Thursday, December 27, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Television Edition: Comedies

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join the fun by picking three movies (or, once a month, TV shows) that fit the week's theme and writing a bit about them!

I think we could all use a few good laughs after the dumpster fire that was 2018. So here are a few good comedies for you all to catch up on over the winter break:

Mom (2013-present) Single mom Christy is a recovering alcoholic whose mother, also a recovering alcoholic, moves in to help her take care of her two children. Yes, it's a comedy, and a pretty great one with geniuses Anna Faris and Allison Janney making gourmet meals out of very basic ingredients. The first season takes a while to find its footing, but once it does, this is a wonderful, heartfelt sitcom about the never-ending process of starting over.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015-Present) Abducted in middle school by a wannabe cult leader and held with three other women in an underground bunker, Kimmy Schmidt has finally been rescued, and decides to make a life for herself in New York City! She manages to find a room for rent with legend-in-his-own-mind Titus Andromedon and together, they go after their dreams: her to be an independent career woman (starting off as a nanny to the ultra-wealthy Jacqueline Voorhees, and him to be a singing star! The premise is certainly dark, but Kimmy's joie de vivre is still that of her fifteen year-old self, and shows no signs of abating. This wild and wacky show is so dense with jokes that it's sometimes difficult to keep up, but the performances of Ellie Kemper, Tituss Burgess (the show's breakout STAR), Jane Krakowski, and Carol Kane keep everything grounded in reality even when it gets a little out of hand.

The Good Place (2016-Present) Eleanor Schellstrop has died, and has ended up in "the good place." The only problem is, it becomes immediately clear that there was some kind of mix-up, and she has taken the place of an Eleanor Schellstrop that was a MUCH better person than she was. Afraid that she will get found out and sent to "the bad place," she gets her soul mate - a professor of moral philosophy named Chidi Anagonye - to teach her how to be a good person. The Good Place is consistently hilarious and surprising, and has some of the most inspired storytelling of any show currently on TV. It's a must-watch.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - 2019 Films To Look Forward To

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.

Well, frankly, I'm glad I got to this late today, because two trailers dropped that got me HYPE AF for their movies. Walk with me...

Men In Black: International - Chris Hemsworth is a comic genius. Tessa Thompson is only getting better and better. AND BONUS EMMA THOMPSON. And honestly, this trailer is the best use of Fergie's "London Bridge" probably ever.

Greta - This could be complete trash, or it could be actually good (the fact that it's directed by Neil Jordan doesn't prove anything), but either way, this looks like exactly my brand of batshit insane.

Isn't It Romantic - Look, Rebel Wilson (and/or her team) definitely stepped in it by saying she was the first plus-size female to headline a major studio romantic comedy, BUT she's always funny, and the premise for this is rife with potential for lots of laughs. Plus, that supporting cast is pretty golden. I'm always here for satire, and the romantic comedy could use a good skewering. PLUS, I mean, I'm pretty sure we would all do EXACTLY THAT to Liam Hemsworth if given the chance.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - It's A Party!

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

"I don't believe in the Republican party or the Democratic party, I just believe in parties!" - Samantha Jones

I couldn't agree more, Samantha. So let's run down this week's party-hopping picks!

Can't Hardly Wait (Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont, 1998) It's the last day of high school, and you know what that means: IT'S PARTY TIME!! This quintessential teen comedy is basically made up of spare parts from every high school movie party ever, but the cast is incredibly appealing, and the movie's low-key vibe is endearing. It has nothing on its mind other than what your average suburban high schooler has on their mind on the last day of high school, and that's exactly as it should be.

Van Wilder (Walt Becker, 2002) Van Wilder is a seventh-year senior at Coolidge College, enjoying the perks of being young and looking like Ryan Reynolds. He has no ambition to graduate, but when his father cuts him off, he has to raise the money to pay for his tuition, which he does the only way he knows how: Throwing lots of parties. This movie is irredeemably stupid (Tara Reid plays a journalist), but Reynolds has charisma to burn and a sort of bad-boy charm that goes a long way towards making this enjoyable even though it's most decidedly not a good movie in any way, shape, or form.

This Is The End (Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, 2013) Imagine you're Jay Baruchel. You're doing okay for yourself as an actor, but you're not super-duper famous or wealthy yet. You're visiting your friend Seth Rogen (who is doing MUCH better for himself than you are), and he invites you to a party at James Franco's. Pretty cool, right? Everyone who's anyone in young Hollywood is there, but it's so crowded and everyone is so much cooler than you that you start to feel uncomfortable, so you go out for cigarettes. And that's when you see these beams of blue light that suck people into the sky. And then a massive earthquake starts and a sinkhole opens up right in the middle of the party. And that's how This Is The End begins. Where it goes from there is not going to be spoiled by me, because honestly the craziness of the screenplay is the best thing about this movie. The humor is hit or miss, but the performances are super committed, even when the script goes to some truly bizarre places.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Non-Linear Timelines

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, we're looking at movies with non-linear timelines. Time always moves forwards of course, but with film, we have the capability to rewind, fast forward, double back, start over... we can view a series of events in pretty much any way we want. And these movies take advantage of that.

Cloud Atlas (Wachowskis & Tom Tykwer, 2012) This wildly ambitious film, adapted from David Mitchell's Russian nesting doll of a novel, probably never should have been made. The book has such a literary conceit that it's nearly impossible to adapt to cinematic form, but God bless the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer for trying. Whole long sections of this are just thrilling arias of pure cinematic expression, linking stories hundreds of years and thousands of miles apart by the elemental forces of human experiences. The overarching story (such as it is) is about the journey of a soul as it learns over the course of several lifetimes what it means to be good. The ensemble cast is full of some spotty performances (and some even spottier makeup), but Halle Berry, Doona Bae, and a near-unrecognizable Hugh Grant have never been better than they are in sections of this.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004) How this didn't win every single goddamn award walking away in 2004, I'll never know. It's a goddamn masterpiece, with career-best work from Kate Winslet, Jim Carrey, Charlie Kaufman, and Michel Gondry. Nothing I could write about it will ever top this that I wrote four years ago, so I won't even try.

The Rules of Attraction (Roger Avary, 2002) Oh those wild and crazy kids! What ever will they do to fuck themselves up next? This Bret Easton Ellis adaptation throws so much style at the wall to see what sticks, and a surprising amount of it does. Hopping back and forth between different attendees at a fateful college party and what led them to make the decisions they made there, we watch as teen heartthrobs Jessica Biel, James Van Der Beek, Ian Somerhalder, Kate Bosworth, and Kip Pardue do some VERY bad things, to themselves and to each other! The movie as a whole holds together only barely, but the best scenes (including a homoerotic bedroom dance/pillow fight to George Michael's "Faith", a rapid fast-forward through an entire vacation abroad, and one of the best, most effective suicide scenes ever put on film) really linger.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Girl Week: SUSPIRIA (2018)

Written as part of the annual Girl Week blogathon hosted by Dell on Movies. Head on over to Dell's site and check out the other entries!

The year is 1977. Susie Bannion has run away from her Mennonite home in Ohio to join the Helena Markos Dance Company in West Berlin. Susie has long been obsessed with the dancing of the company, and its lead choreographer, Madame Blanc - she has studied the company's performances on videos from her local library, and even traveled against her parents wishes to New York City to see the company perform live. She was out of place in Ohio, feeling the need to express herself through the act of dance. Thankfully for her there is a spot open in the Markos Company, as one of the dancers, Patricia, vanished under mysterious circumstances (the rumor is that she was working with an activist anarchist group). More and more mysterious things start to happen around Susie, for you see, this dance company is run by a coven of witches.

Yes, in outline form, the plot of Suspiria is the same as the justly famed Dario Argento film of the same name, but this Suspiria, directed by Luca Guadagnino, couldn't be further from that film. Where the original was a Technicolor wondershow, assaulting the audience with the most garish reds and blues you ever did see, the 2018 version has a mostly muted color palette, greyed out in the shades of winter in Berlin. Where the plot of the original sort of tumbles out in the form of a fever dream, the plot here is very linear, and extended to two hours and forty minutes, divided into six acts and an epilogue. And most importantly, whereas the original only cared about the dance academy as a setting, this one puts the dance front and center. And with that, it also throws the politics of the time and place into sharp relief.

Perhaps all of those things put you off. Perhaps that all makes Guadagnino's Suspiria sound like a chore, a piece of homework, a pretentious piece of claptrap wearing the clothes of horror. Maybe that's all true. But Suspiria got me right in the chest. This is a horror film about a dancer's body so scarily accurate that it feels as though it were made entirely by dancers.

"When you dance the dance of another," Madame Blanc says, "you make yourself in the image of its creator." That's true. Watch any random episode of So You Think You Can Dance and you're likely to see a choreographer imposing their way of moving on a dancer unused to it. With each new piece you are a part of, you have to re-find your center, re-teach your body how to move, re-set your mind to the feeling of the new dance. It's why some dancers stay with certain companies for decades on end - when you find a choreographer whose movement vocabulary is close to your own, you stick with them, and they with you.

But dancing is also backbreaking work. When you're really in the moment, giving yourself over completely to the throes of the music and the choreography, injuries can happen if you're not careful. Anything from minor injuries like blisters, to injuries that will cause a huge set-back like a dislocated shoulder, to major career-ending injuries like a broken tail bone. There is one sequence early on in Suspiria of just such bone-shattering cruelty that I was thrown all the way back in my seat, eyes riveted to the screen, completely unable to look away. This is what it can be like to put your body through torture, day in and day out, to "dance the dance of another." It is one of the most horrifying, difficult scenes I have ever had to watch. And I loved every second of it - the bravura performance and makeup effects, the downright nasty editing, the blood-curdling sound design... it's stunning. And the film is only just getting started.

Suspiria does feel exactly as long as it is - which is to say, very - but I was never once bored or unengaged with what was happening. I was completely involved with the characters and story the entire time. Part of this is due to the actors - Dakota Johnson continues to be a perfect vessel for audiences to project themselves onto, Tilda Swinton nails the mixture of imperiousness and groundedness that marks most great minds of modern dance, and Mia Goth is so easy to latch onto and root for as perhaps the most innocent (and thus, doomed) girl in the company. But equal compliments must be paid to Luca Guadagnino, who keeps thinking of new ways to make uninteresting plot scenes interesting. One noteworthy scene in the middle of the film is a long take of the coven members preparing and sitting down to a pot luck dinner, while a group conversation of theirs takes place on the soundtrack, clearly taking place after the dinner has finished. We never quite see who is speaking, but we don't need to. The soundscape of the film is filled with moments like this, where our ears are filled with diagetic sound that comes from an unseen source, or certain bodily exertions - breaths, laughter, cracking bones - that sound a lot louder than they should. It's some of the most stunning sound work of the year, and Thom Yorke's hushed, droning score complements it perfectly.

David Kajganich's screenplay is something of a marvel, weaving the supernatural elements into a story of different kinds of womanhood and motherhood, of how a ruined society treats women both before and after it falls. A key moment finds Madame Blanc saying that dance can never again be beautiful - a rebuke of the Third Reich's insistence that all art glorify the German nation and its people. And of course, the company's most famous piece is called "Volk," the German word for "people," and it is a violent, aggressive piece of choreography. The dancers pound on the floor and on their bodies, making the piece feel like a primal scream of femininity, perhaps its last.

In the background of everything, the period of Vergangenheitsbewältigung looms large. The process of the German people's reckoning with their culpability in World War II and the Holocaust echoes throughout the film, not only in the company's style of dance, but in the story of Patricia's psychiatrist Dr. Klemperer (played by Tilda Swinton in very convincing old man drag as "Lutz Ebersdorf"), who was separated from his presumed-dead wife during the war. When Patricia comes to him with her tales of a coven of witches at the dance academy, he is dismissive, believing she is talking instead of a rebellious political group who abide by a "constructed mythology." But as he reads her notes, and sees the academy for himself, and eventually becomes confronted with the horror of what happened to the women of his country while he watched and did nothing, he starts to believe that she may have been right.

It's a wholly unexpected thing to include in a remake of one of the most memorably violent films ever made, this melancholy story of national guilt being both weaponized and exorcised by women as best they can, but here we are in 2018, and a lot of these themes are more relevant than ever before. Guadagnino has taken the story of one girl's terror and transformed it into a tale of feminine power rising up from the ashes of a world destroyed by men, both those who abused power and those who watched and did nothing. It is a celebration of what women can achieve when they work together, and a condemnation of those who would seize and abuse power, no matter their gender. Despite its scenes of violence, Suspiria is an empowering film, reminding us of the vital importance of art, and how creation can be an act of rebellion. That a film this violent ends on a note of relative grace is a shocking glimpse of hope, however dimmed, however compromised, but still present. Hope that there is still compassion left, in even the darkest of souls.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Museum

Written as part of the weekly blogathon series 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!

I have always loved museums. There's so much to see and so much to learn, and I love learning. Trying to pick movies for this week, though, proved to be a bit harder than I expected. Despite the fact that museums are GREAT settings for a movie (so much to see, and such pretty, interesting settings!), there aren't a lot of movies about, or at least set largely in, museums. That said, there are some with very memorable scenes set in museums, so that's what I based my picking around.

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) Poor John "Scottie" Ferguson. After a terrible accident on the job left him with horrible acrophobia and vertigo, he's let go from the police force, and he's having trouble getting over his fear. But an acquaintance, Gavin Elster, hires him to do some private investigating work: Trail his wife, Madeleine, who has been increasingly moody and obsessed with death (mostly her own). This leads to some memorable, mostly silent trips around San Francisco, including to the Legion of Honor Art Museum. A bit of a flop on release, it has since been named the greatest film ever made (in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll), and it's kinda hard to argue with that. This is one of Hitchcock's most beguiling films, with gorgeous cinematography and a hypnotic score by Bernard Herrmann (my pick for his best work). Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak give performances for the ages as the leads - particularly Novak, whose part is extraordinarily difficult and whose performance is hugely underrated. I got to see this on a 35mm print a couple of years ago and GOOD LORD is it gorgeous on the big screen. A haunting masterwork of obsession and PTSD, and a great mystery. I love everything about this movie, perhaps especially Barbara Bel Geddes's devoted Midge.

Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980) In the opening sequence of this, perhaps De Palma's most overt Hitchcock homage in a career full of them, the great Angie Dickinson goes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and follows/is followed by a mysterious stranger. Being a sexually frustrated housewife, she ends up in a cab with him and they have sex. But on her way home, while in the elevator, her throat gets slashed by a mysterious blonde woman, who is seen by high class escort Nancy Allen, who then becomes the killer's next target as well as the police's prime suspect. This sequence, largely without dialogue, is utterly mesmerizing and absolutely fantastic. If nothing else in the film quite lives up to it, at least it is a very well-done thriller, with some great cinematography and a winning performance by Nancy Allen. But it's Angie Dickinson's performance that you'll come away remembering. GOD she's good.

Ocean's 8 (Gary Ross, 2018) Debbie Ocean has just gotten out of jail, and has spent her entire sentence coming up with the perfect job: Stealing a priceless diamond off the neck of an attendee at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's annual gala. It's a film of modest pleasures, which is something of a disappointment after the starpowered fireworks of the George Clooney and Brad Pitt-led, Steven Soderbergh-directed Ocean's trilogy. But it is pleasurable all the same, mostly thanks to the chemistry of the ensemble cast, led by Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett, and with standout supporting performances by Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, and Awkwafina.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Political Comedy

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!

After the past few years of American politics, we all need a good political comedy, even though they may be just as painful to watch as dramas. But even when what's happening on screen is eerily, uncomfortably close to what's happening in real life, laughter is the best kind of catharsis. These are three of my favorites.

In The Loop (Armando Iannucci, 2009) This satire of the run-up to the Iraq war, a spin-off of the brilliant British TV series The Thick of It is one of the funniest films ever made. When Minister for International Development Simon Foster (terrifically bumbling Tom Hollander) keeps digging a deeper hole for himself every time he opens his mouth around the media, the Prime Minister's Director of Communications, Malcolm Tucker (the shoulda-been-Oscar-nominated Peter Capaldi) is sent in to fix things. Except that American Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomacy Karen Clark (hilarious Mimi Kennedy) got wind of Foster's statements and wants him to help her as she tries to undermine Assistant Secretary of State for Policy Linton Barwick's secret war committee. It's all a tangle, and a flawless ensemble of American and British actors pull it off, giving Iannucci fantastically profane script (Malcolm's preferred sign-off phrase is "Fuckity-bye!") plenty of punch.

The Great Dictator (Charlie Chaplin, 1940) For his first true sound film, Charlie Chaplin sure went there, didn't he? A Jewish barber just so happens to look exactly like the ruthless dictator Adenoid Hynkel (who may look rather... familiar to you), and when Hynkel orders a purge of the Jews, it may be up to the barber to save his people... and the rest of the people of the country of Tomania. One of the most important works of satire ever filmed, The Great Dictator is brilliant, and brilliantly funny.

Duck Soup (Leo McCarey, 1933) The Marx Brothers at their zany best, which is actually what makes this satire somewhat difficult to watch. They are talking about political intrigue and war, after all. But really, the hilariously on point songs and the justly famous mirror scene put Zeppo's final film with the group over the top.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Gangsters

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!

WELL, I hope everyone had a Happy Halloween! I know I sure did. Maybe even a bit too much of one, but WHO CARES! IT'S THURSDAY! And it's time for another episode of everyone's favorite web movie series! This week: GANGSTERS. Those dapper men of crime who the movies have never stopped loving to glorify...

...and sometimes make fun of.

Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) Poor, underemployed musicians Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) unintentionally witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. So they escape and go undercover the only way they know how: As female musicians in an all-girl band! Hilarity ensues as they both fall for lead singer Sugar Cane (Marilyn Monroe at her absolute peak) and have to escape mobster Spats Colombo (George Raft) and millionaire wannabe-playboy Osgood Fielding III (comic treasure Joe E. Brown). One of the funniest films ever made, Some Like it Hot is perfection on every level, with so many classic moments it's impossible to keep track.

Bullets Over Broadway (Woody Allen, 1994) Poor playwright David Shayne (John Cusack, one of Woody's best avatars) is not having any luck getting his latest play produced on Broadway. So when mobster Nick Valenti bankrolls the whole thing on the condition that his girlfriend Olive (Jennifer Tilly, genius) be cast as the ingenue, he reluctantly agrees. He then manages to get diva star Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest, GENIUS) as the lead. But then Olive's bodyguard Cheech (Chazz Palminteri) turns out to be a secret genius, constantly making suggestions for the play that actually improve it. How will this all end for David? It's a hilarious route to get there, one of Woody's most purely funny movies. Palminteri, Tilly, and Wiest all deservedly got Oscar nominations for their hilarious performances, with Wiest winning her second Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her inimitable turn as Helen Sinclair. "DON'T SPEAK!"

Analyze This (Harold Ramis, 1999) Poor mob boss Paul Vitti (Robert DeNiro, deftly parodying himself) is having a problem: After so many years worrying about his standing in the mob and fearing for his life - and after his consiglieri gets shot right in front of him - he's started having panic attacks. So his henchman Jelly takes him to see psychiatrist Ben Sobel (Billy Crystal, perfectly cast), whose car Jelly hit in an accident. Shenanigans, as you can imagine, ensue. It's hard to believe that this perfect mafia parody came out only two months after the premiere of television series The Sporanos, which took a dramatic look at the same subject. But it did, and it was the perfect cultural moment for it. Crystal and DeNiro are clearly having a blast playing off each other, and the script by Ramis, Kenneth Lonergan, and Peter Tolan is clever and chock full of one-liner gems.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Technology

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!

OH, technology! In so many ways it makes life easier. But at the same time, it makes it a lot easier for a lot of things to go very wrong all at once. Quite often, I think that we should pay closer attention to the bad representations of technology in the movies, because every day it feels like we're getting closer and closer to the technological dystopias of many a sci-fi future. SUCH AS...

The Matrix (Wachowskis, 1999) Thomas Anderson is a computer programmer by day, super-hacker named Neo by night. He is obsessed with finding the answer to one of the hacker underground's most mysterious questions: "What is the matrix?" One day, he finally finds out: The matrix is a virtual reality computer program that surrounds him and everyone he knows, making them think the world of 1999 is real. In reality, it is much farther in the future, and the world is controlled by machines we created, who grow humans to harvest them for their energy, keeping them plugged in to the matrix to keep them subdued. And if you needed the synopsis to know what this movie is about, then you must be VERY young and/or living under a rock for the past long while, because The Matrix is one of the key texts of popular culture of the new millennium. Personally, this movie means a lot to me: It was the first R-rated movie I saw in the theater. The ground-breaking special effects still hold up, and the film is still as exciting as it ever was. It's a modern classic.

Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015) Computer programmer Caleb wins a contest to have a week-long visit at the luxurious home of reclusive tech CEO Nathan Bateman. But when he gets there, he discovers he's not really there to relax and enjoy himself, but rather to help Nathan test his newest AI robot, Ava. Buoyed by incredibly strong performances by Oscar Isaac, Domnhall Gleason, and especially Alicia Vikander as Ava, Garland's talky screenplay teases out so many questions about artificial intelligence and the role technology plays in our daily lives, that it's almost mindblowing. It's never anything less than compelling, and constantly swerves away from where you think it's going to go. Just as the best sci-fi stories should.

Unfriended (Leo Gabriadze, 2015) Social media is a bitch. I am so glad it wasn't around when I was in high school. Because having to deal with anything like what happens in Unfriended would drive me insane. Basically, a group of friends get together online (via Skype) a year after one of their childhood friends committed suicide after a horrendously embarrassing video of her went viral. A mysterious, unknown individual ends up on their call somehow, and they can't get rid of them. And then the mystery entity starts taking revenge on each of the friends for their role in the suicide. And it's all seen from the perspective of one computer screen.  This method makes the film surprisingly immersive (you can see internet history and file contents that fill in character background), but the nature of the story unfortunately means that not a single one of these characters are likable. Some of the jump scares do work pretty well, though.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

31 Days of Horror: Week Two

It's the second week of my 31 Days of Horror for 2018! We got a little bit scarier this week, and I saw a couple of classics for the first time. Let's dive in, shall we?

Sleepaway Camp (Robert Hiltzik, 1983) So notorious that I had the ending spoiled for me a while back, but it still managed to surprise me. The story of a shy orphan who goes to summer camp for the first time, where killings start happening around her, this isn't exactly a subtle film. To the film's credit, it only half-heartedly tries to play coy about the killer (it's pretty fucking obvious from the jump), but it has THAT twist up its sleeve. The film gains a weird sort of authenticity from casting actual teenagers in the roles of the campers, regardless of their acting ability, and for most of the movie, it's not a horror movie at all, preferring to just hang out with these characters at summer camp. But then, we get to the end, and the film drops this ridiculously huge, film-altering twist, and then promptly freezes the frame and rolls the credits. It's a hell of a way to end things, and turns Sleepaway Camp into something much more than your average slasher: it becomes a heartfelt movie about teenage sexuality and the identity issues of adolescence. And the fact that I can say any of that about a crappy low-budget '80s slasher is kind of amazing, even if it's also kind of dire on the matter of, ya know, actual filmmaking craft.

The Stepfather (Jospeh Ruben, 1987) More of a slow-burn thriller than a true horror movie, but it does have Terry O'Quinn giving a performance for the ages as the titular character. The opening scene is also stellar (and not just because it gives us young Terry O'Quinn in the buff!), telling us everything we need to know about this character: He's fastidious, and crazy, and killed every single member of his family before shaving his face and leaving to go start another life. That life eventually leads to marrying a new woman with a teenage daughter, Stephanie, who doesn't like her new stepfather but can't quite put her finger on why... until she sees him become unhinged in the basement. It's a pretty rote thriller, but it gives us a heroine who is very easy to root for, and O'Quinn is really magnetic in the role, earning his legendary status as one of the all-time great movie psychos.

Hush (Mike Flanagan, 2016) A deaf woman is terrorized by a masked killer stalking her home in the woods. That's it. And from that simple premise, director Flanagan and writer/star Kate Siegel proceed to wrack our nerves for just over an hour. John Gallagher, Jr. is perfect as the eerily calm killer, but Siegel is the star of the show, and she is a heroine for the ages - smart and resourceful but relatably, painfully human. It's an impossible situation - how can a deaf woman gain the upper hand against someone who can hear? - and we are helpless to do anything to help her as she runs through every option available. Hush is tight as a drum, and does a near-flawless job of putting us in the protagonist's POV, even when we can hear what's going on.

Child's Play (Tom Holland, 1988) Little Andy Barclay is obsessed with the Good Guys TV show/toys. All he wants for his birthday is a Good Guy doll, who moves its head, blinks its eyes, and says four phrases! Unfortunately, his shopgirl mother wasn't able to save enough money to get one... but finds a peddler in a back alley who sells her one for cheap. Unfortunately, this particular doll happens to be the one that the Lake Shore Strangler (Charles Lee Ray, "Chucky" to his friends) did a bit of voodoo magic on before he died. His soul is now in the doll, and he is out for revenge against the cop who killed him and his partner who abandoned him. No lie, Andy is one of the most annoying children in movie history, so when Chucky starts going after him, I wasn't entirely opposed to it. The film might have been better if it had stuck with the original idea, where it wasn't clear from the get-go that the doll is evil. But as it is, Child's Play is still plenty entertaining. It's maybe the most '80s movie I've ever seen, in terms of cultural signifiers, themes, and the overall visual look, which contributed greatly to my enjoyment of this as a child of the '80s. The other big thing is Brad Dourif's performance as Chucky. When combined with the design of the doll, it makes for a perfect horror movie villain, making the fact that this became a long-standing franchise not at all surprising.

The Babysitter (McG, 2017) Young Cole is awkward and quiet and scared. He's bullied at school, but in the eyes of his hot babysitter, Bee, he's cool. and because of that, he may be falling in love with her. So he decides to stay up late one night to see what she gets up to after he goes to bed. And what he sees is her and her friends kill another boy as a sacrifice for a satanic ritual. And they need his blood to complete the ritual. This horror-comedy leans HARD on the comedy, and it's a lot of fun even if the constant stylistic flourishes reek a bit of desperation. It's fast and fun, with several hilarious comic performances. And Samara Weaving makes Bee one of the most likable Satanists ever portrayed on screen. Plus, she has FANTASTIC hair.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - The Dark/Night

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!

Clever theme title this week! I have to admit, but biggest fear, still to this day, is being alone in the dark. It's not as crippling a fear as it used to be, thankfully. When I was younger, it could take me hours to go to sleep in my own bed because of how scared I was of the darkness. The darkness is the unknown, it obscures what we know and twists it into something other. It can be difficult for movies to truly capture that, since a large part of the experience of watching a movie is... ya know...being able to see what's going on. But these movies do a good job of capturing the terror of the darkness and nighttime.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (David Hand, et. al., 1937) In a deviation from my usual modus operandi, this whole movie isn't about this week's topic, or even mostly about this week's topic. BUT, the sequence above is about as perfect a depiction of being surrounded by darkness as it gets - it shows very artistically and VERY effectively how in the dark, things become something far more sinister than what they actually are, and how everything - EVERYTHING - has eyes that seem to follow you as you get more and more lost. This was the first thing I ever remember seeing in a movie that well and truly scared me.

The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez, 1999) Sometimes, it's not about the things that surround you in the dark, but the darkness itself. The absence of anything, the inability to see beyond a few inches in front of you. No movie I've seen captures that feeling quite like The Blair Witch Project, which made my entire family so afraid of the dark that after seeing it, it took all four of us to bring one garbage can from our garage to the end of our driveway. By now, everyone knows the story of the three student filmmakers making a documentary in the woods of Maryland who disappeared, leaving only this footage behind (and how the marketing was so effective that many people believed it actually was a documentary). It basically created the "found footage" genre, and has all the positive and negatives one associates with films of that ilk. But as with so many trendsetters, it became famous for a reason, and that reason is that Blair Witch gets down and dirty with our fear of the dark, and what unknowns lurk just beyond our sight and our grasp. And because it knows that when shit hits the fan, most of us wouldn't serve up a clever quip and stand our ground; we'd curse to high heaven and run like hell.

Lights Out (David F. Sandberg, 2016) One of the movies I've seen as part of my 31 Days of Horror this year, and specifically with this week's theme in mind! I don't think I would have survived seeing this in the theater, although honestly the 2013 short that it's based on is maybe better. But that's only because in service of making an entire feature, there had to be, ya know, a story to build the concept around. And the story, which is a metaphor for depression, is a bit too obvious and the film sort of runs the metaphor into the ground. BUT. The scary scenes, dealing with the ghostie who only appears in darkness, are SCARY. Had I seen this when I was younger, there would have been NO WAY I would have been able to sleep with the lights out, which is surely the exact reaction the film was going for.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

31 Days of Horror: Week 1

I'll be honest: I'm not really a horror guy. I've never done well with blood and guts and gore, and when I was a highly nightmare-prone kid I had MAJOR issues with anything even remotely scary.

So I stayed away from horror films for a long time. Creepy, I could deal with okay, but anything really scary was a hard pass, especially if it was a slasher movie. But eventually, I grew up and got smarter about movies and started to enjoy the ones that were good at scaring you. I appreciated the roller coaster ride those films can take you on, the way they build and release tension. I started to "get" the idea of watching them and enjoying the adrenaline rush and the catharsis good horror films can bring about. And I've been trying to watch more of them.

This year, I finally decided to try to commit to the whole "31 Days of Horror" thing that many in the film blogosphere do. My schedule makes it a bit tough, but I'm doing okay so far, and I plan to, if not watch exactly one film a day, then to at least get very close to it. And I plan on doing weekly round-ups of the films I watch, since I REALLY don't have the time for full-length reviews.

Here's what I've been watching in the first week of my 2018 31 Days of Horror, in order of my watching them (titles are linked to trailers where I could find them).

The House With a Clock in its Walls (Eli Roth, 2018) I remember really enjoying this book (illustrated by the famous Edward Gorey) when I was a kid, and this doesn't quite capture the gothic grandeur of it, but it seems to be going for more of the magic/fantasy angle than the horror one. The story takes place in the '50s, where young orphan Lewis Barnavelt is moving in with his estranged uncle, Jonathan. Turns out, Jonathan and his neighbor Florence Zimmerman, are magic users, and Lewis's new home used to belong to a very, very bad warlock, who magically placed a clock somewhere in the walls of the house. That clock is counting down to something not good, and Lewis, Jonathan, and Ms. Zimmerman may be the only ones who can stop it. Aside from the delicious production design, and genial approximation of the feel of great kiddie horror flicks from the '80s, the main reason to see this is the chemistry between Jack Black and Cate Blanchett, who are having an infectious good time with this. It's enjoyable, and has some good kiddie-sized scares, but that's about as far as it goes.

The Invitation (Karyn Kusama, 2016) Eden and her husband David are having a dinner party. Among the invitees are her ex Will and his girlfriend Kira, and their whole former friend group, none of whom have seen much of Eden or Will in the two years since their son died and they split up. Long-simmering resentments and private hang-ups eventually explode as two new people show up, who are Eden and David's friends from some retreat called "The Invitation". And from there, things just get weirder and weirder. The tension simmers for the first three-quarters and boils over spectacularly in the last fifteen minutes or so. The careful character work of the actors (and the vicious screenplay) twists our allegiances to different characters every few minutes, never knowing who is more reasonable or trustworthy. It's not even really horror for most of it, just a taut, twisted character study. But when that last act hits... MAN does it deliver the goods.

Creep (Patrick Brice, 2015) Aaron, in desperate need of cash, answers an online ad for a day-long filming job that only requires him to drive a long way and bring his camera. But when he meets Josef, the man who placed the ad, it slowly becomes clear that something isn't right. Another one where for the majority of the running time it's more of a character study than anything else, Bryce effectively weaponizes the first-person camera to stage some terrific jump scares, and he and Mark Duplass have a great dynamic together. The end is truly horrifying, but the film doesn't utilize the cat-and-mouse games that are its best asset nearly enough. More of that and this would have been truly amazing. As it is, it's just a pretty neat idea, pretty well-executed.

Dressed to Kill (Brian DePalma, 1980) NOW we're talking! The opening sequence of this, featuring Angie Dickinson in a museum, is just stellar - a nearly nine-minute sequence with almost no dialogue. And then that woman with the razor shows up and slashes the movie into high gear. It's all a pretty overt Hitchcock homage (so overt that Hitch himself called it "fromage" instead), but it's a damn good one, updating Hitch's pet themes and tricks to a current setting and going even more dark and twisted. I don't want to give away too much of the film's plot, because it's a really fun ride that is best experienced as cold as possible. It's a nasty piece of work, and isn't exactly good for LGBTQ issues (especially at the time), but as with most of DePalma's films, it's super stylish and a hell of a ride.

Boo! A Madea Halloween (Tyler Perry, 2016) In case it wasn't already clear, yes, I'm working my way up to the scarier stuff. This one is MUCH more of a comedy than I was expecting, focusing mainly on putting the core group of old people together and letting them bounce off of each other. And I'll admit: I laughed. I laughed more than I probably should have. There's more than a hint of minstrelsy to Perry's Madea, but... when they have an extended conversation about literally beating some sense into today's teenagers, their commitment to the bit and how far they go over the top is HILARIOUS. The basic story is that one Halloween night, Madea has been called upon by her nephew to keep an eye on his seventeen year-old daughter Tiffany, to make sure she doesn't go to a local frat party. Naturally, Madea brings along her best friend Bam, her brother Joe, and their friend Hattie. Tiffany sneaks out, but when Madea calls the cops on the frat party, Tiffany enlists her friends and the fraternity brothers to play some good old-fashioned Halloween fright pranks on the old folks. It's not great. The horror elements are well-done but bland, and Madea freaking out and punching the thing that scares her in the face can only save it so many times (although to be fair, it works FAR more often than it should). It's nice to have a horror-comedy that leans more on the comedy side, but a few more legit scares would have gone a long way.

House of Usher (Roger Corman, 1960) The first of eight films Roger Corman made adapting the works of Edgar Allen Poe, this one based on the short story "The Fall of the House of Usher". It is about a brother and sister who are the last of the Usher family. Brother Roderick believes the family bloodline to be cursed, and will not let sister Madeline marry her betrothed, who has come to the Usher estate to bring her home with him. I love a good Gothic, and HOO BOY this is one. Heavy with atmosphere, gorgeous production and costume design, with lies and secrets as thick as the fog that chokes the crumbling house where the action takes place. It's never more deliriously over the top than in a mid-film dream sequence that just knocks everything out of the park. This is the most subdued I've ever seen Vincent Price, and the thing often does feel as airless as that house surely must, but this sort of thing is so right up my alley that I didn't much care.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Home Invasion

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

Thankfully, I have never had my home broken in to. Knock on wood, of course, as I don't want to ever have such a thing happen. It's a truly terrible thing to have happen, a deep, personal invasion that can leave lasting effects. Thankfully, we have movies that allow us to get catharsis in watching others go through this horror, and also perhaps give us some lessons on what to do - or, more likely, what NOT to do - should we ever find ourselves in this trying situation.

The Strangers (Bryan Bertino, 2008) From the simplest of set-ups (a couple in crisis, a house in a remote location, three masked assailants), Bertino creates a masterpiece of creeping dread and steadily-mounting terror. There are jump scares in The Strangers, but the things that stay with you aren't the things that make you scream. Instead, it's the moments of quiet, where a masked figure appears deep in the background, or other moments where the tension is so thick that you just want to yell at the characters to TURN AROUND or move to the left instead of the right... so many moments where safety is just inches, seconds away, but there's nothing to be done. Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, as the couple whose home gets invaded, are so believable as a couple on the verge of breaking up that you're even more invested in them as people when things start to go south and they come closer together. Which makes the whole thing even sadder in the end.

Panic Room (David Fincher, 2002) Sure, some of the visual effects haven't exactly aged well, but everything else about Fincher's crackerjack thriller works like gangbusters. When Mom Jodie Foster and diabetic Daughter Kristen Stewart move into a Manhattan brownstone, they don't even get one night's rest before they find themselves trapped in the house's panic room, a steel-and-concrete-reinforced room that should protect them in the event of a home invasion... but the three thieves who show up include an employee of the security company that built and installed the panic room... and the separate phone line in the room hasn't been activated yet. Originally slated to star Nicole Kidman, who aggravated an injury from Moulin Rouge! and had to drop out, causing Foster to step in. Naturally, with Foster involved, her part was rewritten to emphasize the character's strength and similarities to her daughter. I can't help but think that this was all for the best, despite wanting very much to see what the Kidman version would have looked like.

When a Stranger Calls (Fred Walton, 1979) By far one of the best (and scariest) opening sequences in all cinema, Carol Kane's babysitter finds herself terrorized by increasingly threatening phone calls asking if she has "checked the children". That's it, but this scene is brutally terrifying in the best way, a brilliant combination of lighting, editing, sound, and score. To say nothing of Kane's performance, brilliantly showing a smart, resourceful woman slowly fraying at the seams. The rest of the film is a bit dull, as it turns into a police procedural... until the terrifying conclusion!

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - TV Edition: Anthology Series

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, we interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to bring you a special TMP TV Edition. Anthology series have grown in popularity in recent years thanks to the success of American Horror Story, which changed up the formula a bit: Instead of having every episode be completely stand-alone, as in traditional anthology series, now each season is its own story (except that it's not so stand-alone, since Ryan Murphy, et al. decided that the whole thing ACTUALLY takes place in the same universe and characters have crossed over between seasons, but WHATEVER).

But for the purposes of this week's pickings, I'm going with the more traditional, "a bunch of stand-alone episodes unified around a central theme but with no real connection to each other" definition.

The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) Not the first anthology series, but certainly the one that cast the longest shadow, Rod Serling's exploration of paranoia in mid-century America could be anything from episode to episode, and while there was often a touch of the supernatural, many episodes (including series best "Time Enough At Last") were perfectly quotidian. Often remembered as a horror series, and with good reason, it's worth noting that were comedic ("Mr. Bevis") and straight dramatic episodes ("I Sing The Body Electric") as well. More than anything, The Twilight Zone is science fiction, taking American fears about new technology and space exploration and placing them in a funhouse mirror. What's reflected back at us isn't always pretty.
Favorite Episodes: "The After Hours", "Mirror Image", "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street", "Miniature", "The Invaders"

Faerie Tale Theatre (1982-1987) One of the first examples of original cable TV programming, Shelley Duvall produced this series that focused on one fairy tale per episode, with big stars acting in parts big and small. The design of the sets and backdrops were often inspired by famous artists like Gustav Klimt, Norman Rockwell, Pieter Brueghel, and even Jean Cocteau. My sister and I would take these videos out from the library so often as kids that we practically had some of the episodes memorized. There is a charm to Faerie Tale Theatre, cultivated by Duvall herself, that is lacking in a lot of children's entertainment, but gives the episodes a timeless quality, and the opportunity to see such stars as Robin Williams, Eric Idle, Anjelica Huston, Eve Arden, Teri Garr, Ned Beatty, Jeff Bridges, Gena Rowlands, Bernadette Peters, Carrie Fisher, and Christopher Reeve, among MANY others, perform in the glorified children's theater setting is a delight (favorite random casting: Klaus Kinski as the Beast in "Beauty & the Beast" opposite Susan Sarandon's Beauty).
Favorite Episodes: "The Frog Prince", "The Emperor's New Clothes", "The Princess and the Pea"

Black Mirror (2011-Present) If ever there was a true heir to The Twilight Zone, Charlie Brooker's screed against the modern world and its technology is it. Science fiction that feels like either our current world gone sideways or far-too-possible futures, Black Mirror is far bleaker and more pessimistic than Twilight Zone ever was, but it is powerful and thought-provoking. I mean, when the first episode is about the British Prime Minister being forced by cyberterrorists to have sex with a pig on live TV, you get a pretty good idea about what the series thinks about the world. Some of the episodes are genuinely difficult to watch, but others are just ridiculously entertaining, and they are all executed with great care and craft at every level. It's maybe the most essential TV show about our current moment, and that's saying something.
Favorite Episodes: "White Bear", "Be Right Back", "Nosedive", "San Junipero", "U.S.S. Callister"

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Farms

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, we're going to the country, to visit some farms!

I grew up in the suburb state of Connecticut, where seasonal apple-picking orchards and corn mazes are plentiful. One of my grade-school friends actually lived on a family farm, and while I know we went there a couple of times on field trips, I do not remember anything about those trips. But these farm-based movies, now these I remember really well.

Cold Comfort Farm (John Schlesinger, 1995) This hilarious send-up of British narrative tropes is an underseen delight. Kate Beckinsale, in her film debut, is a perfectly prim (and vaguely lesbionic) Londoner author who goes out to the country in search of "real life", and some long-estranged relatives, and ends up bringing a bit of big city flair to the drab country farm and its inhabitants. If you are a fan of British literature and/or film, there is much to enjoy here, including Ian McKellen as a countryside fire-and-brimstone preacher and Joanna Lumley as Beckinsale's even more lesbionic friend from London.

Babe (Chris Noonan, 1995) "That'll do, pig." This gentle bedtime story of a movie, about a farmer who adopts a runt-of-a-litter pig who becomes a "sheeppig" when the farm's mother sheepdog takes him under her wing, is one of my all-time favorites. The real live talking animal visual effects hold up spectacularly, the performances are all perfection, the production design is lovely, and on top of all that is a message extolling the virtues of kindness and acceptance that plays well to anyone from ages 1 to 101.

Chicken Run (Nick Park, 2000) I am a huge fan of Nick Park's Wallace & Gromit shorts, and this, his first feature, combines a lot of the things that I love about those shorts into one full-length feature-sized package: the fun, endearing characters, the clever and hilarious Rube Goldberg-esque machines, and the ever-so-slightly dark, ever-so-British humor. And a delightfully twisted story: The chickens on Tweedy's farm come up with a plan to escape the POW-camp-like existence with the help of a circus-performer American rooster, as Mr and Mrs. Tweedy develop a new plan to increase production of their chicken pies. The whole film is funny and clever, and endlessly delightful.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Good Remakes

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.

Look, as much as I hate to admit it, every once in a while Hollywood remakes one of its own movies and it's... not... bad. And on rare occasions, it even improves on the original.

Shocking, I know. But true! Granted, it doesn't happen very much these days, but by the sound of it, A Star Is Born, of all things, is at the very least as good as the 30s and 50s versions, and better than the 70s version. I remain skeptical, but perhaps it will indeed join the ranks of these great remakes!

The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956) As Hitch himself said, the original 1934 version with Peter Lorre is "the work of a talented amateur," while this remake "was made by a professional." Granted, the original is very good. But this one has Jimmy Stewart, Doris Day, "Que Sera, Sera", and of course the Albert Hall sequence, one of the best, most thrilling scenes in all of Hitchcock's filmography. Accuse it of being overwrought all you want, but this is one of my favorite Hitchcock films, often because its too much-ness is truly exciting.

The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille, 1956) And as long as we're talking about too much-ness, this film pretty much defines it. But in the best possible way. They don't make movies like this anymore, truly epic in every way. Every performance (Charlton Heston! Anne Baxter! Yul Brynner! Yvonne de Carlo! Judith Anderson! John Derek! DeMille himself!) is iconic, and the special effects sequences capture the kind of grandeur that you wouldn't have thought possible in 1956. It may be over three and a half hours long, but it's so entertaining that you don't even notice. DeMille's own silent version of this story is still worth seeing, but it's got nothing on this, one of the biggest spectacles the cinema has ever seen.

Ocean's Eleven (Steven Soderbergh, 2001) Yeah, sure, The Rat Pack, and all that, but even that classic brand of cool ain't got nothin' on what Soderbergh, Clooney, and Pitt cooked up here. Everything about this remake of Ocean's Eleven feels effortless, from the easy charisma and chemistry of the stars, to the slick cinematography, the playful editing, and most importantly, that iconic jazzy score. This is Hollywood product at its slickest, providing one hell of a good time that you can't replicate anywhere else. It's pure movie magic, with a twist that more than holds up to multiple viewings. Neat trick, that.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - A Discovery/Exploration

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, we're going exploring! Let's see what we can find, shall we?

The Lost City of Z (James Gray, 2017) One of the most beautiful films of 2017, The Lost City of Z is based on the true story of explorer Percy Fawcett, a British officer tasked with surveying the border between Bolivia and Bravil in 1905. While on his journey, he hears tell of a mythical city covered in gold, and finds some artifacts that make him believe it. He returns to South America over and over again in his life trying to find it, eventually bringing his eldest son with him. Dealing as much with the home lives of British Imperialism as with the exploration of the South American rain forest, Gray's film is often fascinating, if a bit frustrating. But the cinematography is stunning, and the performances, from Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Angus McFadyen, and even Sienna Miller, as Fawcett's wife.

Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, 2016) Yes, it seems almost cruel to shoot a film about the glorious scenery of the Amazon in black and white, but just wait until you see this. The cinematography becomes utterly hypnotic, which is appropriate for the tale of two white explorers, thirty years apart, searching for a rare sacred plant with hallucinogenic powers. The stories are connected by one Amazonian native, Karamakate, and the film has a lot of very wise things to say about aging and regret, as well as imperialism and the nature of man to explore and his desire to rule. One of my all-time favorite cinema experiences, I remember being so stunned when I left the theater that I had to keep my phone off and just wander the streets for a good couple of hours while I digested this.

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014) A bit of a change of pace here, to outer space exploration. Nolan's grand epic offers (again) astonishing cinematography (although the constantly-shifting aspect ratios in IMAX 70mm drive me absolutely insane) and wonderful performances from its all-star cast, but it doesn't quite hold together. The bloated run-time and grandiose ambitions don't help, but what's really at fault here is the somewhat meandering screenplay, which is a really good second or third draft but needed some editing and a polish in order to become the best version of itself. It's a tremendous visual experience, but ultimately an almost-but-not-quite for me.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Non-English Language Movies

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

Hello all! I'M BACK! It's been a busy few weeks here at Chez Dan, but I'm finally over the hump and ready to start picking films again.

And what a week to do it! The theme is the wonderfully broad Non-English Language Movies, and oh my word there are such a wealth of options that I almost don't know what to do with myself! While it would be very easy to go classic here, I'm choosing instead to go modern. So many great foreign films get buried these days for a million reasons, and they really shouldn't. So trust me on these: Deal with the subtitles and watch them. You won't be disappointed.

The Mermaid (Stephen Chow, 2016) It's not surprising that this bizarre rom-com/fantasy/sci-fi/musical/comedy/drama didn't make one tenth of what it made at home in the US. Like I said, it's a pretty bizarre movie. But it's our loss, really, because this is one of the most entertaining films of the aughts. Effortlessly shifting tones and blending together just about every genre under the sun, The Mermaid is a delight from beginning to end. The basic plot is this: A playboy business tycoon buys an area of ocean called the Green Gulf. It's a wildlife reserve, but his company has placed sonar devices in the water to push all the aquatic life out, so that they can use it for other things. Unbeknownst to him, that happens to be the home of a clan of merpeople, and after many of them begin to get sick and die from the sonar, they decide to send one of their own, who can walk and dance on her fins, to seduce and kill him in revenge. But of course, the two end up falling in love. I can't accurately describe what happens from there without just listing off all the funny, crazy, and wonderful things that happen along the way, but suffice it to say, I had a better time watching The Mermaid than I did most American blockbusters.

The Handmaiden (Park Chan-Wook, 2016) If you've been reading my blog for a while, you may remember that The Handmaiden was all over my personal awards for 2016, and I stand by every single one of them. Park Chan-Wook took Sarah Waters's Victorian England-set crime novel and dialed everything up to eleven, making one of the most beautiful, brilliant, thrilling films in recent memory. Moving the setting to 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea, The Handmaiden follows the story of a pickpocket named Sook-hee, plucked from a makeshift family of thieves by a con-man posing as "Count Fujiwara" to help him seduce a Japanese heiress named Lady Hideko (Kim Min-Hee, giving an incredibly complex performance). But as she becomes Lady Hideko's handmaiden, Sook-hee starts to fall for her mistress. And that's just the film's opening act. The film is broken into three parts, each told from a different character's perspective, each one more twisted and jaw-dropping than the last. A total feast for the eyes and ears, The Handmaiden is a sensual ravishment unlike anything you've ever seen. You won't be able to look away as it just gets crazier and crazier.

Neomanila (Mikhail Red, 2017) If you can find a way to watch this, DO IT. Much lower profile than the other two films I mentioned (I only saw it by chance with a friend at this year's Asian Film Festival at Lincoln Center), this is a really well-done, character-driven thriller set in the heart of the drug war in the Philippines. It's about Toto, a young teenage orphan whose brother is in jail. The local drug gang his brother was a part of pledges to help Toto raise bail money, but only tortures the poor kid. He then gets taken under the wing of Irma, a leader of one of Manila's most notorious death squads that target drug dealers. The pace is on the slower side in between the terrifically-directed thriller scenes, but it offers a great window on what life is like in this part of the world, as well as some wonderfully moving character beats. Eula Valdez, who plays Irma, gives a fantastic performance that (in a just world) should get her tons of even better roles across the globe. Irma is a complex, complicated character, and Valdez isn't afraid to dig in to even the ugliest places in her psyche. She makes a fateful decision near the end of the film that took my breath away, and is even more impactful for just how she plays it. A gem of a film that I'm glad to have seen, and am happy to spread the word about.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - TV Edition: Spies

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join in the fun by picking three movies (or TV shows, as the case may be) that fit the week's theme and writing a bit about them!

Let's get down to business (to defeat the huns). TV spies... GO!

Get Smart (1965-1970) Maybe my favorite "classic" TV show, I used to live for whenever this would show up on Nick at Nite or TV Land. Maxwell Smart is the most bumbling secret agent who ever lived, but he still has a job because somehow he always ends up saving the day. There are so many wonderful gadgets in this show (who doesn't want a shoe phone?), marking it as a near-perfect parody of the James Bond movie franchise. It's just goofy good fun, and when I'm feeling really down in the dumps, an episode of this will always set me right.

Alias (2001-2006) I was OBSESSED with this show when it started. Sidney Bristow is just a regular college student, approached by the CIA with a job as an agent. Her job? A field agent for a secret "black ops" division of the CIA known as SD-6. But she (stupidly) tells her boyfriend that she's a spy, and SD-6 kills him. She then finds out that not only is her father, Jack, also an agent for SD-6, but SD-6 isn't part of the CIA at all! So she becomes a double agent, working to destroy SD-6 from the inside. The action sequences on Alias were unlike anything seen on TV before at the time, and most of them still hold up, mostly because of the driving force of star Jennifer Garner (who has rarely been better). The plotting got WAY more convoluted down the line, but the action sequences and amazing cast (Victor Garber! Ron Rifkin! Michael Vartan! LENA OLIN!), not to mention Garner's mind-blowing array of disguises, keep it entertaining.

The Americans (2013-2018) This year, we said goodbye to the best series on TV (with an episode fittingly titled "START"). Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell are superb as married Russian spies living undercover as model American citizens.... they own their own business (a travel agency), they have two kids, they have a nice house in Fall's Church, VA... and their new neighbor across the street just so happens to be an FBI agent. At height of the Cold War. Amazingly suspenseful, the series revels in "old-school" spycraft and period trappings, but at its heart is the story of a marriage, and how secrets can unite and destroy us. For such a thrilling show, it's often very quiet, but that's part of what makes the show work - those quiet moments cause us to feel for these characters even more, so that when the suspense sequences come, we're even more invested and on the edge of our seats. Superb on every level, The Americans is required viewing.