Thursday, March 28, 2019

Thursday Movie Picks - TV Edition: Non-English

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

UGH. I was feeling back on track and inspired, and then I got sick. Massively sick. And all that momentum just disappeared. Ah, well. I'm feeling back to 100% now, so let's dive back into the swing of things!

Except that this week is REALLY hard, because I just don't watch non-English language TV shows. Except one. So, I guess I'll write up that one! Here goes nothing...

VELVET TRAILER - ENGLISH SUBTITLES - from Bambú Producciones on Vimeo.

Velvet (2014-2016) Young Ana's parents have died, and so she is shipped off to live with her uncle, the manager of Velvet, the most prestigious women's clothing store in Madrid. She is allowed to live with him in his quarters in the store, but she must also work to earn her keep as soon as she's old enough. Before then, though, she meets Alberto, the son of the store's owner, and they become inseparable. That is, until Alberto's father decides he cannot have his son in a relationship with a lower class orphan girl and ships him off to London to learn the business of fashion. Years later, in the 1950s, Alberto returns to learn the business of the store itself... and shortly thereafter his father commits suicide. With the store in desperate need of money. Yes, Velvet is a primo modern-day telenovela set in the '50s, and it is addictive as all hell. One of my co-workers turned everyone in the office on to it, and we all became obsessed immediately. The pilot episode fully sells you on the mean-to-be star-crossed romance between Ana and Alberto, and the sprawling cast of characters in the Velvet store. There are so many lovable, enjoyable, and love-to-hate-them characters that it's impossible to list them all. All four seasons are on Netflix, along with the sequel series Velvet Colleccion. That doesn't sound like a lot, but each episode is a little over an hour long, so it takes a while to get through. I'm only halfway through season one myself. But I don't hesitate in recommending this to anybody willing to read subtitles. It's SUPER romantic, super twisty, and the production and costume design are absolutely to die for.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Thursday Movie Picks - Movies You Thought You'd Hate But Ended Up Enjoying

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's theme was harder than I expected. Honestly, it's far more common for me to think I'll really love something and end up disappointed than the opposite. Simply put, life is too short to spend the time watching movies that I don't think I'll like. That said, if enough people I know and trust tell me something's good, or if a movie becomes such a huge cultural moment that I feel like I HAVE to see it, I will, and sometimes I do end up being pleasantly surprised.

Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016) Everything I had heard about this had me fearing that it was going to be a pretentious bore, nothing but watching Kristen Stewart affectlessly plod her way through a succession of pretty clothes while pondering death, or some other such European art film bullshit. But to my surprise, it turned out to be a surprisingly great, if somewhat low-key, thriller, and sexy as all hell. Ozon manages to make text messaging seem like the most stressful thing in the world, and while there is plenty of pondering about death, it's mostly underplayed, and is integrated really well into the whole. And it's ALSO a low-key ghost story, following Stewart's titular assistant/part-time medium as she deals with her fashion-world boss, the death of her twin brother, and being stalked, possibly by a ghost. I was pleasantly shocked by how much I enjoyed this.

Happy Death Day (Christopher Landon, 2017) While I'm fascinated by horror films, they're not usually my cup of tea. Especially PG-13 slasher flicks, which tend to be lazy jump scare after lazy jump scare with ciphers in the place of characters. But time and again I heard this praised as hilarious and clever, and the trailer for the sequel looked like a lot of fun. So I eventually broke down and watched this mash-up of Groundhog Day and trashy teensploitation horror flicks like Sorority Row... and really enjoyed it! No, it's not especially scary, but it's not nearly as interested in its slasher elements as it is in its comedic elements and its lead character, played by Jessica Rothe in a fierce, funny performance that should absolutely make her a huge star (she's even better in the sequel). Even if you're not into horror, give this a shot. It's fast, fun, and REALLY funny.

To All The Boys I've Loved Before (Susan Johnson, 2018) Look, after everyone was raving about how Set It Up totally reinvigorated the romantic comedy and I found it to be unbearably bland and insulting, I did not have high hopes for this other Netflix rom-com about a high school girl whose private, unsent letters to boys she felt intense passion for (one of whom just so happens to be her sister's boyfriend) at one get unwittingly mailed out, causing her quiet, safe world to come crashing down around her. So I was completely taken aback by how open-hearted and warm and genuinely funny this movie is. Lana Condor is an immensely appealing lead, and Noah Centineo makes for a fantastic love interest/obstacle. The film just has a spark that is somehow missing from a lot of the other similar Netflix "originals".

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Best of 2018 (Part One)

Well, it's finally that time of year. I always try to post my Best Of lists around the time of the Oscars - it makes everything feel officially official. But it's been rough this year trying to determine my final five in a LOT of categories. If I'm being honest, I don't think 2018 was one of the best years for movies or anything, but there were a lot of individual achievements that transcended the films that housed them. And in many categories, the distance between fifth and sixth (and, in some cases, seventh and eighth) places is infinitesimal. But I wouldn't be a movie blogger worth my salt (to the extent that I am one at all, heh) if I did not make the difficult decisions and made my end of year Best Of lists, so.... without further ado... I give you my "below the line" awards:

Best Makeup & Hairstling
The Favourite
Mary Queen of Scots
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms
Suspiria (WINNER)
The film itself may have been overdone to compensate for an undercooked script, but the fanciful character designs in Nutcracker really stood out as fantastic character creations. Beauty has never looked more wicked, and wickedness never more beguiling, than in The Favourite. Those unbelievably complicated braided hairstyles in Mary Queen of Scots are just gorgeous... all the better to contrast with Elizabeth's pox-marked face. Look at the lead actress of Border, and look at her character in the film. The transformation is unreal, and doesn't impede her ability to emote even one iota. All of these pale in comparison, though, to the monumental feat of makeup that was Suspiria, a film with so much great makeup in such varying styles, that I wrote a whole article about how it deserved the industry's highest honor.

Best Costume Design
A Simple Favor (WINNER)
Black Panther
The Favourite
If Beale Street Could Talk
Mary Poppins Returns
The use of color throughout If Beale Street Could Talk is exceptional, nowhere more so than in its beautifully wearable costumes. Sandy Powell's gorgeously fanciful, colorful creations for Mary Poppins Returns are the polar opposite of the technically ambitious, boldly black-and-white creations she designed for The Favourite, which is even further proof that she is the greatest working costumer we have. Ruth E. Carter won the Oscar for her wildly rangy, vividly memorable costumes for Black Panther, and deservedly so - they were perhaps the biggest piece of the puzzle of making Wakanda feel vibrantly real. That said, there were no more iconic costumes this year than the looks served up by Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick in A Simple Favor. The costumes alone tell you everything you need to know about these characters at first glance - and watch how Lively's Emily is always putting on or removing layers... just like we do with her character over the course of the film. It's highly covetable, genius-level, film-elevating work.

Best Visual Effects
Annihilation (WINNER)
Avengers: Infinity War
First Man
Mission: Impossible - Fallout
God bless practical stunts, and God bless Tom Cruise for continuing to insist on doing all his own, especially when it comes to the Mission: Impossible series. The HALO jump in Fallout is just mind-blowing, to say nothing of that helicopter crash. The practical effects are maybe even more impressive in First Man, for how emotionally impactful they are. Infinity War contains probably the most visual effects of any film this year, and many of them are stunners, but Thanos is maybe the most impressive motion-capture performance to date. No film this year had more fun with its visual effects budget than Aquaman, creating a believable underwater world and characters with lots of personality. No film had more mesmerizing visual effects this year than Alex Garland's under-appreciated Annihilation. The shimmer itself is impressive, but once we're inside, the scenery, the animals, and the heart-stopping finale all make a huge cumulative impact.

Best Production Design
Isle of Dogs (WINNER)
Mary Queen of Scots
Sorry to Bother You
That cave/palace in Mary Queen of Scots is maybe my favorite set of the year, a gorgeously rendered, authentic-feeling place that sets a perfect tone for the film. Sorry to Bother You goes to some crazy places, and the production design is key to keeping everything grounded in some kind of believable world. The miniature dollhouse aesthetic of Hereditary is stunning, and key to the look of the film, creating a living space that traps the characters, who are being manipulated and moved about by unseen forces larger than themselves. Annihilation's production design is responsible some of the most striking images of the year - those plants in the shape of people, that exploded body in the pool, the lighthouse - and all built from concepts moreso than actual things. Wes Anderson has a VERY unique aesthetic, and Isle of Dogs once again proves that animation is the perfect place for it. The sets on that trash island are indelible, meticulously crafted and lovingly shot. 

Best Sound
A Quiet Place
First Man (WINNER)
I don't think a single sound mix this year had a more immediate effect on me than Suspiria, which wrapped me up and brought me ever deeper into its madhouse of horrors. A Quiet Place is all about sound, and the way the film plays around with what we can hear, and when we can hear it, is brilliant. Roma's sound mix is one of the most immersive I've ever heard, putting you right in the middle of quiet domestic scenes so that when the big moments come, they're even more overwhelming. The kinds of sounds we hear in Annihilation run the gamut from ordinary to extraordinary to WTF, that creepy bear-thing parroting a dead friend's last words being far and away the most impactful. The chaos of First Man's flight sequences are key to selling Neil Armstrong's character as the calm at the center of the storm, and the sound works in perfect concert with the editing and cinematography to sell it - the most vital sound work of the year.

Best Original Score
Eighth Grade
First Man (WINNER)
If Beale Street Could Talk
Mary Poppins Returns
Hereditary's creepy score is key in keeping the audience off-guard and unsettled throughout, until that hymn-like underscoring to the final scene as the film plays its final card, a brilliantly counter-intuitive choice. Marc Shaiman had the unenviable task of composing a follow-up to the greatest classic Disney score, one of the Sherman brothers' most tuneful, and he did so in magnificent style, creating something that feels at once familiar and completely new. If Beale Street Could Talk had the most beautiful score of the year, as perfect a rendering of young love as has ever been heard in the cinema. I've never heard anything quite like Anna Meredith's score for Eighth Grade, which feels so perfectly like the music playing inside the main character's head through all her shifting moods. But nothing else this year can quite compare to Justin Hurwitz's grand, grandiose score for First Man, which feels ever-so-slightly out of place until we blast off into space, perfectly mirroring Neil Armstrong's emotional journey.

Best Original Song
"Hearts Beat Loud" from Hearts Beat Loud
"Hollywood Ending" from Anna and the Apocalypse
"I'll Never Love Again" from A Star is Born
"The Place Where Lost Things Go" from Mary Poppins Returns (WINNER)
"Wrapped Up" from Vox Lux
Anna and the Apocalypse is one of the most unsung films of the year, and "Hollywood Ending" is a perfect encapsulation of everything it does well - there's teenage ennui, a perfect pop backbone, an earworm of a chorus, and some sly humor. "Hearts Beat Loud" is a real winner, and the scene where father and daughter collaborate to make it is one of the best scenes of the year. All of Sia's songs for Vox Lux have her typical polish, but "Wrapped Up" fits so perfectly with the character's story - it feels like a song a teenager would write after a scarring personal tragedy, and that the nation would embrace as a generation-defining hit. Not all of A Star is Born works, but the highly emotional, kinda-throwback-styled "I'll Never Love Again" finale goes a long way towards selling the impact of the central romance. It took a while, but after multiple listens, "The Place Where Lost Things Go" revealed itself as the most elegant, beguiling song of the year, starting with the fantastic line "Nothing's gone forever, only out of place," which perfectly encapsulates the film's ethos. And Emily Blunt sings it so perfectly.

Best Editing
A Star is Born
The Favourite
First Man (WINNER)
Movies in 2018 didn't get much meaner than Hereditary, and the brutal editing is one of its most important elements, constantly keeping the audience off their guard. Even if the rest of the editing was terrible, A Star is Born would earn its place on this list for those last two cuts alone; thankfully, it's pretty great throughout the rest of the film as well. Editing is an underrated tool for comedy, and The Favourite is incredibly smart about how it uses editing to either underline its jokes or to create its own off-kilter humor out of seemingly nothing. If there was a meaner movie than Hereditary, then Suspiria was it, and the editing of its dance sequences alone is filled with a sick, twisted energy that heightens the horror of what's happening. No film in 2018 made you feel like you were right there alongside the characters quite as much as First Man did, and the jaw-dropping editing of its flight sequences were key in creating that feeling.

Best Cinematography
The Favourite
First Man (WINNER)
If Beale Street Could Talk
The Favourite is one of the most distinctive-looking films of 2018, but not without purpose - those fish-eye lenses not only distort the images to add to heighten the absurdity of the film, but to make the characters feel alternately boxed in and very much alone in these gigantic spaces. Widows contains the best tracking shot of the year, outside of a car as it drives from a low-income Chicago neighborhood to a high-income one, a stunning feat in and of itself, but the nighttime cinematography is strikingly beautiful, allowing us to see all the action painfully clearly. Alfonso Cuarón clearly learned a lot during his many collaborations with Emmanuel Lubezki, as Roma is full to bursting with stunningly lit, crystal clear imagery and effortlessly complex camera movements. If Beale Street Could Talk is the most beautiful film of the year, and James Laxton's cinematography is key to the film's warmth; the use of color is simply stunning. But First Man is something else on a visual level, simultaneously intimate and epic. The switch to the full IMAX screen once Armstrong sets foot on the moon is the best use of the format in cinema history. Great final shot, too.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Thursday Movie Picks - Cold War

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 about them!

I've been not feeling well and waited too long to do this this week, so let's dispense with the formalities and get down to business, shall we?

North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959) One of the most enjoyable of all Hitchcock's films, with a winning leading performance by Cary Grant, a sultry, never-more-beautiful Eva Marie Saint, and a deliciously evil James Mason and Martin Landau. With special appearances by Mt. Rushmore and one PERSISTENT plane. I've probably seen this more times than any other Hitchcock film, because it's seemingly always showing on TV and I can't stop watching no matter when I start.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964) Kubrick's funniest, most enjoyable film, with indelible performances from Peter Sellers, Sterling Hayden, Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Peter Sellers, and Slim Pickens - not to mention BABY JAMES EARL JONES! The satire is black as pitch and absolutely hysterical, and like the best satires, only seems more prescient as the years go by.

White Nights (Taylor Hackford, 1985) It's been many years since I've seen this movie, about two dancers played by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines, one who has defected from the Soviet Union and one who has defected TO the Soviet Union (unthinkable, right?), but I still remember how incredible the dancing is. It's also remembered as the film where director Hackford first met his wife, one Dame Helen Mirren.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Thursday Movie Picks - Television Edition: Book to TV Adaptations

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

Sometimes, especially when dealing with a series of books, it makes more sense to adapt a book to TV than to a movie. The extra space gives the story the same room to breathe as it has in a book, and the episodic nature of TV mirrors that chapter structure of most books. And so, herewith, are two great adaptations and one terrible one, for contrast.

Game of Thrones (2011-present) OHMYGOD YOU GUYS THE FINAL EPISODES START IN JUST OVER A MONTH AND IT'S GOING TO BE OVER SOON AND WHAT WILL WE ALL DO WITH OURSELVES?!?!?!? In case you've been living under a rock for the past eight years, Game of Thrones is based on George R.R. Martin's fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, detailing the events of the fictional country of Westeros, where seasons can last for many years, in the wake of the death of the King's advisor. The novels still aren't finished, meaning that for the past... three seasons or so, I think... creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been working off an outline of events Martin gave to them. Some say that the series has gone down in quality of writing since then, and while I generally agree, I don't think the drop-off is as bad as they have said. Basically, Game of Thrones on a bad day is better than most other shows on a good day. The epic sweep of its stories, and its reckoning with storytelling conventions we have come to expect from stories like this, is unlike anything we have ever seen on TV, and it's downright stunning.

Younger (2015-present) Liza Miller has just turned 40, and has recently gotten divorced. Since her lout of a gambling-addict husband lost their savings and their house, she has to find a way to support herself, and her daughter's college education. So she moves to Brooklyn with her artist friend Maggie and starts hunting for jobs in publishing, as that's what she did before having her daughter. But twenty years out of the job market has put her right on the bottom, and no one wants to hire a 40 year-old intern or assistant. But after a smoking hot 26 year-old tattoo artist mistakes her for a fellow 26 year-old, she gets a brilliant idea. She lies about her age, and lo and behold, she gets a job as an assistant to chunky jewelry enthusiast Diana Trout at Empirical Press. If you can get past the absurdity of its premise, Younger is a fun show to watch, even addicting. Sutton Foster is a ray of sunshine as Liza, and Hilary Duff, of all people, is great as Kelsea, her ambitious young co-worker and new friend. The entire cast is fantastic, and the show is a well-appointed Sex and the City-style fantasy of New York life. The whole series is on Hulu, and you can easily binge it all in almost no time.

The Magicians (2015-present) Quentin Coldwater and his best friend Julia Wicker are a bit adrift in the end of their college days. Until, that is, they both end up taking an entrance exam at the mysterious Brakebills University for Magical Pedagogy. Quentin, a lifelong fanboy of the fantasy series Fillory and Further, gets in. Julia does not. The show follows their respective journeys as an official and unofficial student of magic, respectively. I was a HUGE fan of Lev Grossman's trilogy of novels, a sort of American version of Harry Potter where Hogwarts was college instead of boarding school, thus making the stakes much higher. But the show made a large number of changes to the novels that were unnecessary and much to the story's detriment. Most damningly, while the books are a deconstruction of the "chosen one" narrative, the series fully embraces it. I hate-watched the first season before coming to the conclusion that there are just not enough hours in the day to spend time on something I hate. But really, this show is a mess, and the things that made the novels interesting and exciting are so dulled that it has almost no value.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Thursday Movie Picks - Starring Real Life Couples

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!

I'm getting to this VERY late in the day, so I'll make this short and sweet: I know there are lots of other movie stars who have been in movies together while they've been dating/married, but when I think of couples who shared the screen together, there's really only one that matters. All the rest are pale imitations.

I speak, of course, of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

Cleopatra (Joseph L. Makiewicz, 1963) Yes, it's Cleopatra! Life Magazine's "Most Talked-About Movie Ever Made!" The film that nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox! And the film that everybody wanted to see, for the scandal of Burton and Taylor's affair, which began during shooting. Cleopatra was the biggest box office hit of the year in America, and won four Oscars from nine nominations, but talk of the stars' extramarital affair so dominated the headlines that Fox tried to sue them for causing damage to the film with their actions. And, well... there's a lot wrong with Cleopatra, but it's not necessary Burton and Taylor's fault (although Taylor is FAR from her best). It's a slog of an epic that buckles under the weight of its beyond-opulent sets and costumes. It looks fantastic, but the story and the telling of it leave a whole hell of a lot to be desired.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966) I know it's almost impossible to believe, but this MASTERPIECE was director Mike Nichols's FIRST MOVIE. You'd never know it from watching this, though. Of course, the source material of Edward Albee's Tony Award-winning play offers a pretty great starting point, but Nichols effortlessly transfers the thing to film, helped in no small part by Burton and Taylor, each doing the best work of their careers. Supporting players George Segal and Sandy Dennis are no slouches either, but perhaps Nichols owes his biggest debt to cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who provides some of the most stunning black & white cinematography in the history of the medium.

The Taming of the Shrew (Franco Zefferelli, 1967) Yes, it's true. Burton and Taylor were indeed made to fight onscreen. Indeed, their aggression was usually more compelling than their love! Taylor had never done Shakespeare before, and it shows a bit, but there's no denying that this slapstick-heavy version of one of The Bard's most controversial plays is still super entertaining. And Burton is a hoot as Petruchio, the Man's Man set to the task of subduing the fiery "shrew" Katherine as he makes her his bride. Yes, the ending lacks all but the slightest trace of irony that has become the standard - and that was even present in the silent version from 1929 starring Mary Pickford - but the sumptuous look and fun staging make this an enjoyable romp until that point.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Thursday Movie Picks - Romantic Comedies

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!

So, the last time we talked Romantic Comedies on Thursday Movie Picks, I picked three terrible movies that, for whatever absurd reason, I love anyway. I know I can't possibly top that, so I'm gonna play it a bit safer this time around and just pick three of the All-Time Best.

The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940) Socialite divorcée Tracy Lord (the unbeatable Katharine Hepburn) is getting married again! But, sadly for her poor husband-to-be George Kittredge, not only is her lush of a former husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) back, but he has brought with him an incognito reporter and photographer from Spy Magazine. As the wedding approaches, Tracy finds herself still nursing an attraction to Dexter, and finds a growing affection for the journalist Mike Connor (Jimmy Stewart). What a dilemma! Adapted from the stage play by Philip Barry, the dialogue sparkles, and the three stars form an irresistible love triangle through their considerable chemistry with each other (although originally, it was meant to be Clark Gable as Dexter and Spencer Tracy as Mike, which would have been just as delicious). Hepburn originated the role of Tracy Lord in the Broadway production, and bought the film rights for herself as a way to overcome her reputation as "box office poison". It worked: The Philadelphia Story was an instant classic, the fifth highest-grossing film of the year, and earned six Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Actress. It won two Oscars, for Best Screenplay and Best Actor, for Jimmy Stewart (in what is CLEARLY a Supporting role).

The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960) "Did you hear me, Miss Kubelik? I absolutely adore you." "Shut up and deal." Perfection. Billy Wilder's depressive romantic comedy works almost in spite of itself, solely because of the star power of its leads. Shirley Maclaine is magical as elevator operator Fran Kubelik, in a relationship with married man Fred MacMurray, who uses employee Jack Lemmon's apartment for his extra-marital assignations. I've never found Jack Lemmon attractive EXCEPT for in this movie, in which he is downright swoon-worthy as he cares for Fran's broken heart. Nominated for 10 Oscars, The Apartment actually won Best Picture, as well as Best Director and Original Screenplay.

When Harry Met Sally... (Rob Reiner, 1989) One of the greatest screenplays ever written. When Sally drives Harry to New York from Chicago after they graduate from college, Harry asserts that men and women cannot be friends, because sex always gets in the way. Sally disagrees. Over the course of the next decade, they randomly run into each other a few times, and eventually settle into a kind of friendship... that eventually turns into a kind of attraction. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan have a wholly surprising chemistry as the leads, and Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby are even better as their best friends who fall in love at first sight.