Thursday, February 26, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks: All in the Family Edition - Father-Son Relationships

Written for the weekly blogathon hosted by the magnanimous Wandering Through the Shelves. Visit her blog, look at the weekly topic, and post three picks of your own!

The topic for February's "All in the Family Edition" of Thursday Movie Picks is Father & Son Relationships. Apparently, this is not something of huge interest to me, because thinking about films I've seen, I noticed a lot of Mother-Son films, a lot of Father-Daughter films, some Mother-Daughter films, but not a whole lot of Father-Son films. However, all three of my picks this week are films that I truly, madly, deeply love.
Beginners (Mike Mills, 2010) Christopher Plummer finally won his Oscar for his performance in this lovely film, the most emotional one on this list (and thus the most difficult for me to write about). If only Ewan McGregor, Mélanie Laurent, and writer-director Mike Mills's screenplay had been able to ride his coattails. As an older man coming to terms with his homosexuality - and his terminal cancer - Plummer is wonderful. The film is a delicate balancing act, ably anchored by McGregor's deeply felt performance as Plummer's son. Their relationship is complicated, but you can always see the love between them, even as McGregor's Oliver has difficulty reconciling the out and proud gay man his father has become with the man he knew.
Frequency (Gregory Hoblit, 2000) I will admit that my love for this movie mostly has something to do with how unbelievably hot Dennis Quaid looks in a leather jacket (HELLO, DADDY!), but it's just a pretty great movie overall. Jim Caviezel is great too, as a policeman who is able, via a HAM radio used during an atmospheric disturbance, to communicate with his (now-dead) firefighter dad (Quaid) 30 years in the past. After giving his father a piece of information that saves his life in the burning building that was supposed to kill him, Jim learns that messing around with time like that can lead to unexpected consequences - in this case, the murder of his mother. Then father and son work together to try and stop her killer. This is one of those films, like Field of Dreams and Brian's Song before it, that will usually reduce grown men to tears, and it earns them.
Billy Elliot (Stephen Daldry, 2000) I can't imagine what it must have been like to be a family in Britain's mining areas during the Thatcher era, but Stephen Daldry's film offers a pretty good glimpse. Gary Lewis gives a great performance as Billy's Dad, slowly realizing that his kid may actually have the chance to escape his own fate and achieve greatness, even if he doesn't understand why it had to be as a bloody ballerina as opposed to a boxer. (The relationship between Billy and his Dad is almost the exact opposite of Oliver and Hal in Beginners, except no one's actually gay.) The final scene, where he finally watches Billy perform, takes my breath away each time.


While these two films do shine a light on father-son relationships, they are really more focused on the father's relationship with the family as a whole, so I didn't feel comfortable making them my picks this week. But with this year's Oscars so fresh in my mind, so are major contributors to these two films. Plus, it's my blog, so I'll do what I want.
The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001) I'm shocked that Wes Anderson is still Oscar-less after creating some of the most aesthetically rich films and characters of the past twenty years. Of those great characters, Royal Tenenbaum stands tall. A truly awful, deeply selfish man who realizes too late in life that he won't be remembered fondly when he dies, Royal is a mess of contradictions, and Gene Hackman plays him brilliantly, and brings the best out of his screen sons, Ben Stiller and Luke Wilson. This set the template for every Wes Anderson film that's followed, and I will admit that when I first saw this in theaters, it did absolutely nothing for me. But something about it stuck with me, and revisiting it in a film studies class in college caused it to become an all-time favorite. The ensemble is brilliant, and the music, cinematography, editing, and production design all work in concert to create a clear authorial voice, which is tricky given something this tonally complex. It's bravura filmmaking at its most understated.
The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011) I get that people don't like this one. I get that Malick can get a little bit too caught up in navel-gazing, especially here. And frankly, I did check my watch a couple of times when watching this. But... goddamn is this fucker gorgeous. Emmanuel Lubezki is a fucking genius, and it was extra sweet hearing Jessica Chastain call out "Chivoooooooooo!" when she presented the Best Cinematography Oscar this past weekend, since he really should have won his first Oscar for the flat-out miraculous work he produced here. The Tree of Life also contains what is probably Brad Pitt's best-ever performance, as a strict Texan Dad. His scenes with sons Hunter McCraken and Tye Sheridan crackle with an authenticity rarely felt in his previous work, which speaks to Malick's unique process.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Blind Spot #2: On The Waterfront

When you think about the stature of Elia Kazan's On The Waterfront, it's kind of amazing that I have made it this far in life, and in cinephilia, without having the ending spoiled. Basically all I knew of Kazan's Oscar-winning masterpiece was its two most famous scenes: Brando's "I coulda been a contendah" speech and the scene with Eva Marie Saint's dropped glove. That's it.
Watching the film for the first time was an interesting experience. At first, I was disoriented, not really able to tell what exactly was going on or who exactly anyone was. But then the film slowly started answering those questions as it went along, both on a factual level and on an emotional one. Before I understood what role Lee J. Cobb's Johnny Friendly played in the film's dockside community (is he a mafioso? Or just the guy with the most power?), I understood on an emotional level more or less what he did and why, and how Brando's Terry Malloy got involved in it. And then later, as Terry revealed more and more of his history, everything really clicked into place.

Unfortunately, the reveal of Terry's history reveals the film's one flaw, and to my eyes, it's a pretty big one: Given the role his brother Charlie (the great Rod Steiger) played in putting Terry in this situation, and the role he winds up playing by the film's end, he's pretty much a non-entity in the film until that scene in the taxicab more than halfway through. I had no real conception of who Charlie was, and his connection to Charlie went over my head until that scene (it had been said that Charlie and Terry were brothers, but for some reason it never clicked in any previous scene that THAT person was Charlie). Given his status in Charlie's story, it's a bit odd that he isn't a larger presence in the first half of the film.
But really, that's nitpicking.

On The Waterfront announces itself as a larger story than it appears to be - via a majestic shot of a large ship in a harbor, and Leonard Bernstein's booming score. From this widescreen opening, it becomes much more small-scale, focusing in on its characters the way only the theater-trained Kazan could do. But Kazan was smart in his filming, too. Eva Marie Saint's Edie is the only blonde in the film, so she looks from the very first like she has a permanent halo - an angel too pure for the likes of this den of mugs and rats. Constant shots through fencing emphasizes that these characters are all trapped in prisons of their own making. They may get a happy ending, but it certainly isn't going to be perfect. This life won't allow for that.
It should come as no surprise that Terry is so good with the pigeons kept in rooftop coops. Although our introduction to him is other characters commenting about his lack of smarts, his line about pigeons and hawks shows that he might be smarter, or at least more perceptive, than even he knows. He may have to be pushed, but when under the gun, Terry does what's right. He's always known the difference between right and wrong, he just needed the push. And Karl Malden, as the town's priest, knows how to push.
As always with Kazan, the cast here is top-notch. That's to be expected when you see the names on this cast list, but even still, the way they all work together here is really special. I especially love the antagonistic relationship between Brando and Malden, such a turn-around from their previous work together in Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire. The unsung hero of this one, though, was that score. The main theme is totally swoon-worthy, and the punchier moments really carry scenes that might otherwise feel a bit flat, and elevate already powerful moments, like Brando's climactic walk to work.

That scene, by the way, is so much the film's high point that again I'm kind of stunned that I managed to see it unspoiled. The editing, alternating shots of Terry's feet, bloody face, and what he sees through blurred vision, puts us in his position so effectively that you can feel Terry's struggle to walk and, eventually, stand up straight. And then the boss, saying directly into the camera, "Let's go to work!" It's a victory, simultaneously joyous and deadening. After all that, he now has to go through a day's worth of intense physical labor?!? Terry Malloy is a true hero. The kind of hero America needs so desperately, even today: One who can speak truth to power, and despite the beating he may get from that, stands up and does what he has to for the good of not just himself, but his community. It's inspiring.

On The Waterfront
Year: 1954
Directed by: Elia Kazan
Screenplay by: Budd Schulberg
Starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger
Oscar: 8 WINS - Best Picture, Best Actor (Brando), Best Supporting Actress (Saint), Best Director, Best Writing-Story and Screenplay, Best B&W Cinematography (Boris Kaufman), Best B&W Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Film Editing. Nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Cobb, Malden, and Steiger lost to Edmond O'Brien in The Barefoot Contessa), and Best Score (lost to The High and the Mighty)

Rating: ****

Saturday, February 21, 2015

LIST: Directors Who Should Have Directed Fifty Shades of Grey

I read Fifty Shades of Grey. I saw Fifty Shades of Grey. It didn't suck. But I can't seem to stop myself from thinking about all the other, potentially better versions of that film we will never get to see, so I decided to entertain myself. Whose version of Fifty Shades would have been, if not better, then at least more interesting, than Sam Taylor-Johnson's? Here are my Top Ten, in alphabetical order:

Pedro Almodovar - Law of Desire is one of the sexiest films ever, and if it's bondage you want, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is where you should go. Almodovar has also dealt with the book's major themes of identity and coming of age in various films, most notably All About My Mother and Bad Education.

Lee Daniels - At the very least, his version would have been an entertaining mess. Daniels plays around with form a lot, and I can't help but wonder if he would have found a cool way of visualizing the novel's (admittedly, hilariously awful) conceit of the dialogue of Ana's "inner goddess".

David Fincher - Let's be clear: I don't think this would have happened in a million years, but Fincher's cool formalism would have been a good match for this, and as Fight Club and Gone Girl have shown, he knows his way around a strange sex scene. Plus, he got his start making sexy as hell music videos for the likes of Madonna ("Express Yourself") and Paula Abdul ("Cold Hearted").

Adrian Lyne - The master of the erotic drama, Lyne is the man behind Unfaithful (which boasted an Oscar-nominated performance from Diane Lane), Lolita (with Jeremy Irons), Fatal Attraction (another Oscar nominee), Indecent Proposal, Flashdance, and 9 1/2 Weeks (the big screen's big kahuna for kinky sex). Basically, his name on a project is a guarantee of well-made, steamy sex scenes.

Madonna - Hear me out. This is the woman who recorded "Erotica" and made it a hit Billboard single. The woman who made a coffee-table book called Sex. The woman who, in her fifties, posed in leather dominatrix gear on her album cover. Yes, W.E. was terrible. But if there's one thing Madonna knows, it's sex. And if you think a woman who has exerted this much control over her image throughout her career hasn't learned something about capturing hot, rough sex on film, you're crazy.

Nicolas Roeg - Three words: Don't Look Now. The 70s film was banned for the too-sexy sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. Perhaps the guy's still got it?

Steven Shainberg - Don't recognize the name? I don't blame you. Shainberg is the man behind the 2002 film Secretary, in which Maggie Gyllenhaal gets involved in a BDSM relationship with her boss James Spader. It's sexy and darkly comic, which would be a good tone for a film adaptation of Fifty Shades. Of course, he's also the director of the terrible Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, so who knows about his taste level... but the fact remains that Secretary is a near-perfect calling card for this gig.

Lars von Trier - DUH. If you wanted a no-holds-barred, NC-17 version of Fifty Shades, this is the man who was most likely to deliver it. Granted, he probably would have had Charlotte Gainsbourg play Ana, and it's is very likely that his version would have also been the misogynistic, anti-feminist version the haters of Fifty Shades want it to be, but of all the directors on this list, he's probably the one whose version of the film I would want to see most.

The Wachowski Siblings - One word: Bound. They're now known for their action spectacles in the wake of The Matrix, but they got their start with this incredibly sexy neo-noir starring Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon. And as we've seen from the Matrix films, they know how to make leather fetish gear look good on film. If they bring on their Cloud Atlas collaborator Tom Tykwer, then so much the better!

John Waters - If you wanted the camp disasterpiece version of Fifty Shades, this is the only human being alive who could have possibly delivered a good one. His filmography revels in it, while never ever shortchanging his characters. Unless they deserve it. I actually REALLY wish this had happened.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Oscar Winning Movies

Written for the blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. You should join us by picking three movies that meet the weekly topic and telling us about them!

Everyone's favorite awards show is just around the corner, so of course this week's topic is Oscar Winning Movies - from the pool of winners of Best Picture/Best Animated Film/Best Foreign Film. Obviously, this is a treasure trove of great movies (and a handful of not-so-good ones), so I decided to go with my favorite winners in each category. Completely by accident, I noticed a running theme. These all happen to be films with a perfect final scene.

Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1945) For my money, still far and away the greatest film to ever win Best Picture. Casablanca is top-notch filmmaking on every level, and I don't think every element of a film has ever worked so well together to create a whole. The script is full to bursting with instant classic lines, the cinematography creates immediate atmosphere in each scene, the editing is perfectly timed, the score is moving and essential. And the performances. It is cast perfectly, from the top all the way down. The last scene, at the airport, is so perfect that nothing will ever top it. This is pure Old Hollywood craft at its finest. Which is pretty damn fine, to say the least.

Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010) The last fifteen minutes. Holy crap, the last fifteen minutes. I liked the first two Toy Story films just fine, but I never had a Woody doll or a Buzz Lightyear action figure or anything. I never felt emotionally attached to them in any way. But I was a blubbering mess for the last fifteen minutes of this. Even now, I get choked up thinking about it. And in that last scene, as perfect an image of leaving childish things behind and moving on to adulthood as has ever been put on screen, the entire trilogy came full-circle in the most beautiful way. Possibly the greatest ending to a film trilogy ever.

Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1957) - Can we please just talk about Giulietta Masina for a minute? Because she is glorious, and I feel like no one talks about her anymore - if they ever really did. She has one of the great movie faces - all eyes and mouth, and all so expressive. Her body, too, is incredibly expressive. She may be a tiny thing, but she has an awareness and control over her body that few actresses have ever had. You can see all this in any of her collaborations with husband Federico Fellini, but it is Nights of Cabiria, particularly its final scene, where she shines brightest. The ultimate hooker with a heart of gold, Cabiria has suffered more indignities by this point than any person should ever have to bear, but a passing group of young people, riding on scooters and playing music, surround her, and she lets their joy take over, smiling through her tears in one of the most indelible images in all cinema. If that scene sounds familiar, it's because Nights of Cabiria was later turned into a little musical called Sweet Charity, which was then filmed by Bob Fosse starring Shirley MacLaine. MacLaine is a reasonable facsimile of Masina, but nothing can touch the real thing.

BONUS PICKS: My shortlist for my favorite Best Foreign Language Film was five long, and I was worried I was going to have to do a coin toss or something to choose. When my sub-theme became apparent, I realized I had to go with Cabiria, but I feel like I need to give a shout-out to two recent winners, both of which are absolutely perfect films: Asghar Farhadi's astonishingly precise A Separation and Michael Haneke's devastating Amour.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

REVIEW: Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades of Grey

BOTTOM LINE: Not good, exactly, but far better than what I was expecting.

Let's be honest: Fifty Shades of Grey, the film of E.L. James's blockbuster BDSM-flavored romance novel, was never going to be the sex-filled fantasia its most hardcore fans desired. It was also probably never going to be the so-bad-it's-good camp classic nearly everyone else was hoping for. All hope of either of those vanished the second a major studio (Universal) picked up the rights. Granted, it didn't have to be this way - anyone with eyes could see that the book had sold tens of millions of copies and it would still be a huge hit if the MPAA had slapped it with the dreaded NC-17 rating. It possibly would have been an even bigger hit, since it would have become even more of an "event" - the first NC-17 film to receive a wide release since Showgirls. But this is America, and Universal is a major corporation, so again: That was NEVER going to happen (Showgirls, if you'll remember, was a notorious flop). And as for camp, that probably only would have happened if John Waters had been hired to direct, which would have been interesting, but again, NEVER going to happen.

So the best audiences could reasonably hope for was a film that split the difference between a super-faithful adaptation and a knowing, wink-wink campy version. Which, shockingly, is mostly what the film delivers. Mostly, this is due to the performance of Dakota Johnson in the lead role of Anastasia Steele*. Johnson is, frankly, a revelation in the role (and I say this as a huge fan of her previous biggest project, the adorable short-lived Fox sitcom, Ben & Kate), providing the film with huge (completely intentional) laughs in her portrayal of the initially awkward and increasingly more self-possessed Ana. In the book, Ana is a drip, but Johnson makes a full-bodied human being, teasing humor out of every line she can in often unexpected ways, especially in the film's centerpiece scene, the late-night "business meeting" Ana arranges with Christian to review the Dominant/submissive contract he has prepared for her to sign.

Another note about that scene: I hope it will stop the brigade of people calling Fifty Shades "anti-feminist" or "anti-woman" or whatever. Sam Taylor-Johnson's direction and Kelly Marcel's script both bring out what was mostly subtext in the book, and what is the dirty little secret of BDSM relationships: It's really the "submissive" who has all the power. In this case, that's Ana. Not Christian. He may be the one using the riding crops and floggers (and I won't deny that there is history and subtext and all of that in images of women being bound, blindfolded, and hit by men, even for mutual sexual pleasure), but it's Ana who drives everything - it's Ana who tells Christian exactly what she is and is not okay with, Ana is the one who strings him along and makes him wait despite his "not playing fair" in her words (with the hotness and expensive gifts) and ultimately, it's Ana who shuts everything down when she realizes this is not something she's okay with. It's also important to note that the film is mostly focused on HER pleasure, not his.

Of course, that may be because Jamie Dornan is as dull as dishwater as Christian Grey. He brings good intensity and an intriguing peek behind the curtain during the scenes in Christian's playroom, but for the entire rest of the film, he's a blank space. This could be intentional - providing the audience a space to project their fantasy man onto Christian, or a set-up for scenes coming up in the inevitable sequels where Christian really starts opening up - but it does the character a disservice, rendering his chiseled physique and slightly chivalrous manners the only likable things about him.

The other thing to note about Fifty Shades of Grey - the book and the film - is that it was never really erotica. It's a romance with BDSM added for flavor. It follows all the standard romance tropes: a shy, virginal girl, a slightly mysterious bad-boy billionaire who "doesn't do romance" but shows enough romantic tendencies around said virginal girl to make her think she can change him, and a courtship involving mutual chasing, expensive gifts, and of course, lots of steamy sex. Taylor-Johnson perhaps errs to much on the side of romance, though, as the sex scenes are your standard Hollywood slickness - boobs, bush, and butts all make appearances, but God forbid any balls! - all tastefully lit and edited and overly scored. Not that the sex scenes aren't mostly effective, but there's nothing here that you haven't seen before, and when the film goes to such lengths to set up Christian's playroom as a place of forbidden pleasures and pain, it's weird when nothing that happens there feels particularly dangerous or exotic.

But, again, it's quite likely that this was the best we could ever hope for from this film. And while it might have been fun to see what NC-17 heights Lars von Trier, say, or Pedro Almodovar (or hell, maybe even Madonna), would have taken this property, that was never going to happen. This is what we got, and maybe it's enough that we got was groundbreaking: A mainstream BDSM-flavored romance written and directed by women, about a young woman's awakening, both sexual and otherwise. While it may not be great cinema, it certainly entertains, and I'm going to consider that a win.

*According to Taylor-Johnson in this Hollywood Reporter interview, all the actresses auditioning for Anastasia had to read a four-page monologue from, of all things, Ingmar Bergman's Persona. This may be my favorite behind-the-scenes anecdote OF ALL TIME.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Unrequited Love

Written for Wandering Through the Shelves' weekly blogathon. In order to play along, just choose three films that fit the week's category.

This week's theme for movie picks is Unrequited Love. My favorite kind. But in trying to make my picks this week, I had to remind myself of the definition. According to Wikipedia, Unrequited love is "love that is not openly reciprocated or understood as such. The beloved may or may not be aware of the admirer's deep and strong romantic affections." The Merriam Webster Online Dictionary defines unrequited as "not reciprocated or returned in kind."

You could argue that nearly every Romantic Comedy involves unrequited love in some way, but they usually end with the beloved's realization that SHOCKER, their true love was right in front of them the whole time! I rejected all those films outright, and insisted on some other parameters: The love must be made exceedingly clear, if not stated outright, and genuinely rejected (goodbye, In The Mood for Love, The Great Gatsby, etc.); no mid-film flings (sorry, Chasing Amy); and no anthology-type films where the unrequited love only plays a part in one story out of many (apologies, Love Actually). Fortunately... or unfortunately, depending on your point of view... I immediately thought of one perfect pick and two other picks for which I wanted to talk about anything BUT the unrequited love part. The fact that this is a gif-heavy post might give you a clue as to what I wanted to talk about instead...

Pretty In Pink (John Hughes, 1986) - Finally, a hero for the GUY with an unrequited crush on his GIRL best friend! I may never forgive Pretty In Pink for unleashing Jon Cryer on the world, but it's kind of hard to deny that this film, and Duckie, are damn good and iconic for a reason - and it's not that HIDEOUS dress Molly Ringwald wore to the prom. Much like John Hughes's previous classic The Breakfast Club, there's something here for any teenager to relate to. And really, enough cannot be said about that perfect final scene, scored to OMD's "If You Leave". No matter who you want Ringwald's Andie to end up with, it's impossible not to get caught up in the romance of that scene.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. (Glenn Ficara, John Requa, 2011) - A young boy not-so-secretly in love with his babysitter, who's secretly in love with said boy's father - at least until her own father discovers the nude pictures she planned to give her unrequited love. Oldest story in the world, right? Okay, fine, this is really just a Trojan horse to talk about Ryan Gosling's Photoshopped body. Can you blame me? The man is PERFECT. The mid-film scene with Gosling and Emma Stone is a masterpiece short film, a sex scene that-really-isn't.... a love scene in the best sense of the word. This is one of the best mainstream romantic comedies Hollywood has produced in years, primarily because it treats its characters like real people with real emotions (and perfect bodies).

The Paperboy (Lee Daniels, 2012) - Jesus, who WOULDN'T be in love with Nicole Kidman's Charlotte Bless?!? Because, really, how fucking brilliant is she in Lee Daniels's batshit, tonally confused (and still somehow slightly dull) Southern Gothic? It's one of the most audacious star turns in recent memory. You can't blame Zac Efron for going all head over heels for her crazy sexy/sexual hairdresser. It's hard to believe she doesn't reciprocate for him in those wet briefs, but, well... she kinda has a thing for creepy psycho backwoods murderers played by John Cusack at his most repugnant, so... Plus, I think it's pretty obvious she's WAY too much woman for poor little Zac - she'd chew him up and spit him out in five minutes.


These are two of my favorites, ones I almost picked but determined they didn't really count for some reason.

My Best Friend's Wedding (P.J. Hogan, 1997) - I was seconds away from choosing this one, but then I remembered that there's one scene where Dermot Mulroney makes it pretty clear that he wants Julia Roberts to tell him she loves him. We don't know that he feels the same way back, but the subtext is that he probably does - or at the very least is considering running away with her. If you don't know this one (and you should), Roberts's Julianne and Mulroney's Michael made a pact that if neither of them were married by the time they turned 28 they would marry each other. Three weeks before that happens, Michael calls Julianne and tells her that he's getting married to the preppy Kimmy (Cameron Diaz). Julianne freaks out that he's marrying someone so "wrong" for him and realizes it's because she really loves him. But he sees her as his best friend so much that Kimmy asks Julianne to be her maid of honor. So of course, Julianne decides to split up the happy couple before they even get married. Of course, things don't exactly go according to plan. Julia Roberts is deliciously bitchy in one of her best performances, and Cameron Diaz is perfect as Kimmy. And also, Rupert Everett plays the ultimate Gay BFF.

A Single Man (Tom Ford, 2009) - I had already written this up when I suddenly had a crisis of conscience: Does Julianne Moore's Charlie ACTUALLY say to Colin Firth's George that she loves him? Panicked, I checked. Unfortunately, the answer was yes AND no. She tells him that she is jealous that she never had the kind of love with him that he had with his now-dead lover of many years Jim (Matthew Goode at his most perfect), but then immediately follows it up by saying, far too honestly to be covering anything up, that she never had that kind of love with anybody. That would have to include George, so I have to say that it isn't true unrequited love. This is one of my favorite Julianne Moore performances, such a finely-detailed character study in really only one scene. And to say nothing of Colin Firth's heartbreaking, career-best work. And Tom Ford brings his flawless designer's eye to every single frame. He's not quite Wong Kar-Wai, mind you, but I still treasure this film, flaws and all.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks: Romantic Comedies

Written for the blogathon hosted by the lovely Wander at Wandering Through the Shelves. Just pick three movies around the week's theme and post them to your blog to play along!

This week's theme is Romantic Comedies. I'll be honest, I generally like romances more than I like romantic comedies. Sure, there are quite a few that I genuinely enjoy, but rom-coms have gotten a bad rap over the past couple of decades or so, and it's easy to see why. They always seem to play to the lowest common denominator and quite often play to "traditional" gender roles, coming off as misogynist and old-fashioned despite whatever modern concessions they may make. You'll hear a lot of people refer to the entire genre as Chick Flicks or Crappy Rom-Coms, but there is a difference between "Crappy Rom-Coms" and ACTUALLY CRAPPY rom-coms.. Despite their generally crappy nature, there are some of the latter type that are actually quite enjoyable in spite of themselves. Everyone has one or two completely awful films that they love in spite of themselves, right? So, herewith, my picks for:

Actually Crappy Romantic Comedies That I Love Anyway

"This is not the girl scouts, this is espionage!"

D.E.B.S. (2004, Angela Robinson) The conditions under which you see a film can count for a lot in your overall impressions of it, and such was the case for me with D.E.B.S. My best friend in college (who happened to be a lesbian) dragged me to see it, and the only knowledge I had of it was one ad in a magazine that featured four girls with guns dressed in slightly slutty schoolgirl uniforms, one of whom was Devon Aoki. So I had no idea that I was in for a campy lesbian rom-com/spy spoof with delightful cameos by Holland Taylor and Michael Clarke Duncan. And look, there's no denying that Angela Robinson's feature-length version of her short film pretty much fails as a film. But as a piece of entertainment, it more than delivers. It announces itself as a great spoof practically from the first frame, with a voiceover about a test hidden inside the SAT that determines what high school-age girls would make great spies (WTF?!?), who then get admitted to a top-secret spy university. There are tons of jokes, both eye-rollingly bad and gut-bustingly good, and the entire cast sells every one of them like their rent was past due. I love this movie just as much as Jordana Brewster's supervillain Lucy Diamond hates Australians (why, you ask? "I don't like their attitude," she deadpans PERFECTLY). Just promise me that if you watch it, you go in with expectations so low you could walk over them.

"This is nutty... hazelnutty!"

Simply Irresistible (1999, Mark Tarlov) Looking at any still or description of this movie is enough to let you know that it is truly, deeply crappy. For one thing, Buffy the Vampire Slayer herself has auburn hair and looks like she has forgotten what normal people look like doing just about anything. For another, the story revolves around her being an awful cook until she unwittingly brings home... WAIT FOR IT... a magic crab. Let me repeat that: A magic fucking crab turns Sarah Michelle Gellar into the amazing chef she always wanted to be since her legendary chef mother died. I could not give two shits about any of that, though, because this fucker right here is so goofily endearing in the weirdest of ways (thank GOD for Patricia Clarkson, who can make just about everything watchable). I am at a complete and utter loss as to why I love this terrible, awful, no-good, very bad film, but I do.

"...actually, there is no worse fate than being gay and Italian!"

Mambo Italiano (2003, Émile Gaudreault) Consider this a stand-in for the many, many crappy gay rom-coms that I have watched and loved for literally no other reason than they feature two attractive men as their central couple. This one is kind of a like a gay Italian version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding that takes place in Canada, except much, much worse than that description sounds. I don't care. It's even adorable even when it's over-the-top tacky and loud and gratingly awful (as these kind of films usually are), and it's always nice to see Paul Sorvino as a tough but eventually proud Italian papa!

BONUS PICK: The Best Romantic Comedy of the Last Ten Years

Populaire (2012, Régis Roinsard) I remember hearing about Populaire when it came out, that it was a massive crowd-pleasing success in France, so much so that it even had the chance to break out in America. Unfortunately, it came and went here with nary a peep, as so many foreign films do nowadays (remember when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon made over $100 million? Those were the days...), which is completely unfair, because this is a freaking magical film. Taking place in 1950s Normandy, it centers on the relationship between country gal Rose Pamphyle (the adorable Déborah Francois) and her new big-city boss, Louis Echard (the swoon-worthy Romain Duris). Rose may be a terrible secretary, but she is a speed demon of a typist, and Louis decides to enter her in (and later train her for) a speed-typing competition (a fad which is apparently sweeping the nation - and the world). Impeccably designed, gorgeously scored, cleverly scripted and shot, and acted with great care, Populaire is a delight on every level. It would make for a perfect Valentine's Day movie with your loved one, paired with some champagne and bonbons. You can find it on Netflix Instant - add it to your queue now!