Thursday, March 15, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Childhood Favorites

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. You can play, too - just pick three movies that fit the week's theme and write a bit about them!

This week on Thursday Movie Picks, we're going back to our childhood days. I had a LOT of favorite movies as a kid - my sister and I wore out so many VHS tapes (yes, I'm that old) that I STILL have some movies memorized (most of them Disney animated classics). And while a lot of them were kids movies (anything and everything involving the Muppets), some of them were... well... a bit odd. And those are the ones I'm sharing with you today.

The Addams Family (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1991) One of the best films to be based on a comic strip, partly because its punctuated with little scenes that play out just like reading a Sunday morning comic, and partly because it so deftly brings Charles Addams's signature morbid sensibility to the modern world. Yes, the Addamses become even more anachronistic, but the actors involved have such a perfect understanding of the proper tone that it works like gangbusters. Anjelica Huston and Raùl Julia are utter perfection as Morticia and Gomez, and Christopher Lloyd is a delightful Uncle Fester, but it's young Christina Ricci who steals the show and beyond-morbid daughter Wednesday. When I was a kid, I was most fond of the various Rube Goldbergian contraptions in the Addams mansion as well as Wednesday and Pugsley's bloody performance at the school play.

Father of the Bride (Charles Shyer, 1991) I was only seven years old at the time, so I had no clue that this was a remake of the wonderful Spencer Tracy film, but even so, I still enjoy this one. Steve Martin is a wonderfully affable lead, easily sympathetic even when he's being idiotic or mean, and his chemistry with Diane Keaton is just wonderful. And the story is timeless and pretty much foolproof. Even despite Martin Short's best attempts (I loved him when I was a kid, but good GOD he is OVER THE TOP here), this is an easy, breezy delight.

The Birdcage (Mike Nichols, 1996) Okay, so I was twelve when this came out, so maybe this is stretching the "childhood" definition a bit, but... my sister and I loved this movie so much that despite both of us owning it on DVD, we met up at Metrograph in NYC to see it on the big screen last year. And the fact that we were twelve and ten when we saw it probably tells you all you need to know about how we were raised. It's still amazing to me that this movie was as huge a hit as it was, since despite coming from a major director and starring major stars it was a remake of a French farce about a gay couple, one of whom is a drag queen. Would this even get made today? I almost doubt it would be as big of a hit if it was, and that's saying something about film distribution and marketing today. I'm not even entirely sure how much I really understood everything going on in this the first time I saw it, but credit to Elaine May's screenplay: Funny is funny, and The Birdcage is FUNNY. And also heartfelt where it needs to be.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Best of 2017 (Part One)

It is my firm belief that the Oscar nominations are Christmas Morning and the Oscars themselves New Year's, so now that the Oscars have happened, it is officially time to put 2017 to bed, regardless of what I have or haven't seen. And to be honest, I've seen pretty much all of the 2017 releases that interested me. So what you see here represents my totally biased take on last year in film. It was an interesting year for me - while I didn't love nearly as many films as I did in 2016, I really liked a lot more. In other words, there wasn't a lot of competition for my #1 film of the year, but there was a TON of competition for my Top Ten. Of the 63 films I saw, there are some truly special films that find themselves ranked in the 40s, which means it must have been a very good year for film.

Let's take a look at some Oscar correlative categories, shall we?

Best Makeup & Hairstyling
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
I, Tonya
The Lure
The Shape of Water (WINNER)
Those mermaids in The Lure are quite the beguiling creatures, even before they glam up with '80s makeup, and the patrons of the club where they perform are styled to be perfectly sleazy. Everyone on the I, Tonya hair and makeup team must have had a blast if we're judging by their exuberantly big '90s styles. The team on It deserve all the credit in the world for re-imagining Pennywise so effectively, and their work on the kids is subtly perfect. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is even more out-there than the first one, and the hair and makeup team responded in kind, perfecting the look of existing characters and flawlessly executing the new ones (particularly Mantis). Nothing beats the outstanding creature work on The Shape of Water, though, and the work on the human characters is just as strong - look at how Sally and Octavia's hairstyles tell you everything you need to know about their characters. And not to mention Michael Shannon's steadily blackening finger.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Just One Day

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!

Today on Thursday Movie Picks: The Aristotelian Unities! Or, at least, one of them!

For those of you who didn't have it drilled into your head at a young age, the Aristotelian unities are rules for drama established by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his Poetics. They are the unity of action (there should only be one action that the play follows, with minimal subplots), the unity of place (the play should exist in only one physical space, and there should be no compression of geography), and the unity of time (the action of a play should occur over a period of no more than 24 hours) - the last of which is the one we are concerning ourselves with today.

Of course, film is a different medium from theater, and the Aristotelian unities most certainly do not apply, as cameras can take us anywhere at any time and show passage of time in ways productions on stage can not. But still, there is something about films that take advantage of the unities and pare things back to basics, but still feel cinematic. Like these movies below.

Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995) Jesse and Céline meet on a trans-European train, and Jesse convinces her to get off with him in Vienna, before she continues on to Paris and he catches a flight back to the states. They spend one magical night together walking around Vienna and talking to each other - deeper than most people would get on any regular sort of first date. When the train comes the next morning, they agree to meet in Vienna again in six months, without exchanging any contact information. Linklater and his stars, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, create an atmosphere that is just intoxicating - you may find Jesse and Céline's vaguely hipster-ish philosophizing insufferable, but there's very little about it that's pretentious. We're watching two people really get to know each other - in a way we usually don't get to see in films. And it's so magical that you would think that there's no way this creative team could ever capture that lightning in a bottle twice. Except...

Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004) ...nine years later, they did. Jesse has become a writer, and has written a bestseller about the night he and Céline spent in Vienna. In a stop on his book tour in Paris, he spots Céline in the crowd, and they pick up right where they left off, walking and talking around Paris for about an hour before Jesse has to catch a flight. Strangely, Before Sunset is even more romantic than Before Sunrise, because of that nine year gap and the effect that night had on each of them. Delpy and Hawke were co-writers of the screenplay with Linklater, and you can feel how personal the story and characters are to them radiating through the screen. It's a beautiful film, with one of the all-time great endings, and we all would have been satisfied if they had left it there, but...

Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, 2013) ...nine years later, they went and made it a trilogy. Before Midnight is far and away the most frustrating of the three films, but that's because it takes place at the most frustrating time in Jesse and Céline's lives - indeed, the most frustrating time in most people's lives. The two have married and are parents to young twin girls, and step-parents to Jesse's teenage son, who splits his time between his mom in Chicago and Jesse in Europe. Jesse and Céline find themselves at a crossroads, and the decisions they make will affect not just their lives, but their children's lives as well. Before Midnight is set at the moment when the romance of a coupling has worn off, and you have to choose to work to find it again or let it die, and watching these two go through that in real time is often excruciatingly hard to watch. But it's also incredibly rewarding, thanks to the incredible performances at its center.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Oscar-Nominated Movies That Should Have Won

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

Well, as I mentioned just yesterday, the most wonderful time of year is upon us: OSCAR NIGHT! I wish I were a little more excited for this Sunday's ceremony, but... well, this season has turned into one of those years where all the precursors are in lockstep, and this year is so much richer than having the same winners over and over would have us believe.

But, in order for somebody or something to win an award, others must lose, and that's what we're focusing on today: movies that were nominated for an Oscar that should have won. In my opinion, of course, since it's my blog. For the purposes of today, I'm focusing solely on Best Picture just to lessen the list of potentials a bit. And look, even narrowing it down to just the big award, there were PLENTY I could have picked. But let's be honest: In one of the early years of this new millennium, the Academy made one of their worst choices for Best Picture when they instead could have made one of their best. Just imagine looking at a ballot with ANY of the following three films on it and saying, "Nah, A Beautiful Mind was better than that!"

Gosford Park (Robert Altman, 2001) Quite brilliantly taking the piss out of the classic British Manor House Murder Mystery on its head, Altman works his customary magic with perhaps the best ensemble he's ever had (after Nashville of course, because nothing is better than Nashville). Julian Fellowes's screenplay is just delectable, the performances are indelible (witness the genesis of Downton Abbey's Dowager Countess in Maggie Smith's Oscar-nominated performance), and the costumes and sets are, of course, gorgeous. It's one of the best films of Altman's career, and given his filmography, that's saying something!

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001) Stupid, silly Academy "waiting until the third LOTR film to honor the whole trilogy." This is even sillier in hindsight, since the first of the trilogy is still the best. The world-building here is just jaw-dropping, expanding outward throughout while somehow never overwhelming the whole endeavor. That the film works as both first chapter and as a stand-alone film as well as it does is a testament not only to Tolkein's source material, but to Peter Jackson's meticulous, gorgeous direction: This is a big gosh-darned MOVIE movie, one that latches onto the ability of cinema to transport us to new worlds and then goes full-speed ahead, completely immersing us in Middle Earth. Gorgeously designed, flawlessly edited, beautifully scored, and powerfully performed, this is the greatest fantasy film ever made. (It's also the first movie I saw more than once in theaters, so you can probably guess which of these three was my pick to win...)

Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001) Baz Luhrmann's dizzying whirligig of a musical is certainly the MOST movie of 2001, but it's also the most visionary. A bit of Old Hollywood razzle-dazzle by way of the ADD-afflicted MTV generation, Moulin Rouge! throws a century's worth of pop culture and cinematic tropes into a blender, mixes it all up, and comes up with an elemental story (penniless writer falls in love with consumptive courtesan-with-a-heart-of-gold) in phantasmagorical gilded-age dressing and an almost punk-rock attitude. It's too much at first, but by the time Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman are singing a medley of love songs at each other on top of a giant elephant as CGI fireworks explode all around them, the film has swept you off your feet into its mad embrace, causing an intoxicating head rush you won't ever want to escape.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

My 2018 Oscar Ballot

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Television Edition: Legal Dramas

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

WELL. Legal dramas, huh?

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Break Into Song Scenes

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

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

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

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

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