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.