Wednesday, February 28, 2018

My 2018 Oscar Ballot

It's the most wonderful time of the year: OSCAR TIME!!

I've never been one for making public predictions - there's something too final and kind of scary about it, almost like putting it out into the universe is an invitation for chaos, and frankly the chaos of the final five minutes of last year's Oscar ceremony is all I can take, thank you very much!

HOWEVER, I did recently share what my Oscar ballot would look like (if the world was a just and fair place and I was an AMPAS member) on The Film Scoop Podcast, which I was recently invited to co-host with Matt St. Clair, and I figured I would share it here in a slightly expanded version for you all to read!

In case you're wondering, my personal nominees will be posted after the Oscars - because that is when the 2018 film year TRULY begins, Roman calendar be damned!

Let's start at the bottom and work our way up, shall we?

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Television Edition: Legal Dramas

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. It's easy to join - just pick three movies that fit the week's theme and write a bit about them!

WELL. Legal dramas, huh?

One could argue that there are too many shows on TV about lawyers, and one would not necessarily be wrong. However, that doesn't mean that they're all not great. On the contrary, there are lots of different directions you can take with legal dramas, which is perhaps why there have been so many! I wanted to be a lawyer for years, but ultimately decided it wasn't for me. But I still love watching lawyers in movies and on TV. These are some of my favorite legal dramas.

Damages (2007-2012) A scared, desperate young woman runs out of a building, covered in blood. Damages has one of the most instantly grabbing first scenes of any TV series in recent memory. And it followed through on that promise with a deliciously twisty rest of the season, following both the "past" (showing the buildup to that moment) and the "present" (showing the fallout of that moment). The young woman's name is Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne in her first big role), and she is a brand new first-year associate working for high-powered litigator Patty Hewes (Glenn Close, absolutely tearing up the screen and winning a well-deserved Emmy in the process), who has just taken on a class action lawsuit that is reminiscent of the Enron scandal. Patty is dedicated to justice for her clients, but she is ruthless in her pursuit of it. She thinks she has to be, because her opponents are just as ruthless, if not more so. But her questionable morality, and what happens because of the decisions she makes, prove difficult for Ellen to reconcile. The growing, complex relationship between the two women (and the tremendous performances of the actresses portraying them) is the heart of the series, but the ripped-from-the-headlines season-long cases - the second season is inspired by the 2001 California energy crisis, the third season by the Bernie Madoff scandal (with a terrific Len Cariou and Lily Tomlin), and the fourth by Blackwater - are smart and fantastically plotted. Damages is a legal thriller of the highest order.

The Good Wife (2009-2016) Another ripped-from-the-headlines plot, this one about the titular "good wife" of a politician caught having an extramarital affair, who decides to go back to work as an attorney, at a law firm run by a former law school classmate. Only she has to start at the bottom, as an associate. The series' seven season-long arc is TREMENDOUS, charting Alicia Florrick's growth, both as an attorney and as a person, as she starts to have more agency and control in her own life... and also goes from seeing things in black and white to seeing them in shades of grey. Juliana Marguiles won two Emmys for her lead performance, and they were both tremendously deserved. And she's not the only one - Archie Panjabi won for Supporting Actress for her brilliantly cagey, underplayed performance as the firm's bisexual investigator, and Martha Plimpton and Carrie Preston won Guest acting Emmys for two of the series' most memorable recurring characters (and The Good Wife is FULL of memorable recurring characters). The Good Wife was always wonderfully scripted and brilliantly performed, and really grappled with the modern use of technology and how the law has struggled to keep up with it. And among all that, it never lost sight of its characters and their evolving, complicated relationships - there are few single episodes of television better than the fifth season episode "Hitting the Fan" in which the weight of the entirety of the series comes crashing down on the characters in the most stunning way.

Drop Dead Diva (2009-2014) Maybe my favorite of all these series, Drop Dead Diva may have aired on Lifetime, but there's nothing "guilty" about the pleasure it provides. When kind, self-absorbed model Deb and brilliant plus-sized lawyer Jane die at the same time, Deb ends up returning to Earth in Jane's body. Turns out, she was, morally, a size zero - neither truly good nor truly bad, and gets a second chance at life. Yes, it's predictable and formulaic, but good lord, Brooke Elliott is a wonder in the lead role. The series's fizzy, breezy tone is a delight for what is essentially a drama, and the miniature morality plays of each episode are easier to take with Elliott's effervescent performance. She's never less than great at charting Deb's slow awakening to the possibility that she could do more with her life than just being a model on "The Price is Right", and she's a killer comedienne to boot. If you haven't seen it, give the pilot episode a try. It's the best kind of comfort food television.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Break Into Song Scenes

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

As you know, I LOVE musicals. But this week isn't about that. This week for Thursday Movie Picks, we are talking about non-musicals that nonetheless have a scene (or two) where characters break into song. Such scenes can certainly liven up the proceedings, being that these scenes tend to do the same things that musical numbers in musicals do, giving us an insight into these characters that we wouldn't otherwise get if they didn't have the musical outlet.

Key Largo (John Huston, 1948) One of the greatest ensemble casts ever assembled (Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Claire Trevor) get stuck in a hotel lobby during a hurricane on the titular island. Bogart is there to pay his respects to a WWII comrade's widow (Bacall, naturally), but before long, Robinson and his thugs get into a bit of a situation with some local on-the-run criminals and take control of the hotel. The scene in question is a stunner, as Trevor's Gaye Dawn is manipulated by her lover (Robinson, naturally) to perform one of her cabaret numbers for the group. It's a stunning scene, one that more than earned Trevor her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. The movie itself is a great exercise in escalating tension, if one of the lesser Bogart/Bacall pairings.

Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999) PTA's kaleidoscopic look at the lives of all kinds of people in the San Fernando Valley does the "interconnecting stories" thing much better than most other films (including the similar, ham-fisted Oscar winner Crash), and is absolutely mesmerizing in its best moments. The very best of which is the sequence when nearly all of the film's characters (and there are a LOT of them) start separately singing Aimee Mann's beautiful "Wise Up" as the song plays on the soundtrack. It's a stunning moment, which makes it all the sadder that Anderson had to go and gild the lily with the movie's ridiculous ending, which looks for all the world like he wrote himself into a corner, chose the most ridiculous deus ex machina he could think of, and added the movie's opening sequence to justify it. But that's just me, and I really do love the rest of Magnolia something fierce - the performances alone are worth the price of admission (Tom Cruise deserved the Oscar for his balls-to-the-wall performance as professional male chauvinist Frank T.J. Mackey), and even though it's long, it's consistently involving. It's just a pity about that ending.

The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, 2017) I don't want to spoil it, because it came to me as an utter surprise in the movie, and it's maybe my favorite scene in any movie of 2017. Using the old standard "You'll Never Know" was a stroke of genius, and del Toro manages to turn it into the most magical moment in a movie full to bursting with movie magic. Elisa is a mute cleaning woman at a secret government facility in 1960s Baltimore. When an amphibious humanoid "asset" is brought to the facility, Elisa finds it a kindred spirit, and when she learns it is going to be killed, she takes it upon herself (and her gay artist neighbor) to rescue it. A gorgeous piece of work on every level, The Shape of Water was nominated for more Oscars than any other movie this year, and I'm pulling for it to win most of them, and wouldn't be upset if it pulled off a sweep.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Romance

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. You can join in the fun by picking three movies that fit the week's topic and writing a bit about them. That's it! Couldn't be easier!

Oh dear. A big topic this week. Romance. I'm not even sure I know where to begin with this one. There have been so many wonderful romances of every possible stripe captured on film, how can I possibly pick just three?

I don't know.

But, I'm in a bit of a mood right now, so I'll just pick the first three that come to mind and feel right and pick those, I guess. Sound good? GOOD. Here we go!

Summertime (David Lean, 1955) A "spinster" secretary from Akron, OH finally gets the courage to take her dream summer vacation to Venice. But Venice is a city of lovers, and she is alone. But one day, she meets a swoon-worthy local who confesses his attraction to her, and convinces her to not give up on the possibility of happiness. So she gives in. But how will their romance turn out? I will not say, but for the fact that Summertime has one of my favorite endings of any film, thanks in large part to the power of Katharine Hepburn, giving one of her best performances. David Lean's shooting of Venice is like a dream, and Rossano Brazzi IS a dream as the Italian lover. Summertime is one of the most undersung movies in Lean's filmography (which also includes the tremendous Brief Encounter). Do yourself a favor and watch it.

Letters to Juliet (Gary Winick, 2010) In 1957, Claire Smith couldn't work up the courage to defy her parents and stay with her love in Italy. In desperation, and finding herself in Verona, she wrote a letter to the Shakespearean heroine Juliet, leaving it stuffed into the brick wall at the Casa di Giulietta, where Italian women serving as "Juliet's secretaries" take it upon themselves to write back to every letter left behind. But Claire's letter remains unseen for 50 years, until an enterprising young New Yorker magazine fact checker named Sophie, on "vacation" in Italy with her distracted chef boyfriend, finds it, and answers. Claire then comes to Italy - with her handsome grandson in tow - and Sophie uses her fact-checking skills to help her find the Lorenzo she left behind half a century ago. I'll be upfront: This is not anything more than an utterly average (if gorgeous-looking) movie, and even if the trailer didn't spoil it, you'd still know exactly what happens at every moment. BUT. Vanessa Redgrave plays Claire, and she is sheer perfection, creating a truly indelible, memorable woman out of a plot device. She's a wonder, and when she's onscreen, Letters to Juliet shines.

La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2015) Mia, a struggling actress, meets Sebastian, a struggling jazz pianist, on one of the worst days of both of their lives. Then they meet again at a party, where they discover that they have incredible chemistry. But can two artists make it together in a world defined not just by dreams, but by settling for less than your dreams? Damien Chazelle's thoroughly modern yet utterly classic musical is a wonder in its best moments, when it completely embraces the medium of film and the possibilities of the musical genre. From the moment I realized the opening number was going to be done in a single take tracking shot, La La Land owned my heart and soul, and after seeing it three times in theaters, I still wasn't over it. It's a total sensory experience, and even if I can concede that it might get a little wonky there in the middle I wouldn't give up that dance among the stars, "Audition", or that gorgeous, dazzling, perfect epilogue/finale for anything.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Story Within A Story

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

A new month! And with it, a new theme for Thursday Movie Picks! And this one is quite interesting: A Story Within A Story. I like stories about storytelling, but I feel like they mostly come in novels as opposed to films. Makes sense given their respective mediums, I suppose. Amazingly, only one of my picks this week is based on a novel, and that one (the first) is TERRIBLE.

Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford, 2016) This piece of utter, complete dreck is one of the worst films I've ever seen in a theater. A Los Angeles art gallery owner (Amy Adams) receives an invitation to dinner along with a manuscript from her ex-husband - his about-to-be-published novel, dedicated to her and named "Nocturnal Animals", his pet name for her. The novel (the content of which we see acted out by Adams look-alike Isla Fisher and Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays the husband in both versions, among others) is sadistically violent and full of raw emotion. As she reads the book, she reminisces about her relationship with her ex. It sure is pretty, but Ford never gets a good handle on what he wants to say about... well, about anything really: Masculinity, violence, femininity, beauty, art, commerce, love, social mores, America. He puts the audience through the ringer and ends up with a one of those films where the plot makes sense, but nothing that happens actually makes any sense - if you know what I mean.

Definitely, Maybe (Adam Brooks, 2008) AKA How I Met Your Mother, The Movie. Abigail Breslin has been sent home from school after her first sex ed class. Naturally, she asks her father Ryan Reynolds the story of how he and her mom (currently getting divorced) met. He decides to tell her, but he changes the names (and some facts) to make a guessing game out of it: Which of the various women he meets is actually the mother? With Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz, and Isla Fisher as the three options, Definitely, Maybe is one of those silly rom-coms that may not be "good", but that I kinda love anyway. It's sweet, and loves its characters, but doesn't let any of them off the hook for their at times pretty terrible behavior. And yes, Breslin is unbelievably mature for her age, and it's nearly impossible to believe Reynolds at this age as a father. But the endings - both when we find out who the mother is, and when we find out who Daddy was "really" "meant to be with" - play like gangbusters.

The Fall (Tarsem, 2006) It is the 1920s. A depressed, injured stuntman meets a young girl in a hospital. In a ploy to get her to get him more drugs, he tells her a story about five mythical heroes, which we watch come to life through her imagination, which naturally merges the story with reality. A passion project for director Tarsem, the amount of detail, care, and love poured into every single frame is evident - this is one GORGEOUS-looking film. And if the narrative story itself ends up being a bit less than the sum of its parts, then so be it; the visual storytelling is a treat.