Thursday, December 14, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Small Towns

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join our little community of bloggers by picking three movies that fit with the week's theme and writing a bit about them. It's fun and easy - and 2018's schedule has been posted so you can prepare!

I'm back, y'all!

Work has been kicking my butt the past couple of weeks. Ever since Thanksgiving it's been non-stop - many late nights and some super-stressful days. It's been all I can do to get out and see some of the great movies flooding the cinemas of NYC right now. And, as always, there have been some that I've missed that have made me very sad. (If you're not following me on Letterboxd, please do so - I do keep track of everything I watch there, and usually post mini reviews.)

I was especially sad to miss last week's Thursday Movie Picks, because the theme was one of the great tropes of cinema: The Ugly Duckling Who Turns Into A Beautiful Swan. There are of course a wealth of options to choose from. My favorites (I can do this because this isn't an official TMP list!) are: The supreme Bette Davis weepie Now, Voyager; George Bernard Shaw's witty Pygmalion and it's musical version, My Fair Lady;  Ingrid Bergman's second Oscar-winner, Anastasia; Baz Luhrmann's thrilling breakthrough Strictly Ballroom; '90s classic teen flick She's All That and its parody version, Not Another Teen Movie; the sweet Drew Barrymore comeback vehicle Never Been Kissed; Anne Hathaway's debut The Princess Diaries; the brilliant Neil LaBute stage play-turned-movie The Shape of Things; and the amazingly stupid-funny Anna Farris-starrer The House Bunny.

This week, we're looking at small towns. There ain't nothin' like a good old-fashioned small town, but the ones in these movies better watch out, because a change is a-comin'...

The Stepford Wives (Bryan Forbes, 1975) I feel obligated to include this one, as after college I moved back to my home state of CT and ended up living for a while in the town of Wilton, the inspiration for the novel by Ira Levin that inspired this iconic movie. I'm sure you all know the premise, but in case you don't, here goes: Photographer Joanna moves with her executive husband and two kids from New York City to the idyllic suburban town of Stepford, CT. Walter immediately joins the exclusive local Men's Association, but Joanna is spooked by the wives, who are all very submissive homemakers with few interests outside the home. She and her fellow new-in-town friend Bobbie investigate, and what they find... well, I'm certainly not going to spoil that if you don't already know! Just go with the flow and enjoy the ride. It's a fun one. I promise!

To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar (Beeban Kidron, 1995) Snydersville is just a podunk, middle of nowhere town where nothing ever happens. But then, a car breaks down outside town stranding three drag queens there for a weekend. Naturally, the queens (played in hugely entertaining, go-for-broke star turns by Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo) are afraid to reveal themselves as men after their initial appearance, but they make the most of a bad situation and confront the prejudice they see anyway. No, this movie isn't very good, but it is a whole lot of fun, and it's still amazing that stars as big as these three would take on these roles, and perform them so well.

The Dressmaker (Jocelyn Moorhouse, 2016) Myrtle "Tilly" Dunnage was driven out of her microscopic backwoods Australian town of Dungatar after an incident she barely remembers from her childhood that resulted in a young boy's death. Since then, she has become an internationally renowned dressmaker, and has returned to Dungatar to care for her ailing mother... and also for a spot of revenge. This super entertaining movie is just fabulous in the extreme. Kate Winslet vamps it up in some pretty amazing dresses as Tilly, Judy Davis is a hoot as her mother Molly, Liam Hemsworth is swoon-worthy as the love interest, and the entire ensemble (including Hugo Weaving and Sarah Snook) is game for anything... and they pretty much have to do everything. One of my favorite moviegoing experiences of last year, this could also fit in last week's category, which is why I had to pick it this week.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Television Edition: Workplace

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'm at work writing this right now, which seems only appropriate given that this month's TV Edition is focused on the Workplace!

Herewith, my three picks for this evergreen setting for TV shows:

Boston Public (2000-2004) This was required viewing in my household, as my Dad was a high school foreign language teacher turned Assistant Principal and my Mom was a school social worker. The show from David E. Kelly (The Practice, Ally McBeal) was about the goings-on at a public school in Boston, MA, and in particular focused on the teachers. There were plenty of opportunities to address Important Issues (some of which were handled well, others that were NOT), and plenty of opportunities for soap operatics (some of which were just WAY too weird given the setting), but mostly, it was a chance to show that teachers have a fucking DIFFICULT job, and that school administrators often have it even worse. Just try having a personal life when your job lasts from 6 AM to 6 PM and you have to deal with teenagers who would rather be anywhere else all day. With a great ensemble cast including Chi McBride as the Principal, Fyvush Finkel, Jessalyn Gilsig, Nicky Katt, Loretta Devine, Sharon Leal, Michael Rapaport, and Jeri Ryan as the teachers.

Veep (2012-present) Julia Louis-Dreyfus gives the greatest comic performance ever seen on television as Vice President Selina Meyer. Surrounded by incompetents, idiots, assholes, and every combination thereof, Selina bravely trudges through each day dealing with whatever obstacles are thrown in her way with some of the most creative insults on TV. Those, of course, come from Armando Ianucci, genius creator of this and the similarly brilliant British TV show The Thick of It. You may think I'm being hyperbolic about Louis-Dreyfus's performance, but trust me. She is SUBLIME in this role, brilliantly showing every single one of Selina's many sides often simultaneously. It's a wonder of a performance, aided by one of the most talented ensembles on TV.


Fawlty Towers (1975-1979) Ladies and gentlemen, the Perfect Sitcom. John Cleese's towering performance as Basil Fawlty, the owner of the perpetually on-the-brink hotel that gives the series its title, is nothing short of utter perfection. The main joke of the series is that Fawlty runs a hotel but can't stand his guests, and will explode at them if they so much as breathe at the wrong time. The hotel staff - Spanish waiter Manuel, maid Polly, and Basil's wife Sybil - run the gamut from incompetent to unfailingly professional, both of which make Basil seethe with rage - always hilariously. If you haven't had the pleasure, sit down and binge the whole series - you can easily do it in a day, if you don't die from not being able to breathe because you're laughing so hard!

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Origin Movies

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

HAPPY THANKSGIVING, EVERYONE! My favorite holiday is here once again. A time where we have to focus on nothing but the good things in life: namely food and all the things we're thankful for. And dear reader, I have to say, I'm thankful for you. Yes, YOU. Whoever you are that's reading this. Because there's something unsatisfying and slightly sad about writing a blog post that no one reads. So thank you for taking the plunge and reading these posts. I know I don't post as often as I probably should (follow me on Letterboxd for more frequent, albeit short, movie reviews), but I do want to post more often. It's just that life doesn't always allow for it. And every time I think I'm turning a corner and will be able to devote more time to this here little blog, something else pops up. But it's okay! Because when I can, I post, and when I post, we can have a conversation in the comments - and that's REALLY why I do this. To have conversations with people about movies. Movies we love, movies we hate, and movies we're mixed on.

This week on Thursday Movie Picks, we're talking Origin Movies. Which I guess just has the "superhero" implied, as I can't think of anything else that might have an origin movie. I welcome others to challenge that notion with their picks.

Frankly, the recent spate of "origin stories" has been mind-numbing to me. They're pretty much all the same, and of generally similar (low) quality. But that could just be my annoyance with superhero movies rearing its ugly head. There are just too many of them nowadays, and none of them have left me completely satisfied. That said, I do generally like these particular films more than I dislike them.

X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn, 2011) I make no bones about the fact that I much prefer the X-Men movies to any of the other Marvel movies, but that's because I have memories of the Saturday morning cartoons, and because there is a HUMONGOUS cast of characters. Yes, it sucks that according to the movies the only ones worth a damn are Professor X, Magneto, and Wolverine, but the constant team dynamic is always engaging - don't like the main character in this scene? Don't worry, your favorite will have a big moment in 5, 4, 3, 2... And these characters are just more fun to watch than the (surprisingly) sullen Avengers. Plus, this particular movie takes place in the swinging '60s, and makes fantastic use of that in moments. Plus, there has never been a better superhero pair than James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Professor Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, here seen when they meet and take on a crew of youngsters who have mutant "powers". First Class is surprisingly fun, even for a series that always was fun, but more importantly handles Big Issues with the importance they deserve while still keeping a light touch. As a bonus, it features the greatest use of the one PG-13 F-word EVER.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011) There was NO reason to ever expect that this was ever going to be anything but crap - was anyone clamoring for a prequel to the Charlton Heston classic Planet of the Apes? Much less one starring James Franco? But whoever was behind this did two things right: They gave the story an undeniable, emotional storyline (a baby chimp is given a potential Alzheimer's cure that increases his brain function, by a well-meaning scientist whose father is suffering from the disease), and they hired Andy Serkis to play that chimp, named Caesar, and digital effects house WETA to bring Caesar to life. Serkis works wonders in the role, and while skeptics and naysayers may discount his performance as all digital trickery, there's no denying that the film's most powerful moment - Caesar finding his voice - is all him. This is one of the most thoughtful, well-constructed blockbusters of the '00s.

Monsters University (Dan Scanlon, 2013) No, this one isn't really great. The story is rote (jock and nerd are roommates, compete against each other and then together for a common goal), and a lot of the jokes are surprisingly stale. But this is a world you just want to savor, with something new and creative lurking in every corner of the frame. You really get the feeling watching this that the Pixar animators were just given carte blanche to do whatever they wanted, and they played around with EVERYTHING. Character design, set dressing, sound design... there is a sense of unbridled creativity coursing through every frame of Monsters University. Which makes it even more of a pity that the story itself is so been-there-done-that.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Strong Female Characters

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

What a topic! And since it was planned a year (or so) ago, there was no telling then just how timely it would be, so kudos to Wanderer for her foresight! But it begs the question: What IS a "strong female character"? Is it a well-rounded, real-feeling character, as opposed to a one-dimensional caricature or one-note "supportive" wife/mother/girlfriend - someone who has their own agency and makes their own decisions? Or is it more literal, a female character who displays strength of character, whether mental or physical? For me, it's the former moreso than the latter. And since we are in such a timely place with this topic, I've decided to go full-on current. Thursday Movie Picks: 2017 Edition.

Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd, 2017) Florence Pugh gives a magnificent, star-is-born performance as the title character in this austere tale of a woman scorned. Katherine is married off to an unfeeling, uncaring husband who would rather jerk off looking at her backside against a wall than make love to her, and insists that she stay indoors despite her love of the moors. But though she was bought/sold like property, Katherine is a person with needs and desires, and one day she ventures out and happens upon the farmhands abusing her maid Anna. She feels an instant attraction to the newest farmhand, Sebastian, and before you know it, the two of them are having a full-blown affair. I won't give away any of what happens after that, but suffice it to say this gives Katherine a form of strength and autonomy that makes her resent her lot in life even more, and takes steps to live a life of her own making. The film grapples with what it means to be strong woman, and asks an interesting question: At what point in asserting oneself does a person become a danger to those around them? It's the tensest movie of the year, keeping me on the edge of my seat for the entire back half - and occasionally eliciting laughter that it then made me regret not so much as a minute later. Lady Macbeth is brilliant.

Atomic Blonde (David Leitch, 2017) A strong woman in every sense of the word, Lorraine Broughton is the best spy MI-6 has to offer. And her latest assignment in Berlin just before the fall of the wall will put her to the test. Charlize Theron literally kicks ALL THE ASS in the biggest and best shoulda-been blockbuster of the year. The moment New Order's "Blue Monday" kicked in on the soundtrack in the opening scene, I was sold. Atomic Blonde is smart, stylish, and super sexy... a total blast that I can't wait to watch again. Read more in my full review here.

Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017) If we had to wait this long for a Wonder Woman movie just to get Gal Gadot as the lead, then the wait was well worth it - Gadot is a PERFECT Wonder Woman, and she's perfectly matched with Chris Pine as the male romantic lead. And the film gains so much from its World War I setting (that no man's land scene is undeniably, impossibly righteous). So it's a shame about the last act, when it becomes an utterly average, disappointingly standard superhero movie. While I admire that the film ends up making the Big Bad (SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT) a pragmatic politician, I don't think that decision ultimately works as well as it could have. But none of that matters so much in the face of the woman at this movie's center. Diana "Prince" is a strong woman, no doubt about it, but it isn't until she's able to embrace potential weakness (in both herself and others) that she becomes her best self. And that's kind of beautiful.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Adaptations You'd Most Like To See

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. You can participate - the more the merrier! - by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and writing a bit about them!

This week on Thursday Movie Picks, we're talking about adaptations we'd most like to see. I decided to stick with novels for the time being, because if I expanded to plays and musicals, we'd be here for WEEKS. To be honest, there aren't many pre-existing properties that I'm dying to see film adaptations of, mostly because the ones I do seem to inevitably get film versions. Just like...

Ready Player One (novel, Ernest Cline) Despite the slightly dodgy looking trailer, I CAN. NOT. WAIT. for this. The Dungeons & Dragons-meets-Willy Wonka by way of The Matrix storyline is a near-perfect fit for director Steven Spielberg, and Cline's world is so thrilling that when I finished the last page of this, I immediately turned it over and started again.

The Thursday Next Series (novels, Jasper Fforde) Almost too literary to ever be attempted as a film series, Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair follows intrepid Literary Detective Thursday Next into the pages of Jane Eyre (quite literally) to find Jane herself, who has been (quite literally) stolen from the pages of her own novel. Deliriously dizzy with love of the written word and full of boundless imagination, there are so many clever, fun touches in these books that would be pure joy to see on the screen. And the twist to classic novels would be a delight as well.

House of Leaves (novel, Mark Z. Danielewski) Nearly impossible to describe, this Russian nesting doll of a novel involves at least three narratives running both concurrently and on completely separate timelines. The bulk of it - and the part I would most kill to see filmed - is a scholarly dissertation on a possibly non-existent documentary by Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Will Navidson, that documents what happens after Navidson moves his family into a beautiful new house in Virginia only to one day find an extra door that leads to hallway where previously there was none, and subsequently discovers that the house measures one-quarter of an inch longer on the inside than it does on the outside. While the novel as a whole is decidedly unfilmable, going off on tangents within tangents (and footnotes within footnotes) and adopting many techniques to make the reading of the book itself feel more cinematic, I would LOVE to see some intrepid filmmaker attempt to film "The Navidson Record" as described in the text, especially if they could effectively build it up as a Blair Witch Project-style "this really happened" narrative... which I admit is practically impossible.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - A Stranger

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.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled Thursday programming.

October was a crazy month for me. I'm glad it's all over and that my life and schedule is back to normal. I look forward to talking more movies with everybody!

SO. To the matter at hand! Strangers can be mysterious or friendly, but generally speaking, in movies they're bad news. Whether as harbingers of things to come or an interloper who completely upends everything around them, you pretty much don't want to run into anyone unknown if you're in a movie.

Teorema (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968) Terence Stamp is the living embodiment of desire as a character known only as "The Visitor", who comes to a bourgeois Italian household and disrupts their lives. Mostly by having sex with them, and then leaving. But even that description doesn't really do a good job of describing this movie, which is much stranger and more alienating than it sounds. It's a completely singular experience.

10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg, 2016) A young woman has broken up with her fiancée on the eve of a massive, near-extinction-level event. While driving away, she gets into a car accident, and when she wakes up, she finds herself chained up in an underground bunker. The man who has chained her up, Howard, insists that he's saved her from whatever happened outside, but she's not so sure. Who's the real bad guy here? Why can't we all just get along? Billed as a "spiritual sequel" to the "found footage" monster flick Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane starts out as a great littler thriller/character study, but the last act throws that all out the window in favor of positioning itself as the second film in a franchise. It ALMOST completely ruins the movie, but thanks to the terrific performances of Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman, this is still plenty of fun. BUT SERIOUSLY, if you didn't see that ending coming from the second you saw the trailer for this, I don't even know what to do with you.

Cléo de 5 à 7 (Agnes Varda, 1962) Pop singer Cléo has had a cancer scare, and is waiting for the results of a test to tell her whether or not she has it. That's it. That's the whole movie. But, oh, what a movie Agnes Varda spins from such a simple premise! It's a beautiful, lyrical piece on how to appreciate every little thing around you. But why do I include it here, you may ask? Well, that would be because Cléo isn't truly able to process her feelings about her pending diagnosis until she meets a stranger, a soldier on leave from the Algerian War. It is only in meeting this man that she is able to appreciate life for what it truly is. Sometimes, a stranger comes along right when we need them - an impartial observer who can force us to see ourselves from a different, life-changing perspective.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - Television Edition: Horror

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!

Halloween is drawing ever closer, and it's FINALLY starting to feel like Autumn here in NYC. Autumn is my favorite season, so this makes me sigh a great sigh of relief. Summer weather has just lasted WAY too long this year. There's now a slight breeze and chill in the air that I just love. It also means that every TV show is now trying to be a little bit spooky. Which is fine by me. Horror is easier to take in smaller doses, so I generally like horror TV shows a bit more than I do horror movies. The three below are two of my all-time favorites and one show that, frankly, should be so much better than it is, but is often still pretty good anyway.

The X-Files (1993-2002) It's true, classifying The X-Files as horror does it a bit of a disservice. After all, in its heyday, it could be just about anything from week to week. But there was usually an element of the scary, or at the very least the creepy, and the creepy-crawlies made multiple appearances. The basic premise is simple: Two FBI agents comprise in the bureau's "weird cases" division, one of whom is a true believer in aliens and the supernatural and one of whom is a scientist who is naturally skeptical of such things. But creator Chris Carter did so much more with it than that, creating a longer-term story arc deemed "the mythology" that had more influence on the state of TV programs today than most will admit. It's taken for granted now that the best episodes of the show were the "monster of the week"-style episodes, and the episodes focused on the "mythology" arc were lesser, but at the time, this was ALL truly thrilling stuff. On a personal level, The X-Files was basically my introduction to the horror genre. It was my mom's favorite show (next to ER), and when my sister and I reached the age when we were allowed to stay up late on Sundays to watch it, we were excited - we finally felt like grown-ups!
Favorite Episodes: "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man", "The Post-Modern Prometheus", "Triangle", "How The Ghosts Stole Christmas"

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) Yet another show that it feels like a disservice to reduce to being a "horror" show, as well as another show that had more influence on today's TV shows than most are willing to admit, Buffy was basically my favorite show in high school. The story of a teenager who is the latest in a long line of Vampire Slayers - "chosen" ones who have been called by fate to fight the undead (and other monsters), her friends (and a frenemy or two), and her "Watcher" (her high school librarian, natch)... and the hunky vampire with a soul Angel. Creator Joss Whedon's stroke of brilliance to have Sunnydale High School literally sitting on top of a Hell Mouth (exactly what it sounds like) and use the demons as metaphors for the vagaries of teenage life is what allows the show to endure, but the show's whip-smart, ultra-quotable dialogue is what made it a huge hit among the teens of the '90s.
Favorite Episodes: "Doppelgangland", "Hush", "Restless", "The Body", "Once More With Feeling"

American Horror Story (2011-Present) Ryan Murphy's grand guignol anthology series is SO hit-or-miss, but at its best (unquestionably the second season, Asylum), it has a truly terrifying anything-could-happen brazenness that makes it required viewing. Given that each season is its own complete story, you an skip the seasons that don't seem like your thing. In addition to the aforementioned Asylum (in which Sarah Paulson's lesbian journalist commits herself to Jessica Lange's Catholic nun-run asylum for a career-making scoop), the best seasons are the first (Murder House, in which Dylan McDermott's psychiatrist and his wife Connie Britton move to the titular house in LA after a bout of infidelity on his part, only to find out it's haunted - by busybody next-door neighbor Jessica Lange as well as by ghosts both friendly and malevolent), and probably the absolutely demented sixth season, Roanoke (a "true crime"-style show within the show about a couple who move to a renovated home in the backwoods of North Carolina, supposedly on the spot where the infamous Roanoke Colony moved after its sudden disappearance). The third season, Coven, is wildly uneven and terribly scripted despite some entertaining performances; the fourth, Freak Show, is a wasted opportunity; and the fifth, Hotel is a gorgeous slog. American Horror Story is not a show that very much cares for silly things like logic and consistency, but in its best moments, that doesn't matter.