Thursday, June 25, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - All In The Family Edition: Sibling Relationships

Written as part of the blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. You should join us - just pick three films that fit the week's theme and tell us about them!

This month's All In The Family edition of Thursday Movie Picks is all about movie siblings. I have such a love-hate relationship with my sister. But since siblings know each other better than anyone else, I think that's true of most siblings. It certainly is for the ones in my picks this week!

Pleasantville (Gary Ross, 1998) An antagonistic brother and sister (perfectly-cast Reese Witherspoon and never-better Tobey Maguire) end up being sent to the world of fictional '50s sitcom "Pleasantville", where everything is pleasant and breakfast consists of the largest stack of pancakes you've ever seen, eggs, sausage, bacon, AND a hamsteak. Topped, of course, with a generous portion of syrup (much to the carb-fearing Reese's chagrin). Unfortunately, although he knows the show backwards and forwards, she doesn't, and they end up changing the black & white world of the show to one of color. Stunning cinematography/visual effects and great performances from Joan Allen (Oscar-nominated for this role), William H. Macy, Jeff Daniels, and (of all people) Paul Walker make this one of my all-time favorites.

A League of Their Own (Penny Marshall, 1992) Dottie and Kit are siblings who grew up on a farm. Dottie is the perfect daughter while Kit is a bit more of a wild child/tomboy. They both play softball for a local team (Dottie's the catcher and Kit pitches), and when a scout comes around looking for girls to play baseball in the absence of men (it's in the middle of WWII), he wants Dottie, who refuses to go to tryouts without her kid sister. Of course, they both end up on the same team, which exacerbates their sibling rivalry even more. The whole cast of this film is stellar (Geena Davis and Lori Petty make a terrific sisterly duo, and even Jon Lovitz is bearable), but let's be honest: it's really the Madonna and Rosie O'Donnell show. From their first scene at tryouts as Noo Yawkers Mae and Doris, the movie is all theirs.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962) All hail the greatest (non-sibling) rivalry in Hollywood! Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are each superb in this gothic horror show about two  sisters confined to a house where Blanche (Crawford), a former movie star, is crippled and Jane (Davis) is a drunk who is trying to recapture her glory days as a child star. Far and away the most toxic sibling relationship ever put on film. (PS - If you haven't seen the parody British comic duo French & Saunders did of this, you should. It is DEAD ON, especially Jennifer Saunders's Crawford.)

The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille, 1956) I didn't feel right picking this one because TECHNICALLY Moses and Rameses aren't biologically related, although they're raised like brothers. And then while writing this, I realized that even if they WERE biologically related, they wouldn't be brothers, they'd be cousins - Moses's mother being the Pharaoh's sister and all. But anyway, their sibling-esque rivalry informs their entire relationship in this grandest of grand epics, certainly one of the biggest films ever made, and still glorious today, almost 60 years later.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - The Red Shoes

Look, I'll just come right out and say it: I don't know how to talk about Powell & Pressburger's The Red Shoes. Whenever I try, I'm suddenly utterly incapable of forming words, let alone coherent sentences. It is one of the most beautiful films ever made, and its influence can be felt far and wide, in films as different as Raging Bull and Center Stage. It is a landmark film for many reasons, but when it comes the how it films dance, it is so brilliant that all I can do is sigh. The only way to explain it is to see it. Words cannot do it justice. This is one film where the old "a picture is worth a thousand words" maxim comes into play, for I do not think enough words could possibly be written about this film, which flashes 24 pictures of pure Technicolor perfection at you per second for 133 minutes (how on God's green Earth did Jack Cardiff not get an Oscar nomination for his cinematography here?!?!?).

I mean, take this shot from the ballet sequence (all dance on film begins and ends here. There is no topping this. Everyone should just stop trying):
Even in terrible quality, it's gorgeous. You know the story of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, right? Basically, girl puts on pretty pair of red shoes, cannot stop dancing, dies. Everything about this shot is so perfectly ethereal - as Moira Shearer's Victoria Page dances her part in the ballet, she keeps going even as the other fair-goers around her drop from exhaustion. Even the posters fall down. But our heroine keeps dancing. On and on. And on and on. And the colors. THE COLORS. Good GOD but they are wondrous.

The brilliant thing about The Red Shoes the film is how it parallels the fairy tale story. Victoria Page cannot stop dancing. Not for the love of her life. Not for anyone or anything. When Lermontov, the director of the ballet, asks her why she wants to dance, she gives the only response:

"Why do you want to live?"

Lermontov answers, of course, that he simply must, but it's a rhetorical question. To dance, for Vicky, is to live. There isn't one without the other.

Which is why, if forced (and CURSE YOU, Nathaniel, for forcing me to), I have to pick this as the film's Best Shot:

When Victoria first hears the audience's applause, this is what we see. Waves crashing on the shore of the stage. It's such a perfectly impressionistic moment, and the film is full of moments like this (especially during the ballet sequences, which could never EVER actually be reproduced on stage). But beyond the perfect metaphor of the shot, note that we have our three main characters in a triangle. Victoria in the foreground, with Lermontov and Julian in the background, almost overtaken completely by the image of the waves. They're the only two people watching that matter to Victoria, but what really, truly matters to her is the dance. And the audience's response. As a performer, I can speak to that high, and it is indeed like ocean waves - you let that applause wash over you like the most lovely ocean water, and try not to get completely swept up in it. You want to stay as grounded as you can. But there will always be people in the audience whose praise you crave, and even in the heat of the moment, as you're swept up in the love of the entire audience, you can spot them clear as day.

Basically, this shot is perfect on every possible level. As is most of The Red Shoes, but this is the one that means the most to me.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Magic Mike

Written for the series hosted by Nathaniel R. at The Film Experience. Check out what else is going on there - the magnificent actress Ann Dowd guest-hosted the site this week!

I was just watching Magic Mike this past weekend, trying to convince my boyfriend to see the sequel because the original was far better than it had any right to be, because it was a completely different film than any description of it might suggest. You hear the words "Channing Tatum male stripper drama" and you can't help but get a certain image in your head. Especially if you've seen clips of Matthew McConaughey's legendary performance. But Reid Carolin's script and Steven Soderbergh's direction subvert that at practically every turn. Magic Mike, based on Tatum's experience as a male stripper, is actually a whopper of a character study. That's probably because Tatum really KNOWS these people. Like, knows them on a deeper level than they probably know themselves. Constantly up on the take, these are "bros" who might aspire to something more... or would, if they had any ambition to change their lives or, you know, actually DO anything.
But what struck me most this time around was just how much the film is about the act of watching. The film's first scene is of Dallas (seriously, McConaughey is SO brilliant here) telling the audience that "the law says you cannot touch", follows it up with a glorious shot of Tatum's ass, and then proceeds to withhold the stripping for nearly half an hour. What a tease. Perfect for a film about stripping. But if you can't touch - and we in the movie theater or our home or wherever else we're watching the film certainly can't touch the dancers of the Xquisite revue - the only thing you can do is watch.

And the film is full of shots of people watching things - be they half-naked people or Joe Manganiello's giant dick in a penis pump or something else entirely. It comes close to being an indictment of the audience and their expectations/demands. Sort of, "Oh, you thought this was going to be a hootin'-hollerin' good time? An easy-breezy summer skin flick? How dare you expect so little of us! Oh we'll give you what you want, but you may not want it when we do."
Best Shot Runner-up; we've never seen dance from this angle before!
When we do get to the stripping, it feels weird. It's not what we expect. It feels low-rent, and a little cheesy - but not in a good way. Not in a Showgirls way, either. It's enough to make you feel JUST bad enough about not only watching, but wanting to see it. Not so much that you don't enjoy it, but enough to make you feel the tiniest bit guilty about it. It's a clever trick, actually, and Soderbergh is a wizard in how he pulls it off. The yellow tint of the cinematography makes the whole film feel like Florida - hot and muggy and draggy. The retro soundtrack gets you revved up but also makes you feel a bit nostalgic. The shots are mostly wide, and the editing isn't fast really, but it cuts enough to make you wish it would stay on its subjects a bit longer, so you can really appreciate their great dancing (and their great bodies).

And so all of this is why I chose this as my Best Shot. When Cody Horn's Brooke shows up at the revue to see if what her brother Adam (Alex Pettyfer, perfectly cast for once in his life) told her about his new job was actually real, she doesn't know what to expect. And when his new best friend/mentor Mike tells her to stay and watch the rest of the show, she's dismissive. But then as she's about to leave, she hears the crowd go wild for Dallas's intro for "Magic" Mike. And then Ginuwine's "Pony" starts up, and Mike starts dancing, and she can't quite look away.
And as the dancing/stripping continues, we keep coming back to that closeup of her, getting slightly closer each time, watching every emotion flicker across her face just like the lights in the club. She thinks it's ridiculous. She thinks it's hot. She likes it. She's surprised she likes it. She hates herself for liking it. She hates the other women for liking it. She hates Mike for being so damn fine. People gave Cody Horn a lot of shit for this performance, but looking at this shot I don't get it. Yes, she's a bit affectless, but that's the character. She's a perfect foil for Tatum in her low-key naturalism, and when she lets loose with that smile, she makes you feel like you've earned it - completely key in selling this character as someone Mike would be interested in.

I don't think there's been a single shot in recent times that so thoroughly shows the audience their reaction to watching the movie in which it takes place. It's genius, and completely essential to the film, giving us all that we need to see that maybe Brooke isn't a complete stick in the mud, and that she and Mike might actually be good for each other. It's the key to the whole movie: Screw up this moment, and the film fails. But it's Soderbergh, so he knows how important this moment it is and nails it. Far be it from me to advocate taking time away from watching Channing Tatum dance, but this shot is worth it.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Animated Movies

Written for the blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join us (we regulars are a friendly group!) by picking three movies that meet the week's theme and telling everyone about them.

I love animated movies. Always have. They have the ability to do much more, to be more creative, than live-action movies, because of the simple fact that they aren't tethered to reality in any way shape or form. This week I wanted to shine a light on some lesser-known films that should be just as beloved as any Disney or Pixar classic.

Allegro Non Troppo (Bruno Bozzetto, 1976) This is kind of cheating a little, as there is a live-action "frame story" in this Italian parody of Disney's Fantasia. Bozzetto goes a little meta here, telling the story of an animator who comes up with what he thinks is an original idea (animation set to classical music), and finds out it's already been done by an American. But he decides to make his own version anyway, using an orchestra of old ladies. But the animated sequences are at the heart of the film, and they are each completely different and stunning in their own way. There's the ersatz evolution story set to Ravel's "Bolero", the exploration of mob mentality in Dvorak's "Slavonic Dance No. 7, Op. 46",  and a version of the Adam and Eve story accompanied by Stravinsky's "Firebird". And then, my favorite, this sequence set to Sibelius's "Valse Triste". I dare you not to shed a tear.

Mary & Max (Adam Elliot, 2009) I don't think I have the words to express my love of this Australian oddity, except to say that if you haven't seen it, you should drop whatever it is you are doing and do so this instant. I mean it. The story of a young Australian girl and an older Jewish American man who become the most unlikely of pen pals is funny, heartfelt, and wise beyond belief. I love it so, and only partially because the end makes me weep buckets.

Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley, 2009) If you haven't seen Sita Sings the Blues yet, why the hell not? It's FREE online! Nina Paley released it under a Creative Commons license, having become a leading member of the free culture movement after experiencing trouble getting the rights to certain Annette Hanshaw songs she wanted to use in the film. Fiendishly clever and devilishly funny, Paley's adaptation of the Hindu epic "The Ramayana" is a gorgeous, flawless piece of animation, encompassing multiple different styles across its two story strands: One the traditional story, told from the point of view of the hero's wife, and the other Paley's own story of how her husband ended their relationship. The two stories have more in common than you might think, and part of the fun is in watching what new, eye-popping things Paley is going to try next to tell her story.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Movies Set in a High School

Written as part of the blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. You should join; it's fun and easy! Just pick three movies that fit the week's theme and tell us about them!

Ah, high school: that great cesspool of American teenage life. I actually had a pretty decent high school experience - certainly not the best time of my life (that would be college), but certainly not even close to a bad one. But in the movies, high school is either a magical place you never want to leave or a hellhole you can't get away from fast enough. And nothing in between. I always wondered if people who wrote movies about how amazing high school was were people who peaked in high school or if they were re-writing their teenage years to be better than they actually were.

BUT ANYWAY.... Enough about me. On to my picks for the week! Two 80s classics and two modern almost-classics.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I originally didn't pick Clueless and She's All That for "Teen Comedy" week because I wanted to save them for this. But then I thought of two other films I liked better.

The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985) Easily the greatest movie about high school ever made, and the only movie I can think of that is entirely set inside a high school. This '80s classic should be shown to every incoming high school freshman on their first day, so effectively does it show that no matter what our outwardly defining traits may be, everyone has some deep hurt in their life, and that "each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal." John Hughes's masterpiece speaks to every teen, and to the teen inside all of us. If only all detention was this rewarding (and unsupervised).

Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989) Set in an all-boys prep school in the 1950s, this film's cast is like a who's who of (then) up-and-coming actors: Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Josh Charles... and of course, Robin Williams as the English teacher we all wish we had (except for the whole defacing a book thing). Williams's Mr. Keating (which also just happened to be the name of my favorite high school English teacher) inspires his students to actually love poetry and live by the principles of the great poets - to really see beauty in the world around them, not just study it as the school's Headmaster would have him do. Of course, this being a prep school in the 50s, the parents don't take too kindly to their sons getting silly ideas in their heads about performing in plays and not respecting their fathers' authority. A beautiful film filled with great performances.

Hamlet 2 (Andrew Fleming, 2008) It's really a pity not many people saw this movie. This story of down-and-out high school drama teacher Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan), who decides to write a musical sequel to Shakespeare's immortal play Hamlet for the annual school show, is the best/worst, funniest/stupidest, most inappropriate high school movie ever made. A spoof of inspiring-teacher dramas, let's-put-on-a-show musicals, and high school movies in general (think of an unholy combination of Dangerous Minds, Step Up, and Waiting for Guffman) Hamlet 2 is completely insane, and that's before Elizabeth Shue shows up playing herself. And WAY before we actually get to the performance of the show itself, which includes such stirring musical numbers as "Raped in the Face" and "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus".


G.B.F. (Darren Stein, 2013) When three popular high school girls running for prom queen realize that the must-have accessory for the school year is the elusive (in their neck of the woods) Gay Best Friend (or GBF), they all latch onto the one gay guy they know, who was recently accidentally outed by his own gay best friend. Suddenly, his life becomes worse and better simultaneously. Because you see, he's really a shy little wallflower, not the outgoing FABULOUS! gay the girls want/expect him to be. Naturally, they help hum out! But do any of these girls actually like him for him? Or do they just like him for what he can do for them? G.B.F. isn't quite the next-gen Mean Girls it's clearly dying to be, but the cast is game (all hail Xosha "fluorescent beige" Roquemore from Precious, who is EVERYTHING), it's pleasant to watch, and it's very funny. And lead Michael J. Willett is, as the kiddies say nowadays, totes adorbs.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Kids Movies That Adults Would Enjoy (Non-Animated)

Written as part of the blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Play along by picking three movies that fit the weekly theme and telling us about them!

Well, color me stumped. I kept thinking of movies that I THOUGHT fit this category, only they turned out to be animated, or really for teens not kids, or some such. It's hard enough to make a good film for adults, but a film specifically aimed at children that adults would also enjoy? No mean feat, that. But I think I've found the answer.

A Little Princess (Alfonso Cuaròn, 1995) Maybe it's just because it was when I grew up, but the 90s were something of a Golden Age for family films. There were excellent versions of The Secret Garden and Little Women (directed by Agnieszka Holland and Gillian Armstrong) in 1993 and 1994 respectively, and then a year later there was this, directed by recent Oscar winner Alfonso Cuaròn. The story of A Little Princess is a bit trite (single father brings daughter to boarding school when he goes off to the army; father dies in battle, leaving the girl with no family and no money to pay for the school, and the Evil Headmistress turns her into a sort of elementary school-aged Cinderella, but she perseveres through strength of character and ability to tell stories), but the filmmaking and performances here are top-notch. Cuaròn showed such promise here - it's not hard to see the seeds of the auteur who made Children of Men and Gravity.

Babe (Chris Noonan, 1995) If you don't love this movie, there might be something wrong with you. Just saying. The story of a pig who becomes the world's greatest sheepdog through the power of kindness, Babe is just about the cutest damn movie you ever did see, and somehow manages to make live-action talking animals NOT creepy. Surely the film's Oscar-winning visual effects help, but the great vocal performances go a long way in that regard as well. James Cromwell and the hilarious Magda Szubanski lend perfect human support. In a just world, this would have won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1995.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (Brian Henson, 1992) Words cannot express how much I love this movie. And while I would say it's more clearly aimed at kids than the previous Muppet movies, this one holds the exact same pleasures for adults as those earlier hits. Michael Caine makes for a wonderful Scrooge, the concept of Gonzo (and Rizzo) narrating the story as Charles Dickens provides tons of laughs, the Muppets are all perfectly cast, and the design of the ghosts is perfection. And of course, there are the delightful, tuneful songs.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Dick Tracy

Written as part of the series hosted by the fabulous Nathaniel at The Film Experience.

It's funny how differently you respond to movies as a kid as to when you're an adult. I have only vague memories of Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, mostly of how much I wanted that yellow hatted-and-trenchcoated man to take me under his wing and come rescue me from the bad guys. But other than Madonna and the perfectly grotesque makeup jobs on the comic book villains (this is a comic book film that ACTUALLY LOOKS like a goddamn comic book, and thank GOD for that!), there is only one specific thing I remember completely clearly. This shot:

There's nothing particularly remarkable about the shot - it's not the first time we see "No Face", nor is it the first time we hear that terribly constricted voice. But whenever the film is brought up (which admittedly isn't often, but still...), my mind immediately flashes to this shot. And after looking at it for quite a long time I think I know why:

It's understated.

Dick Tracy is a gaudy, almost garish film. It leans into the aesthetics of its comic book roots almost as much as Sin City leans into that of its graphic novel source. It's not a bad thing, either: this is one of the most fun comic book films ever made - enough to make you wish the comic book movies of today would leave the "real world" behind completely - and the design (production, lighting, costume, makeup) is constantly surprising and delightful.

But this shot eschews nearly ALL of that. It's so stark and dimly lit. You still have the film's primary color scheme, but these colors are muted as opposed to the brightness found everywhere else. And that blank face is so perfectly wiped clean of any identifying traits. By rights, your focus should be on the gun, but instead it's all about that face - or rather, that anti-face. It conjures up a sense of mystery perfectly by not just looking completely different from everything surrounding it, but by forcing your focus to that blankness at the center.

*                    *                    *

Of course, it makes sense that - SPOILER - the person under that mask is Madonna, the woman of a thousand faces. This is probably her second-best screen performance (after A League of Their Own, obviously), all deeply carnal sensuality as the femme fatale Breathless Mahoney. She rarely gets the credit she deserves as an actress, and it's true that most of her work here doesn't go deeper than the surface, but it's actually pretty damn good. And slyly smart: Given that she's a completely blank slate for most of the film, the final reveal should come as no surprise to anyone.