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.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Bad Parents

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!

Growing up, my parents were pretty good, actually. Oh sure, they did some things that annoyed me and my sister, and they were hardly perfect people, but they were loving and caring and supportive and never treated us badly. So I don't really know from bad parents, but the movies sure have given us some monsters, haven't they?

Mommie Dearest (Frank Perry, 1981) Regardless of your feelings on Christina Crawford's memoir that inspired this Faye Dunaway-starrer, I think there's certainly enough evidence over the years that Joan Crawford was.... not a particularly nice person. To think that this transferred over to her parenting isn't much of a stretch, even if Christina's motives are a bit suspect and much of what she describes beggars belief. But regardless of your feelings on this film (I think it's not QUITE the camp masterpiece that I had been led to believe it was), you can't deny that Faye Dunaway gives a tremendous, ferociously committed performance as Joan (or Christina's version of Joan).

Happiness (Todd Solondz, 1998) If you've not seen Happiness, I'm sure as hell not going to spoil it for you, except to say that it's quite brilliant, and that you'll never be able to look at Dylan Baker the same way again after watching it. More or less centering itself around the lives of the three Jordan sisters (Trish, Helen, and Joy) and their lives in a New Jersey suburb, Solondz puts his characters through the ringer, but somehow makes it really funny. Which can be a turn-off when dealing with such icky subjects as pedophilia, adultery, and depression, but it's done incredibly skillfully, and played by an absolutely tremendous cast.

Precious (Lee Daniels, 2009) In the annals of terrible movie mothers, Mary Jones has to rank at or near the top. A vicious predator who occasionally sees her own daughter, Claireece (the "Precious" of the title), as a threat, she is prone to lashing out violently. As long as no one's looking. But when social workers and government employees come around? She's just the nicest, most normal woman you ever did meet. Mo'Nique's justly Oscar-winning performance is astonishing to behold, as is Gabourey Sidibe's Oscar-nominated (and shoulda-been winning) performance as Precious. The film is occasionally harrowing, but thrives on showing how light can seep into even the darkest of places.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Characters Magically Aging Up or Down

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

I don't think we're really spoiled for choice this week on Thursday Movie Picks, but MAYBE one of mine won't be a consensus pick! Which one? READ ON TO FIND OUT!

Something Wicked This Way Comes (Jack Clayton, 1983) From that short period of time where Disney decided the direction forward for the company would be to make movies that would freak kids the fuck out, but then freaked out themselves over how scary all their movies got. This adaptation of Ray Bradbury's seminal novel was famously re-shot, re-edited, and re-scored by the studio in an attempt to make it more family-friendly. It's still plenty creepy, mind you, especially in the person of Jonathan Pryce's mysterious Mr. Dark, proprietor of a carnival that pulses with dark magic, but it's not quite great.

13 Going on 30 (Gary Winick, 2004) A little "wishing dust" grants 13 year old Jenna's wish to just skip over her teenage years and be an adult already. We've all been there. But now Jenna actually has to live it, a 13 year old in a 30 year old fashion magazine editor's body. Jennifer Garner is beyond adorable in this, and frankly should have gotten an Oscar nomination. And the rest of the cast is ideal: Mark Ruffalo as the love interest and Judy Greer as the best friend... who wouldn't want all that?

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, 2008) On our most recent podcast episode, Matt and I discussed our favorite films of the 10-Year Reunion class of 2008. This one didn't make either of our lists, but at the time I remember being really liking it. I've had very little urge to revisit it, though, partially because it's long and slow (i.e., a bit self-important and self-indulgent). But it's certainly absolutely gorgeous to behold, and I'm not just talking about Brad Pitt's getting younger and younger as the movie goes on. The cinematography by Claudio Miranda is especially great, as is Alexandre Desplat's score. And to say nothing of the film' groundbreaking visual effects, which believably age and youthen Pitt and Cate Blanchett's faces and bodies as she ages normally and he ages backwards throughout the early 20th Century.