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.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Romance

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. You can join in the fun by picking three movies that fit the week's topic and writing a bit about them. That's it! Couldn't be easier!

Oh dear. A big topic this week. Romance. I'm not even sure I know where to begin with this one. There have been so many wonderful romances of every possible stripe captured on film, how can I possibly pick just three?

I don't know.

But, I'm in a bit of a mood right now, so I'll just pick the first three that come to mind and feel right and pick those, I guess. Sound good? GOOD. Here we go!

Summertime (David Lean, 1955) A "spinster" secretary from Akron, OH finally gets the courage to take her dream summer vacation to Venice. But Venice is a city of lovers, and she is alone. But one day, she meets a swoon-worthy local who confesses his attraction to her, and convinces her to not give up on the possibility of happiness. So she gives in. But how will their romance turn out? I will not say, but for the fact that Summertime has one of my favorite endings of any film, thanks in large part to the power of Katharine Hepburn, giving one of her best performances. David Lean's shooting of Venice is like a dream, and Rossano Brazzi IS a dream as the Italian lover. Summertime is one of the most undersung movies in Lean's filmography (which also includes the tremendous Brief Encounter). Do yourself a favor and watch it.

Letters to Juliet (Gary Winick, 2010) In 1957, Claire Smith couldn't work up the courage to defy her parents and stay with her love in Italy. In desperation, and finding herself in Verona, she wrote a letter to the Shakespearean heroine Juliet, leaving it stuffed into the brick wall at the Casa di Giulietta, where Italian women serving as "Juliet's secretaries" take it upon themselves to write back to every letter left behind. But Claire's letter remains unseen for 50 years, until an enterprising young New Yorker magazine fact checker named Sophie, on "vacation" in Italy with her distracted chef boyfriend, finds it, and answers. Claire then comes to Italy - with her handsome grandson in tow - and Sophie uses her fact-checking skills to help her find the Lorenzo she left behind half a century ago. I'll be upfront: This is not anything more than an utterly average (if gorgeous-looking) movie, and even if the trailer didn't spoil it, you'd still know exactly what happens at every moment. BUT. Vanessa Redgrave plays Claire, and she is sheer perfection, creating a truly indelible, memorable woman out of a plot device. She's a wonder, and when she's onscreen, Letters to Juliet shines.

La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2015) Mia, a struggling actress, meets Sebastian, a struggling jazz pianist, on one of the worst days of both of their lives. Then they meet again at a party, where they discover that they have incredible chemistry. But can two artists make it together in a world defined not just by dreams, but by settling for less than your dreams? Damien Chazelle's thoroughly modern yet utterly classic musical is a wonder in its best moments, when it completely embraces the medium of film and the possibilities of the musical genre. From the moment I realized the opening number was going to be done in a single take tracking shot, La La Land owned my heart and soul, and after seeing it three times in theaters, I still wasn't over it. It's a total sensory experience, and even if I can concede that it might get a little wonky there in the middle I wouldn't give up that dance among the stars, "Audition", or that gorgeous, dazzling, perfect epilogue/finale for anything.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Story Within A Story

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

A new month! And with it, a new theme for Thursday Movie Picks! And this one is quite interesting: A Story Within A Story. I like stories about storytelling, but I feel like they mostly come in novels as opposed to films. Makes sense given their respective mediums, I suppose. Amazingly, only one of my picks this week is based on a novel, and that one (the first) is TERRIBLE.

Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford, 2016) This piece of utter, complete dreck is one of the worst films I've ever seen in a theater. A Los Angeles art gallery owner (Amy Adams) receives an invitation to dinner along with a manuscript from her ex-husband - his about-to-be-published novel, dedicated to her and named "Nocturnal Animals", his pet name for her. The novel (the content of which we see acted out by Adams look-alike Isla Fisher and Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays the husband in both versions, among others) is sadistically violent and full of raw emotion. As she reads the book, she reminisces about her relationship with her ex. It sure is pretty, but Ford never gets a good handle on what he wants to say about... well, about anything really: Masculinity, violence, femininity, beauty, art, commerce, love, social mores, America. He puts the audience through the ringer and ends up with a one of those films where the plot makes sense, but nothing that happens actually makes any sense - if you know what I mean.

Definitely, Maybe (Adam Brooks, 2008) AKA How I Met Your Mother, The Movie. Abigail Breslin has been sent home from school after her first sex ed class. Naturally, she asks her father Ryan Reynolds the story of how he and her mom (currently getting divorced) met. He decides to tell her, but he changes the names (and some facts) to make a guessing game out of it: Which of the various women he meets is actually the mother? With Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz, and Isla Fisher as the three options, Definitely, Maybe is one of those silly rom-coms that may not be "good", but that I kinda love anyway. It's sweet, and loves its characters, but doesn't let any of them off the hook for their at times pretty terrible behavior. And yes, Breslin is unbelievably mature for her age, and it's nearly impossible to believe Reynolds at this age as a father. But the endings - both when we find out who the mother is, and when we find out who Daddy was "really" "meant to be with" - play like gangbusters.

The Fall (Tarsem, 2006) It is the 1920s. A depressed, injured stuntman meets a young girl in a hospital. In a ploy to get her to get him more drugs, he tells her a story about five mythical heroes, which we watch come to life through her imagination, which naturally merges the story with reality. A passion project for director Tarsem, the amount of detail, care, and love poured into every single frame is evident - this is one GORGEOUS-looking film. And if the narrative story itself ends up being a bit less than the sum of its parts, then so be it; the visual storytelling is a treat.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Television Edition: Book to TV Adaptations

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. You can take part too - all you have to do is pick three movies that fit the week's theme and write a bit about them!

Well. Here we are again, back in TV Land for this week's Thursday Movie Picks. And we're talking about one of my favorite things: Adaptations of books! Novels actually lend themselves better to TV mini-series than they do to movies, in my opinion. The extra time allows you to include the full scope of the novel and paint in all the little details of the world. Films can be good for getting to the heart of a novel, but for my money, I'd nearly always prefer a TV mini-series. This week, I've picked one great mini-series, one great short-lived full series, and one absolutely terrible clusterfuck of a full series.

Big Little Lies (2017) What is there to say about Big Little Lies that hasn't already been said? I devoured each episode at least twice by the time the thing was over, and it was worth every second for these richly drawn, beautifully performed characters. It barely even needed the murder mystery framework, even if that was the supposed hook of the series. I can't believe they're doing a second season, let alone that they now have Meryl Streep(!!) and Andrea Arnold(!!!!) involved. This was so perfect as it is, I really hope they don't tarnish it with the next installment. I could heap praise on this for days, but in the interest of time, I'll just say this: Nicole Kidman's character arc, ESPECIALLY the therapy scenes, is the most compelling thing I've seen on TV in a long time. She deserved every award for it - and actually got them!

The Leftovers (2015-2017) The show that introduced The Great Carrie Coon to the world, The Leftovers is based on the novel of the same name by Tom Perrotta - or at least the first season is. The second and third seasons were written by Perrotta and series co-creator Damon Lindeloff as expansions of the world that Perrotta created in the novel, and holy WOW is this show tremendous. I get why people didn't want to watch it or stopped after the pilot episode: The premise and execution are downers: 2% of the world's population just up and vanished some time ago, and the people who remained are having a hard time dealing with it. Some go about their business like everything is fine. Some have a newfound death wish. Some are just doing their best to get through each day. And some have rebelled by refusing to speak, wearing only white, chainsmoking cigarettes, and accosting people as living reminders of what happened. And yes, the show is pretty depressing. But it is also utterly fantastic, producing several all-time great episodes. View each episode of the show as a short story set in this world, and its brilliance becomes more clear. I can't recommend it enough. Get past the first two episodes and OH what riches of writing and acting await you!

The Magicians (2015-Present) OH what wasted potential! Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy is stunning: Imagine if Harry Potter was an American high school student and Hogwarts was a college, and that gets you about halfway there. Grossman brilliantly deconstructs every single fantasy trope, making for a decidedly adult version of books like The Chronicles of Narnia. After the success of Game of Thrones, this could have been another great adaptation. But instead, it's listless, and most of the changes they've made to the novels make no sense and bear no fruit. I hate-watched three-quarters of the first season on Netflix before giving up because life is just too short to spend that much time watching something you don't like. Any fans in the house? Does it get any better? Or did I do the right thing?

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Sundance Favorites

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

The Sundance Film Festival is coming up soon, and will surely bring around another crop of quirky indie films that will barely get a theatrical release despite generating tons of buzz (Call Me By Your Name, anyone?).

Picking this week was actually harder than I had expected. It was difficult enough to narrow it down to a list of my ten favorite films that played at Sundance; I had to take out anything that I'd already featured on the blog to even get that far! And then I just decided to hell with it. I looked at the list, and went with my gut. Here you go: My Three Favorite Sundance Movies (That I Haven't Already Used For Thursday Movie Picks)

Once (John Carney, 2007) This minor miracle of a movie musical follows two musicians in Dublin who meet while he's busking on the streets. Before you know it, they're making beautiful (Oscar-winning) music together, and it's clear that they are "meant to be"... except that she's married with a kid and he has a girlfriend in London. Helped greatly by the natural chemistry (both musically and otherwise) of non-actor stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, but also by John Carney's intuitive, intimate direction, this is one of the all-time great movie musicals - and for those of you who hate musicals, don't worry: The musical numbers take place naturally within the context of the story. And as a bonus, Once was adapted into a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, which was one of the most magical things I've ever seen live on stage.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012) When done well, magical realism can touch us like nothing else. Beasts of the Southern Wild is magical realism at its absolute finest. Taking place in an alternate version of the Louisiana bayou that has left communities completely isolated and fending for themselves, a girl named Hushpuppy and her daddy live in an area called The Bathtub. Hushpuppy's daddy is very much a rolling stone, and while she's tough, she's still just a child. But the child's eye view this takes of the world is infectious, and ultimately beautiful, creating sequences of such devastating beauty (and not just audio-visually) that you'll leave smiling through tears. Quvenzhené Wallis, who was all of five years old at the start of filming, got a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her tremendous performance as Hushpuppy (the youngest ever nominated for Lead Actress), and Dwight Henry, a New Orleans native and baker by trade, is just as fantastic as her father.

It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2015) A girl has sex with a hot guy. She wakes up afterward tied to a chair in her underwear to hear him telling her that now some... THING... is going to be following her, at a walking pace, and won't stop until it kills her. The only way to stop it is to pass it on to someone else (by having sex, of course), but unless they pass it on, once it catches them it will move on to her, and then to him, and so on down the line. The perfect dream-logic of this "Why Hasn't Someone Thought Of This Before?" premise is perfectly complemented by the film's cinematography and score, as well as the setting of Any Suburb, USA. A near-perfect metaphor that can be applied to almost anything, It Follows technically falls into the horror genre, but it transcends that by truly feeling like a waking dream all the way through; it's a mood piece where the mood is that nightmare we've all had where we're being chased by something, don't know what it is, but know we just have to keep running.

BONUS: Rejected (Don Hertzfeldt) I love this deranged, bizarre little short SO MUCH. It's less than 10 minutes and so stupid it's genius. Just watch it.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Movies You Don't Want to Watch Again

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 LOVE the theme for this week: Once Was Enough (Movies You Don't Want to Watch Again). I thought of a bunch of great movies that I don't ever want to watch again, so many good ones that it was actually a bit hard to pare it down. At any rate, I highly recommend these movies, but after watching them, you may also decide that you never want to see them again.

Saw (James Wan, 2004) It's not that it's too scary, it's that it's too gross. And I'm not just talking about the mise-en-scène. Nor am I just talking about the sickly green color palette they've chosen to wash all the cinematography in. I'm mostly talking about the film's main thesis statement, which got even more problematic when a fandom sprung up around the character of Jigsaw, a serial killer who designs elaborate death traps for people that are really morality tests, or something, revering him as a character who speaks truth and someone who is somehow morally complex and might actually have a point after all... and made a whole goddamn series of ever-more confounding sequels. The morass of murky (a)morality makes me so sick for humanity that I not only can't bring myself to watch this again, but have been actively rooting for every subsequent Saw film's failure. And I NEVER want to actively root for a film to fail.

Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000) If this movie was shown to every high schooler in America, we would have a lot less teenage drug addicts, I guarantee it. Aronofsky's film is so bruising, depressing, and disturbing that I can't watch it again. Part of the brilliance is how he uses lenses, music, film speed, and editing to put us completely in the heads of these characters, played with go-for-broke brilliance by Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans, and the Oscar-nominated Ellen Burstyn.

Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985) Yes, I have sat through all nine and a half hours of this brutal documentary about the Holocaust. Yes, it is beyond brilliant how Lanzmann paints a full picture of the Holocaust, its build-up, and its aftermath without using a single frame of archival footage. Yes, it is beyond devastating. Yes, I'm glad I watched it. No, I do not ever need to watch it again.