for that entire year, really. This is the movie that blew up the white House, killed an alien horde with a computer virus, and made Will Smith the King of Summer Movies. the special effects are fantastic, but the thing most people remember this movie for (other than Will Smith, that is) is President Bill Pullman's climactic speech to the troops. Has there been a summer blockbuster recently where the writing has been this memorable?

Twister (Jan de Bont, 1996) Released a mere month and a half before ID4, Twister isn't as fondly remembered today, but if you ask me it's the better movie. Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton are ideal leads as a pair of exes and rival storm chasers, and the title storms are still awe-inspiring, as they should be. Again, this is a popcorn movie where SCIENCE is placed on a pedestal. But it still has enough of a sense of humor to send a few cows flying towards the screen.

Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998) Easily the worst of these three, Armageddon is still a great time, mostly because of the absolutely absurd premise, wherein Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck lead a team of oil drillers into space to break up a massive asteroid hurtling towards Earth. It's ridiculous, but it has its moments. No one who's seen it has been able to look at animal crackers the same way since, I guarantee that. Also includes Aerosmith's "I Don't Wanna Miss A Thing", one of the greatest movie songs ever.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Crime Family

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Come join our lovely little TMP family by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and telling everyone a bit about them!

So, I know there's one crime family that rules them all, but.... I haven't seen those movies. I KNOW I KNOW BAD DANIEL! But, I mean... there ARE other cinematic crime families, right?


Let's find out!

Animal Kingdom (David Michôd, 2010) J's mother just died from a drug overdose. So he calls the only family he has left, his aunt Janine. In staying with her and her brood of boys, he comes to learn there was a reason for his mother's estrangement from them: They're criminals, and Janine is the Don. Jacki Weaver got a WELL-deserved Oscar nomination for her sublimely pitched performance, but the entire cast (which includes Sullivan Stapleton, Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, and Guy Pearce) is fantastic. Director Michôd takes the tension up past the breaking point nearly the whole way through, making for one intense, thrilling movie. Recently adapted into a TV show with Ellen Barkin as Janine.

Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, 2007) Anna, a British-Russian nurse delivers a baby from a 14 year-old girl who then dies, leaving behind only a diary written in Russian. Through translating the diary, Anna comes to learn that the young woman was part of a sex-trafficking ring organized by a Russian mafia family. Unfortunately for her, said Russian mafia family knows that she knows, and is now threatening her life in the form of Nikolai (smokin' hot and Oscar-nominated Viggo Mortensen), the family's "cleaner" and pseudo-babysitter for the don's unstable son. Cronenberg takes to the mafia genre shockingly well, orchestrating some terrifically tense stand-offs between characters and winding a slightly sprawling story tight around his finger.

Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990) Based on the real-life story of Henry Hill, Martin Scorsese's magnum opus tracks Hill's life from his youth under the wing of local mafia don Paulie Cicero to his cocaine-fueled descent to the witness protection program three decades later. There's not a single false note in the whole thing, not one bad beat or wonky line reading. Every single scene sings. It's a classic - and one of my All-Time Favorites - for good reason.