Thursday, July 28, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - World War I

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. If you don't know the deal by now, welcome! And why if you do, then come on in and join us! The water's fine!

Busybusybusy this week.

Let's do this quick and dirty style.

All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930) Still one of the greatest Oscar Best Picture winners, over 80 years later.

Sergeant York (Howard Hawks, 1941) The beginning of my love affair with Gary Cooper.

A Very Long Engagement (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2004) Audrey Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel, Jodie Foster (speaking French), a very young Marion Cotillard, and Oscar-nominated cinematography. What more could you ask for?

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Hit Me WIth Your Best Shot - 1977: JULIA

Fred Zinneman's Julia is kind of a strange picture. Memory, speculation, and the present intermingle in very off-beat ways in the first reel of the film, as Jane Fonda's Lillian Hellman has trouble writing her play and thinks of her best childhood friend, Julia (the inimitable, Oscar-winning Vanessa Redgrave). Or maybe she's having writer's block because she can't stop thinking of Julia?

I don't know, it's hard to say. What shocked me the most about the film was how I kept thinking that the whole storyline really only made sense as a queer romance, and how well Fonda was portraying that just under the surface.... and then the film ACTUALLY WENT THERE. TWICE. First, Lillian actually says "I love you," to Julia in a way that is more than just strictly friendly. Second, one of Lillian's very drunk friends first insinuates (I think?) that he had something incestuous going on with his sister when they were teenagers, and then tells her that everyone knew about her and Julia. Color me shocked. It never goes farther than that, but it was much farther than I ever thought the film would go, and even arguably farther than it would if the same film were made today, shockingly enough.

"I love you, Julia"

Because of this, I was very tempted to pick a shot of the two ladies together, particularly in what is far and away the film's best scene, their reunion at a Café in Nazi-era Berlin (Julia is a member of the resistance and has tasked a rather frightened Lillian with smuggling a large sum of money across the border from Paris). Or, even more so, the first time I got an inkling as to there being a little something more in that relationship, when they dance with each other in their nightgowns on New Year's Eve.

But in the end I couldn't go with any of the pictures of the actresses. What really made the film for me, was DP Douglas Slocombe's shots of the train Lillian rides for the film's middle third (a very solid thriller despite the fact that Fonda overplays it, with help from whoever was applying her sweat). They're beautifully lit, and provide far better context for the world in which this story is taking place than the many deliciously designed interiors that make up most of the film.

This is when the train taking Lillian to Berlin first leaves Paris, and it's both gorgeous and foreboding in equal measure, a perfect set-up for what's to come.

But my pick for Best Shot struck such a chord that it shocked me right of the reverie the film had lulled me into. I can't claim it's in as technically brilliant a shot as my runner up, but thematically, it packs a wallop.

A steam train rolling a through wintry snow. Not particularly noteworthy, right? But remember, the train is coming up on Berlin at the start of the Third Reich. The image of a train in Germany at that time, and snow falling like ash from the gray sky, is one that has a hell of a lot of baggage. It was only at this point that I fully grasped what was going on in the world around Lillian, and just how much danger she, a Jewish American woman, was in going to Berlin at this time. I can't think of a more concise way to make that statement than with this image. Besides what the image calls to mind, it's also the only shot in the film that barely has a single color in it - it might as well be in black & white. The reds and browns and greens that have dominated the film so far are all but gone here. It's a cruel cut just when you think the worst part of Lillian's journey is behind her, a hugely impactful image set up and inserted into the film for maximum impact.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Summer Camp

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

It's summertime, y'all! And you know what that means....


For two summers when I was a teenager (plus a third which was spent abroad with the same kids), I went to sleepaway camp, and I can honestly say they were formative summers for me. That was when I finally started to "come into my own", and it might have taken a stronger hold if the friends I made at camp hadn't lived so far away. I still remember practically every bit of those summers even now so many years later, mostly with fondness.

Which is more than the kids in these movies can probably say...

Addams Family Values (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1993) I really can't with how brilliantly funny this film is. I love the first Addams Family movie a lot, but this is the rare great sequel that works precisely because it dials everything great about the first one up to eleven. Paul Rudnick's script is chock full of gags and laugh lines, and the entire cast is gold. None more so than Joan Cusack as the demonically nice "Black Widow" who sets her sights on Uncle Fester, and of course Christina Ricci, who is so brilliant as Wednesday that I knew even as a nine year-old when this came out that she was a great actress. The scenes at the moronically chipper summer camp are for the ages.

Camp (Todd Graff, 2003) I will say this about Camp: This is a movie that, on paper, I should love. I mean, the whole thing is about a musical theater camp and it deals with issues of sexuality that would naturally arise in such a setting, and deals with them in very adult ways. But I don't. Something about it never quite comes together for me... maybe too much of it is too obvious? Maybe too many of the actors are too green? I don't know. But the musical numbers are pretty damn good, and Anna Kendrick is KILLER as the (probably criminally) insane Fritzi, delivering a ridiculously age-inappropriate, unbelievably good "The Ladies Who Lunch". Basically, when Camp is good, it's VERY good, but when it's not, it's terrible.

Stage Fright (Jerome Sable, 2014) I know what you're thinking: A musical comedy slasher flick? That sounds AWFUL! And make no mistake: Stage Fright is so bad it's AWESOME. The musical numbers are (mostly) a blast, the acting is 80s-slasher-flick level bad, and the whole thing approaches a level of camp not usually seen in a horror film (let alone most modern movie musicals). Above all, this is a movie that knows it's pretty bad, and has a LOT of fun with that. It should be a guilty pleasure, but I don't feel guilty about liking this one at all.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Female Ensembles

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Come along and join us by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and saying a little something about them!

I'll get straight to the point. There is only one film with a female ensemble that matters, really. Every single one since is just a pale imitation. So let it be known that if you love movies at all, and especially if you love actresses, then you owe it to yourself to watch my first pick.

The rest are good, too, but they're not at all a patch on...

The Women (George Cukor, 1939) Yes, from Hollywood's annus mirabilis comes the greatest all-female ensemble ever assembled, getting to act one of its wittiest screenplays. When Norma Shearer's husband starts sleeping around with that hussy Joan Crawford, she goes out to a ranch in Reno so they can get a divorce.... and once that's done, she comes back to get revenge! The Women is an utter delight from start to finish. The only bad part is picking a favorite: Crawford, whose haughtiness makes it clear she's never anything but the lead in anything? Shearer, the all-too-human anchor who sends all her feelings straight through the screen directly to us? Paulette Goddard, the spitfire Shearer meets in Reno who could go toe-to-toe with any man? Mary Boland, delightful as the many-times divorced Countess who ALMOST puts over that she really does believe in "l'amour! l'amour"? Or the queen bee of fast-talkers, Rosalind Russell, whose gossipy gadfly may just be the true villain of the picture? I can't possibly choose. Can you?

8 Women (François Ozon, 2002) Only some of the greatest actresses in the world come from France, and somehow 90% of those are in this movie (the only biggie I can think of that's missing? Isabelle Adjani). Ozon's classic murder mystery setup (a man is murdered by someone he knows in his mansion in the middle of a snowstorm, everyone else tries to figure out which one of them did it) gets two twists: The first is that all the suspects are women. And what women! Deneuve! Ardant! Huppert! Béart! Darrieux! All cast perfectly to type and clearly having a blast with it. 8 Women is such a blast if only to get to watch these great actresses play off each other. What's that? The other twist? OH. It's a musical. Each of the titular eight women gets a character song to sing when the spotlight of the investigation falls on them. Not all of the ladies are good singers, but it doesn't matter; they know how to cover for their lesser abilities and perform the heck out of them anyway. It's stuff like that that make 8 Women such a joy.

Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino, 2007) BEFORE YOU START! Technically, this is NOT cheating. Yes, Death Proof was originally released as one-half of the Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez collaboration Grindhouse, but it also received a berth of its own at the Cannes Film Festival and was released on DVD as a solo feature (albeit both in a longer cut than in Grindhouse). And I'll be honest, the shorter Grindhouse cut is INFINITELY better than the longer "Director's Cut" version. But either way, Death Proof still has one of the greatest car chases ever committed to film, thanks to the brilliant casting of the great stuntwoman Zoe Bell (Uma Thurman's stuntwoman on Kill Bill) as one of a group of ladies who fall into the clutches of Kurt Russell's maniacal Stuntman Mike, who likes to crash his "death proof" stunt car into cars full of pretty ladies. Russell is at his magnetic best in the role, but it's really all about the two groups of women who fall victim to Mike (including the scorching hot Sidney Tamiia Poitier and Vanessa Ferlito) and who fight back (Bell, Tracie Thoms, and Rosario Dawson). The car chase that takes up almost an entire third of Death Proof is killer, but what's even better is what the ladies do once they catch up to the twisted Mike, the most cleverly edited scene of Tarantino's career, culminating in one of cinema's greatest finale freeze-frames.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

There were Technicolor pictures made before Howard Hawks's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and there were Technicolor pictures made after it, but I don't think there is one that is MORE of a Technicolor picture than this one.

I MEAN. Have you ever seen such red? Even Dorothy's ruby slippers don't come close to this. And Hawks (and DP Harry J. Wild) knows just the best ways to make sure the colors of costume designer Travilla's glorious costumes really pop:

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Thursday Movie Picks - Single Location Movies

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. We're always here, every Thursday, picking three movies that fit the week's theme - join us! The water's fine!

People talk a lot about the need to "open up" plays when they transfer to the big screen, their thinking being that because a film does not have to be confined to one set and can go anywhere, audiences do not want to sit for a couple of hours and watch something that takes place in only one location, unlike in the theatre, where you are somewhat bound by the constraints of the stage.

The following films, my picks for this week, are just three examples of films that put the lie to this idea. All that matters is that the film is made well, no matter where it takes place.

Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948) I could just as easily have made these picks only Alfred Hitchcock movies, but I decided against it. I've talked about him a lot recently. Rope isn't one of his best movies, but it's an interesting experiment that works more often than it doesn't. Famously ironing almost all the gay out of the stage play based on the Leopold & Loeb murder case (memorably brought to the screen several times, by lesser filmmakers than Hitchcock, but both Compulsion and Swoon have things to recommend them) and filming the whole thing so that it looks like it was done in one take, Hitchcock succeeds at the very least in putting us in the middle of the action of a stage play that also happens to be a locked-room murder mystery. In it's best moments, it's thrilling, but there's too much philosophizing from Jimmy Stewart, playing a character whose darker side he can't ably portray yet, and thus it drags for long stretches. But don't get me wrong: Mediocre Hitchcock is still better than the best films of many other directors!

Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967) Now THIS is how you do a single-room thriller. Audrey Hepburn, Oscar-nominated for one of her best performances, is Suzy, a blind woman living in a basement apartment. Her husband has just returned from a trip, bringing with him a doll, taken as a favor to a woman he met at the airport. Unbeknownst to them, the doll is full of drugs, and some very bad men soon come to the apartment looking for them. What follows is one of the most tense, edge-of-your-seat, dig-your-nails-into-your-armrest-or-companion movies ever made, as Suzy must match wits against Alan Arkin's evil head baddie.

Carnage (Roman Polanski, 2011) Oh, dear lord, this one. Look, Polanski is very damn close to the top of his game here, but I will never for the life of me understand why they didn't just go with the original Broadway cast (Marcia Gay Harden, James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels, and Hope Davis) instead of the cast they did, nearly all of whom are miscast and most of whom don't really pull it off. Don't get me wrong, for the most part Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz, and Kate Winslet are good, but.... when they're not, they're AWFUL. The story couldn't be any more basic: Two sets of parents meet to have a civil discussion about an incident where one of their kids attacked the other at school, and slowly things start to devolve until the adults end up acting just as much like children as their kids. But Polanski finds every possible angle from which to shoot in this cramped apartment, maximizing the set like no other.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Working Girl

Written as part of the series hosted by the great Nathaniel R. at The Film Experience. Go and read!

It's impossible to oversell how incredible the opening credits sequence of Mike Nichols's Working Girl is. That soaring shot around the Statue of Liberty to the Manhattan skyline to the Staten Island Ferry is just awe-inspiring, and when combined with Carly Simon's music, it's nothing short of perfection, selling you on everything our main character wants before we've even met her.

Tess works as a secretary in one of those nebulous corporate businesses that seem to do everything at once but exist for no real purpose other than making money. She's also been going to night school to get her degree, and so she's smart and a real go-getter. But unfortunately, the fact that she looks like Melanie Griffith means that no one thinks of her in that way. Until she gets placed under Sigourney Weaver's Katherine.

And that's when things get interesting.

As the film goes on, it becomes clear that what we're seeing is a duel between two different kinds of femininity: Katherine's take-no-prisoners ambition, wielding sexuality as a weapon to get what she wants vs. Tess's quiet, growing confidence, moxie, and use of street smarts (AKA "women's intuition"). Who exactly is slyer, and whether she gets the reward or punishment she deserves says more about the viewer than it does about the film itself, mostly because of Mike Nichols's pitch-perfect direction.

See, it would appear as though the film is on Tess's side, but let's not forget that the only reason she finds out about Katherine's stealing of her idea by single white female-ing her while she's recuperating from a skiing injury. And she still lies and manipulates her way into a big deal, a better job, AND a swoon-worthy man - not all that different from what Katherine was doing to her.

The difference between Katherine and Tess is razor-thin, and hinges on one thing and one thing only: Tess's status as underdog. If you love a good underdog, rise-up-by-your-bootstraps story (and let's be honest, who doesn't?), you're on Tess's side, thinking that the ends justify the means. But I can easily see powerful people of both sexes, but particularly women, being on Katherine's side - the woman knows business and was only doing what she had to do to get ahead in a world that sees women as objects, not equal partners. Her only "crime" is trying to pass off someone else's idea as her own, and then trying to save herself when she was found out. Any one of us could have done the exact same thing if the circumstances were right. While the script on the face of it seems to reward the more traditionally feminine, unassuming Tess, and punish the more masculine, aggressive Katherine, Nichols never seems to really want to go there. He seems to get how problematic that construct is, and works against it whenever possible.

As much as the script tries to make Katherine a hateful, heinous bitch (with Weaver alternately playing to that and away from it, brilliantly), Nichols keeps trying to cast some shade on Tess wherever he can. It's not just that the scene where Tess uses Katherine's apartment plays so queasily - there is no trace of wish-fulfillment fantasy here - it's in the way Griffith says "Well, if that's the way you want to go..." when a colleague of Katherine's gives a suggestion on catering a dinner party; it's in the way that Olympia Dukakis's HR rep tells Tess that none of her previous superiors in the company will vouch for her; and it's in the way that Tess slowly but surely moves away from her Staten Island friends throughout the movie.

Sure, Joan Cusack's Cyn is always there ready to lend a hand, but they are practically inseparable when the movie begins, and as the film goes on they are farther and farther apart in many scenes, until at the end they're in two completely separate spaces. At first, Tess's status as a Staten Islander is a defining trait. But she's already trying to eradicate her accent, and then she loses her jewelry, and then her big hair, and then nearly all of her ties to her home, family, and friends. How is the erasing of Tess's uniqueness (in the context of the film's business world) a good thing? Is the message here that you have to change yourself to get ahead?

The film's last shot, a reversal of the opening track in on the ferry, certainly has irony written all over it: For all that she's done, Tess is now just one of many faceless businessmen and women in one of many multi-company skyscrapers in Manhattan. It's both a huge accomplishment and not so much of one.

Best Shot Runner-Up

It's hard for me to say exactly when this reading of the film occurred to me. The seeds were planted in this early shot of Katherine at her dinner party (with dim sum served by Tess, apparently because she only suggested a caterer and not wait staff - is Katherine punishing her or did Tess offer?). She instantly stands out, and the film constantly associates her with the color red from then on. It's clear she's a woman trying to make her way in a man's world, and using everything she has at her disposal - money, smarts, sexuality - to do so.

Then there was that deeply uncomfortable scene with Tess in the absent Katherine's apartment, specifically the moment when she starts putting on Katherine's make-up and perfume, which is just deeply, deeply creepy while still somehow not feeling too out of place in the context of the film. And then came the ending, which Nichols seems to complicate as I've detailed above.

But then there was this shot, seemingly a throwaway gag, but on second look very revealing about Katherine's character:


She has made so many friends in the hospital after her accident, and she's having a great time enjoying herself while not being at work. And AT THE SAME TIME, it can just as easily be read as Katherine being a callous woman tossing orders around at Tess while she is having the time of her life, blithely not giving a damn about work or the well-being of others (look how she even got a nurse to give her a pedicure!). It's maybe not the most arresting shot in the film, or the one that provoked the biggest reaction out of me, but it's the only one in the whole film that I actually went back and looked at again and saw a deeper meaning. And in a seemingly bland, of-its-time comedy, that's pretty impressive.