Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fish Tank (2009)

Alright, Somerville Theatre, thanks for the free screening of Fish Tank! Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, the film chronicles the coming-of-age experiences of the strong-willed, foul-mouthed, 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis), who lives in a run-down apartment with her withholding mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and younger sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths). Mia doesn't really have any friends and spends most of her time yelling at people around her or practicing her dancing so her dream of being in a hip hop music video can be realized. Her mother is desperately clinging to her youth and ignores her children so she can have wild parties and hook up with hot dudes, while her sister just hangs around being a kid and swearing at unexpected moments.

Joanne's most recent boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), is a charming security guard who's slightly too friendly to Mia, but seems well-intentioned. His presence encourages Mia to open up a little and spend more time with her family, and she soon develops a crush on him. He encourages her to try out for a club hiring dancers, and she works privately on her audition tape with little idea of what is actually expected of her. After trying to free his chained horse, she also begins spending time with Billy (Harry Treadaway, whom I totally didn't recognize from City of Ember), a friendly teenager who lives in a trailer with his asshole brother. These and other various day-to-day events culminate into a transformative summer for Mia, who begins to take control of her life in ways she never thought to before.

Fish Tank tells a story we've all seen in some format or another, sporting a range of elements from other recent "girl coming of age" movies like Precious and An Education. What makes it stand apart is the wonderful way in which the story is told, as well as the spectacular performance from newcomer Katie Jarvis. Almost every shot is either of Mia, or shown from her perspective, giving viewers a focused point of view and visual insight into her character; this movie shows, it doesn't really tell, and that gives credit to the intelligence of its audience. The story is completely about her but also comes from her, and Jarvis' performance is simultaneously nuanced and bold, making all this attention wholly worthwhile. Mia isn't an especially likable character for a lot of the film, but she is certainly an interesting one, and Jarvis makes her sympathetic but never a victim. This lady's got moxie, let me tell ya, even if she's not the best dancer.

The film is not without its faults: the running time is definitely too long, as the story drags at certain parts and there are a few throwaway scenes. Sometimes the narrative structure is a bit jagged and ambiguous, causing a bit of initial confusion about certain plot points. It becomes more cohesive towards the end, when the action shifts to a more tense and suspenseful mode. Fish Tank features a well-told, if familiar, story with a remarkably strong and independent young woman at the forefront. It's very thoughtfully-directed and interesting to watch, and I appreciate the level of respect Arnold shows her audience. Also there's a lot of cussing. A lot.

4/5

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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Panique au Village (A Town Called Panic) (2009)

The eccentric stop-motion film A Town Called Panic was screening for a week at the Landmark Theatre in Cambridge, and thank goodness I got to see it in time because it is so good. Belgian writers/directors Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar adapt their television series into a full-length feature starring bickering housemates Horse, Cowboy, and Indian and featuring a wide variety of shenanigans. The childish Cowboy and Indian decide to build Horse a brick barbecue for his birthday, but after accidentally ordering 50 million bricks instead of just 50, they launch a spectacular and hilarious chain of events involving sea creatures, catapulted farm animals, music lessons, burning lava, mad scientist overlords, and a giant robotic penguin.

This movie is pretty much amazing in every aspect. The animation is incredibly playful and dynamic, and the sets look like they jumped out of a Dr Seuss illustration. The characters, modeled in clay to resemble plastic action figures, move around with jerky movements and detailed smaller motions, propelling the film forward with an insane energy. No matter what is happening on screen, it is extremely fun to watch, as well as an impressive technical achievement. Also, the music is rad- there are some really fun rock songs towards the end.

It's immensely funny, and chock-full of surrealistic imagery and wacky surprises. Many of the voices are high-pitched to match the rapid, anxious dialogue. The story is pretty crazy, but somehow it all makes sense within the parameters of this imaginary world that's been created. It totally fits that when a house is crushed by a mountain of bricks, it just flips upside down and hangs underwater, or that falling down a deep crevice would lead you to the earth's molten core. Once you're in the swing of things, you can just sit back and allow the insanity, cartoon violence, and non sequiturs to unfold across this unplanned epic journey. While the script is a little out there, it's quite smart and well-thought-out, with various cute details and references that create a good balance between the physical comedy and dialogue.

A Town Called Panic is an amazing movie, but its US release is extremely limited. It's playing short engagements around the country so definitely look and see if it'll be near you any time soon! I wish this would win Best Animated Feature or something.

4.5/5

PS There are a lot of cute shorts on youtube, presumably from the original television show.

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Friday, January 29, 2010

The Long Goodbye (1973)

The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge has been doing a tribute to Robert Altman, and the other night Elliott Gould attended their screening of The Long Goodbye for a funny but rambling Q & A. I'd never seen the film before, and indeed am generally unfamiliar with Altman as a director (I've mainly seen Brewster McCloud and Popeye, and I don't at all remember Gosford Park), so it was a cool experience all around. Based on one of Raymond Chandler's novels, the film stars Gould as the famous smooth-talking detective Philip Marlowe. After his friend Terry (Jim Bouton) visits him at 3 am claiming to be in some sort of trouble, he drives him without question to Tijuana. The next day Terry's wife is found dead, Marlowe is suspected of aiding a criminal and subsequently held by the police, and a few days later Terry's suicide is reported.

The detective, who asserts his friend's innocence in the murder, is released and almost immediately caught up in a case involving Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt) and her missing husband Roger (Sterling Hayden), an alcoholic writer. The couple lives near Terry's home so he takes the case, hoping to gain some information from them about the murder/suicide. Roger is found fairly easily in a nearby rehab run by the stern Dr Verringer (Henry Gibson), but Marlowe continues to visit with the writer and his wife even after they're re-united, convinced there are some secrets swirling around the neighborhood. He's also unintentionally caught up with a ruthless Jewish gangster Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell), who believes Marlowe knows the location of a large sum of money Terry owed him.

I haven't read the book, and I've heard this is a fairly loose interpretation, but whatever, because it's a pretty darn good script as adapted by Leigh Brackett, who also did The Big Sleep and the original script for The Empire Strikes back (what? I know right?). The story is varied in its pace and tone, moving through scenes of shocking violence and heavy drug use to light-hearted conversations and investigative snooping. Altman and Brackett change it up a lot, keeping the viewers figuratively on their toes while literally sitting comfortably in their seats. The mystery itself is decent, though solved a bit abruptly, and there are a lot of unconnected parts that don't exactly pertain it but are still interesting.

What keeps The Long Goodbye grounded and immensely entertaining is Elliott Gould, who absolutely makes the movie. He's funny, clever, and goofy, and overwhelmingly likable. There are so many little things about his character worked in, from his obsession with his cat to his progressively more inventive methods of lighting a match (seriously, it's impressive), and I loved how he basically just mumbles to himself through the whole thing and that acts as a replacement of the typical noir narrator. I was always curious about what he might do next, and never tired of watching him. The supporting cast is very good as well, with Hayden doing his best yelling impression of Ernest Hemingway and Mark Rydell terrifying me as much as he cracked me up.

But really, it's all about Gould. Great job, guy.

4.5/5

PS One failing of this movie: the theme song isn't very good, but persists in being the only music we ever hear, in various alterations. It's kind of funny, but kind of annoying.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

I'll Take You There (1999)

If you can get past its bland title and awful poster, I'll Take You There becomes a pretty enjoyable offbeat romantic comedy. Written and directed by the wonderful Adrienne Shelly (best known for Waitress, I'd imagine, though she was tragically killed before it was even released), the film focuses on real estate agent Bill (Reg Rogers), who's spent months moping around after his wife Rose (Lara Harris) left him for one of his friends. His mothering sister (Adrienne Shelly) sets him up with her old college roommate Bernice (Ally Sheedy), whose incessant chatter only heightens his depression and general avoidant tendencies. He openly calls her boring, manufactured, and pathetic, causing her to spiral into a strange multi-day identity crisis.

When Bill decides to visit Rose (who dumped him over the phone) and her new beau, Bernice lends him her car and then, after robbing a clothing store, forces him at gunpoint to take her with him, wishing to see her sick grandmother along the way. It's clear that she's going through some sort of mental breakdown, but Bill goes along with it to avoid getting shot. They bicker for most of the ride but eventually both begin to let down their barriers and become more acquainted, and soon Bill is rethinking his fairly diabolical plan for his ex-wife and ex-friend.

While the story is generally pretty predictable, it is told very well and sports a few surprises, including an unexpectedly intense ending. During the first half there are lot of short flashback scenes of Bill and Rose, usually provoked by some item or action he notices in the present. Watching him re-live moments of his relationship makes him a more sympathetic character, instead of just a whiny, unthinking jerk. Most of the characters are fun and idiosyncratic, but not in that "quirky for the sake of it" kind of way. Shelly lets us get to know these characters and makes them real despite their strange behavior.

I enjoyed Ally Sheedy and Reg Rogers the more the movie progressed. Sheedy gives a very blunt but likable performance, and I love how average she looks with her un-made-up face and unflattering hairstyle. She oscillates between different moods but doesn't become an uneven caricature. Rogers looks sort of like a dumpy Adrien Brody with his pouty expression and dark features, and does the "shell-of-his-former-self" act very well, allowing us brief glimpses into what Bill used to be like. The relationship between their characters is similar to that of Andrew Largeman and Sam in Garden State, but doesn't make the woman out to be a savior and doesn't semi-glorify the "man with tragic past" personality.

I'll Take You There is funny and well-written, and while it got off to a so-so start, it gets better as the story moves along and becomes an interesting romance. I didn't like it as much as Waitress or Sudden Manhattan, Shelly's other writer/directorial features, but it's still quite enjoyable. Also, there's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance from Michael Emerson (Benjamin Linus in Lost), which I found exciting.

3.5/5

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sílení (Lunacy) (2005)

Czech director/animator/mad genius Jan Svankmajer is certainly an interesting fellow. He appears at the introduction of his film Lunacy to warn his viewers that this is not an artistic endeavor, but a straight-up horror film full of degeneracy and violence, drawing from the works of Edgar Allan Poe and the Marquis de Sade to examine two methods of running a mental institution: that of total uninhibited freedom, and that of punishment and pain. This is an insufficient explanation for what the film is actually about. Jean Berlot (Pavel Liska) is a reserved young man plagued by violent nightmares of being dragged away in a straitjacket. These are connected to his mother, who died recently and spent her last years in a mental hospital.

In town for the funeral, he meets the Marquis (Jan Triska), a strange but friendly man who offers him a ride to his hometown. Jean ends up staying the night at the Marquis' manor, and witnesses a horrific display of blasphemy, orgy, and ritualistic sexual harassment. Shocked and confused by these events, Jean attempts to leave but is unwittingly drawn into his host's curious grief therapy, eventually landing himself in an institution whose director is part of the Marquis' circle. After befriending the director's secretary (Anna Geislerová), Jean suspects a plot surrounding the hospital's employees, but is unsure whom to trust. Throughout the film are interspersed short stop-motion animations featuring hunks of meat and various disembodied animal parts.

About half of this movie actually deals with the "two ways of running a mental institution" concept, and structurally it feels like two movies awkwardly conjoined. I've seen a few other Svankmajer movies and shorts, and have come to expect a certain level of weirdness combined with breathtaking but unsettling stop-motion. Lunacy contains these elements, but lacks the heart and cleverness of the other works I've seen. He takes a range of ideas, from experimental therapy to sado-masochism to religious idealism to metaphorical chunks of beef, and mashes them all together to create an uneven story that drags through its two hours. He claims it's just a horror film, and it certainly delivers in the degeneracy department, but it's not actually scary, just a little gross at times (mostly the animated bits). Clearly a point is trying to be made here despite the director's claims against being "artistic", but it's lost in the shuffle of irrelevant plot points and confusion.

Lunacy isn't a terrible movie, especially when held up against half the crap churned out by Hollywood, but it's not a great one either. While the story does drag, it isn't necessarily boring. Jean is a likable, if terribly helpless and naive, character whom I wanted to root for, while the Marquis is fairly enjoyable with his arrogant guffaws and unexpected violent outbursts. I liked the animated segments, which are generally comical, though often sickening (don't watch this movie while eating), and could appreciate their "humans are like hunks of meat that can't do much for themselves" symbolism. The scenes in the mental institution itself are interesting and a bit disturbing, and the story becomes more of a twisted mystery/tutorial on how not to run a mental institution; I wish the whole film had just focused on these elements and left the unconnected de Sade/Poe-inspired prelude for another day (though the hospital stuff is also based on a Poe story).

3/5

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Das Weisse Band - Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (The White Ribbon) (2009)

*For the sake of brevity, I'm going to leave out actor names in the summary. Go to imdb if you'd like to know.*

While the full title's a bit of a mouthful, Haneke's newest venture The White Ribbon is actually an exquisitely-crafted exploration of the understatement. Over 144 minutes he slowly draws us into the strange happenings of a small rural German town, set right before the outbreak of WWI. The story is narrated through the reminiscence of a local teacher, who remembers a series of apparent accidents that escalated into brutal acts of violence whose perpetrators were unknown. A doctor breaks his collarbone when his horse trips over a thin wire strung between two trees. A working mother falls through the floor of a shaky barn floor and dies on impact. The cabbage field of the town's wealthiest landowner, the Baron, is hacked to shreds. His son is later abducted, whipped, and strung up by his feet.

Awful things keep happening over the course of a year, but no one knows the culprit. The children of the town seem to be presciently knowledgeable of some of these events, and are often seen during the aftermath to offer help to the suffering families. Their ringleaders are Klara and Martin, the eldest offspring of the overly strict pastor, whose strange faith-based punishments seem to be taking their toll on their moral outlook. The teacher observes carefully the actions of his students and other townspeople, while also awkwardly romancing the Baron's shy governess Eva.

This is a very long, very slow movie that somehow manages to be absolutely riveting. I was legitimately transfixed by the carefully planned, stark imagery making its way across the screen as the story unfolded gradually and haltingly. Every shot is composed with a quiet elegance, as Haneke drags out his scenes with stationary cameras, allowing the action to move in and out of the shot, therey generating interest and mystique. The entire film is hauntingly quiet, completely drawing the viewer into the harsh reality of the characters. It's a sparse and ambiguous tale that jumps around a variety of families and locations, sometimes losing itself in its huge amount of characters but never losing the undercurrent of eeriness and intrigue that propels it. Also, it criticizes overzealous religious views: always a good thing.

The performances are fantastic, from Christian Friedel's adorable doofus teacher to Burghart Klaussner's cold-hearted pastor to the cutest kid in the world. The children are all mysteriously off-putting, and their scenes as a group made me squirm a bit (though not as much as several other moments with the adults). The segments featuring the teacher and Eva felt a little out of place for their lightheartedness and general irrelevancy, but they add some levity to the story as well as develop the narrator's personality. I became so involved in the story and characters that each scene became significant and engaging. The White Ribbon is really a meticulous, powerful, and fascinating film, though some might be thrown off by its ambiguity.

I need to see more Haneke (so far it's just been this and the original Funny Games).

4.5/5

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Escape From New York (1981)

Ok, I think I finally get the Kurt Russell Thing. I've felt ambivalent about him in basically every other movie I've seen him in, but Escape From New York explained it to me. He's really badass. In the "future" (like, the 90's), the crime rate soars to 400% (where, how, why- don't ask these questions), and the island of Manhattan becomes a walled-off prison. Russell plays Snake Plissken, a gruff and eye-patched convict and former soldier who's dispatched into the city to rescue the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence), who crash-landed there en route to an important world conference.

Snake has 24 hours to extract the president (and the important documents handcuffed to his wrist), or else he'll die from an injection given to him by the prison head Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) as an incentive for completing the mission. He flies in with a walkie talkie, a tracking device, and a large gun, and does his best to maneuver through the hectic, dangerous remains of Manhattan. He runs into former comrade Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), who, along with his impressively-cleavaged girlfriend Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau), haltingly assists him in reclaiming the president from resident bad guy The Duke (Isaac Hayes). There's a lot of shootin' and fightin' and runnin' around. And Ernest Borgnine!

While the set up of the premise is incredibly flimsy, the sheer badassery of this movie made me just accept whatever was going on. Kurt Russell is perfect as the deep-throated, tight-shirted Snake, whose haunted past is never fully elaborated, making him all the more interesting and mysterious. He also performs one of my favorite tricks: shooting a rectangle into a wall and then kicking it in to make a doorway! Lee Van Cleef impressed me as the hard-boiled security head (or something, I'm not sure what his actual job was. Maybe he was in the military?), having only seen him in the awful Master Ninja tv show/movies through MST3K. I like Harry Dean Stanton a lot, but he didn't quite fit the role. He's not bad, he's just... underwhelming. Really, this movie is all about Kurt Russell, and a little bit about Isaac Hayes' rad voice.

The plot is pretty simple, with little development of this rundown prison world and its freaky inhabitants. As a fan of new futuristic dystopias, I would have liked a little more exploration of the big picture, or of the characters themselves, but the large amount of violence and gunfire set against heavy 80's synth music acts as an acceptable substitute. The story takes a little while to get going, but when it does, it's really awesome. The action is fun and entertaining, coupled with cool set and character designs- everything's laden with graffiti, rubble, and general grittiness. All in all, a rollicking good time!

4/5

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dirty Pretty Things (2002)

Medically-trained Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a polite hotel clerk and cab driver who lives quietly due to his status as an illegal immigrant in London, getting what little sleep he has time for on the couch of Turkish immigrant Senay (Audrey Tatou), whose status as a refugee is up for review, and during which time she is not allowed to work. Because she's employed as a maid at the hotel, she, like Okwe, lives in constant fear of being found out by British authorities. When Okwe discovers a human heart lodged in one of the hotel guest's toilets, he stumbles onto a widespread underground illegal organ trade, and eventually he and Senay become inextricably involved. As the immigration authorities draw ever closer to both of them, the two seek a way out of England without exposing themselves to the police.

I guess I had no idea what Dirty Pretty Things was about. Going into it, I thought it was all about solving a murder or something, but really it's a tensely plotted drama about the difficult situations in which immigrants may find themselves. The story is gritty and realistic, with a very well-written and interesting script. Though a lot of the film serves as a character study for the mysterious Okwe and troubled Senay, it also works as an emotional thriller mixed with political commentary. I became wholly invested in these characters, and truly cared about what happened to them.

Tatou and Ejiofor are spectacular as the leads, both giving believable and honest performances. I really enjoyed the supporting cast as well, which included Benedict Wong as Okwe's wisecracking doctor friend and Sophie Okonedo as a smooth-talking prostitute who frequents the hotel. Though not a straight-up thriller, it is incredibly tense in its timing and structure, making it very engaging. The sharp writing and great cast ground the film as a bittersweet and memorable drama.

4.5/5

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Piano (1993)

The Piano has been on my "You Should Have Seen This By Now!" list for ages, and I finally got around to watching it. Ada (Holly Hunter), a mute pianist and single mother, moves from Scotland to New Zealand to be married off to plantation owner Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill), her young daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) in tow. The independently-minded Ada begrudges Stewart for her position and seems to be at ease only when playing her beloved piano, which he forced her to leave on the shore after her arrival because it was too cumbersome to carry. Stewart's employee George Baines (Harvey Keitel), a white man who has partially integrated himself into the indigenous community and culture, takes the piano for himself.

He claims to want lessons, but really just wants to listen to Ada play. He promises to return it to her after a series of meetings, during which he wants her to play for him as well as engage in certain halting sexual activities. She is reticent to go very far and he holds back despite wanting to be closer to her, eventually realizing that such an arrangement is inappropriate for both of them. Stewart begins to suspect something untoward in their "lessons", and when Ada visits Baines again even after reclaiming her piano, her husband realizes he was right to be paranoid.

Saturated with slightly menacing deep blue hues and paced quite deliberately, this film is a slow meditation on female sexuality and the conventions of male dominance. While the plot moves gradually and fairly mildly, it manages to be mesmerizing and even thrilling by the climax. At first I felt uncomfortable and a bit disturbed by the interactions of Ada and Baines, because it seemed that all she wanted was to just play her piano. As the story develops it becomes clearer how starved for human affection Ada is, and how she desired to form a connection on her own terms (as opposed to her enforced marriage of convenience to Stewart). What starts out as a strange and exploitative relationship becomes a surprisingly sweet romance.

As the mute but expressive Ada, Hunter really grounds the entire movie. She conveys the character's strong will and incredible passion without resorting to histrionics. The minimal use of voicework was a smart choice, with short narration at the beginning and end of the film just to set up Ada's position. Otherwise all of her thoughts and motivations must be conveyed physically, with the addition of a beautifully evocative musical score that I imagined was playing inside her head to reflect her emotions or machinations.

The Piano is filled with terrific performances and haunting cinematography, with an unconventional story that mixes romance, colonialism, and unexpected violence into an intriguing character study. It took me by surprise at multiple moments, which I appreciated.

4.5/5

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Metafilm Double Feature: 8 ½ (1963) and Nine (2009)

Secret Movie Confession: The first time I watched was on Wednesday. I know, I know, it probably means I've only just become a "true movie fan", and this whole time you've been reading the rants of an uneducated poseur. Oh well. A few nights before my cinematic transformation, I saw its modern musical counterpart, Nine. Eh. This is going to be a long post, fyi.

Both films focus on lauded Italian auteur Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni)- shifted to Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) in Nine- who acts as a stand-in for Fellini himself. Guido is struggling with his most recent script, which despite being nowhere near finished has launched a bustling production crew into action with casting, costumes, and sets. He seeks refuge and relaxation at a spa but is followed by the movie staff, and therefore constantly hounded by producers, actors, journalists, and crew members. He reaches out to various women in his life, both in reality and in memories, as well as to a visiting cardinal, with the hope that one of them will be able to cure his creative dry spell.

In , the main women include his fussy mistress Carla (Sandra Milo), his affectionate but fed-up wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée), her snarky best friend Rosella (Rosella Falk), his muse and lead actress Claudia (Claudia Cardinale), and in memories, a prostitute (Eddra Gala) he met as a child. In Nine, they are his mistress (Penélope Cruz), his wife (Marion Cotillard), the no-nonsense head costume designer (Judi Dench), his muse and lead actress (Nicole Kidman), a seductive American journalist (Kate Hudson), and in memories, his mother (Sophia Loren) and the prostitute (Fergie).

Both films act as reflections on the women in Guido's life: how he's treated them, how they cope with his numerous flaws, how they unquestioningly love him for some reason, and how he constantly fantasizes about them. Both offer some insight into the creative process, and expand upon the high demands of fame. One of these films says something, the other says absolutely nothing. Can we guess which?

I saw Nine first, so let us begin there. This is not a very good movie. The script diverges from the source material quite significantly, transferring attention almost solely to the women in Guido's life and away from the pressures of his lifestyle and his loss of imagination. It's basically a series of short skits, each devoted to one woman, who each get one song (with the exception of Cotillard, whose role is slightly more expanded). This is an ok premise, but the thing is, the music isn't very good, and the characters are extremely underwritten. Generally with a musical you pass with one or the other, and this has neither. With the exception of "Be Italian" and "Cinema Italiano", the songs are boring and unmelodic, and the only person who can actually sing is Fergie.

The cast is definitely notable, but no one is able to effectively use their skills. As Guido, Day-Lewis becomes a cliche of the hip 60's Italian artist, with his ever-present sunglasses, cigarette, and hunched-over manner. He is a caricature, and an unlikable one at that. Dench is always enjoyable, but is in it too briefly, as indeed none of the actresses are there for very long. It's really Cotillard who manages to stand out, primarily because the role of Luisa is a bit more complex. She makes the best of the poor writing and underwhelming musical numbers, emerging as one of the best parts of the film.

Nine isn't horrendous, it's just not that great. It looks amazing, with Marshall making good use of backlighting and dynamic staging. I like the "musical in Guido's head" thing, even though he's just recycling the trick from Chicago. It makes sense in context, since so much of the story is really just Guido's fantasies and perceptions. While the music isn't very good, the numbers are fun to watch, with sexy costumes and a nice back-and-forth effect between real life and the imaginary. To be honest I thought this movie was generally alright until I watched and saw how much had been stripped away from the original film's central themes.

2.5/5

, on the other hand, is a pretty good movie (though admittedly I'm not adding it to any "best movies ever" lists). The focus here is much less on sexy ladies constantly trying to bang Guido, and more on his internal struggles and fleeting memories. There is more talk of the script and movie itself, and what he wants to say with it. I liked the dreamy feel of the film, and the seamless blending of fantasy and reality. It's a lot simpler in style than Nine, but also more striking.

Mastroianni's characterization of Guido is more interesting and layered, and he becomes a more likable character. Unfortunately, he's still kind of a doofus with really messed up views about women, so it was hard to always be on his side. The main people I could get behind were Rosella (who becomes the Dench role in Nine), who was just entertaining, and Luisa, who was generally awesome. She is a strong character with excellent style who doesn't put up with Guido's bullshit.

With we get a clearer picture of Guido as a person, and how his choices have affected his work and personal life. We see his dreams of a more unified and overflowing existence, his desires to have everything all at once. It's funny at times, but for the most part just sort of quietly despondent as both the audience and Guido realize he can only feel fulfilled in his fantasies. He wants too much and reaches too high, and is therefore constantly setting himself up for disappointment. But it's hard to feel too sorry for him, as it's clear his situation is entirely his own doing, and he has probably reached this point multiple times without learning from his mistakes, and will continue to do so. It's an interesting message and an at-times beautiful film, but ultimately a little too slow and ambiguous. Also, perhaps a little too male-oriented for me to relate.

4/5

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Sugar & Spice (2001)

Drop Dead Gorgeous is one of my favorite comedies, and I've always been sad that screenwriter Lona Williams never did another movie. Then I found out she actually wrote and produced Sugar & Spice, but dropped out after conflicts with the other producers over changes and the name in the credits became "Mandy Nelson". The story follows perky goody two-shoes Diane (Marley Shelton), head of the cheerleading team and girlfriend of beloved football star Jack (James Marsden), as she becomes pregnant and subsequently disowned by her parents. She and Jack get real jobs on top of their school commitments and move into a small apartment, but their financial situation continues to worsen.

For help Diane turns to her best friends: her cheerleading squad, which consists of Conan O'Brien-obsessed Cleo (Melissa George), ultra-Christian Hannah (Rachel Blanchard), brainy Lucy (Sara Marsh), and rebellious Kansas (Mena Suvari). They all have their own money needs and eventually the group determines that the best way to get enough cash to ease their burdens is to rob a bank. They spend weeks planning it (including watching a lot of heist movies to learn what not to do, and buying cheap illegal guns), hiding their plot from friends and family- especially Jack, who is unable to lie. The whole affair is narrated to the police by snarky second-tier cheerleader Lisa (Marla Sokoloff), who schemes to join the elite team.

This is a fairly enjoyable movie, but nothing fantastic. It lacks the bite of Drop Dead Gorgeous, and I felt that Williams wanted to go further with the it but was held back (I assume there were various changes forced onto the original script). The great female-dominated cast elevates it, with Shelton adorable and ludicrously upbeat, and Suvari providing a nice "bad girl" foil. I really enjoyed Sokoloff as the conniving and judgmental narrator, though she isn't in it very much. James Marsden continues to be incredibly likable (except as Cyclops, obviously, because no one could make Cyclops likable), and there are several cute side characters.

I liked Sugar & Spice for the most part, but the story's a bit too loose, and in the end I was underwhelmed. There are some moments that are quite funny, and there's some great dialogue, but nothing is particularly memorable. Of course, it's always nice to see a lady-dominated movie that is made by ladies, especially one that isn't centered on romance or sex, and I'm glad I watched it. The cast is full of cool young women and I was certainly entertained. It benefits from its short running time; director Francine McDougall keeps the action moving and doesn't let the so-so story drag. Also the heist scene is pretty rad.

3.5/5

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Somehow a certain someone had lived his life without seeing this movie. What? I know, right? Edgar Wright's seminal zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead stars co-writer Simon Pegg as lovable retail drone Shaun, recently dumped by Liz (Kate Ashfield), who's sick of his forgetfulness and lack of motivation. After a night of heavy drinking with his best friend and freeloading flatmate Ed (Nick Frost), Shaun gradually (gradually) realizes that the city has been claimed by a zombie uprising after finding a couple of mute and milky-eyed antagonists hungering for human flesh in the backyard.

He springs into action, wielding a cricket bat to bash in heads, and, aided by Ed, plans to bring Liz, her flatmates Dianne (Lucy Davis) and David (Dylan Moran- oh yeah, it was a double Dylan Moran day), and his mother Mary (Nicola Cunningham) minus his loathed stepfather Philip (Bill Nighy) to his favorite pub "until the whole thing blows over". He eventually collects everyone together, though most are unenthusiastic about his leadership abilities, and they all fight a bunch of zombies with various improvisational weapons. It's a daunting task, and the group's incessant bickering threatens to derail any hope they have for survival.

As many have previously observed, what makes Shaun of the Dead so great is that it works as a legitimate zombie movie as well as a comedy. There are some really tense, gory moments and it becomes clear that some characters are expendable, while sporting a truly terrific cast. Pegg and Frost re-unite after playing similar slacker best friends in Spaced, relying on their fantastic chemistry and comedic timing to propel the film, while Moran does a great job as a pessimistic asshole who sort of looks like Harry Potter. The ladies of the film are also excellent, with Ashfield bringing a more grounded and pragmatic personality to the center of things, Davis doing her endearingly odd over-pronunciation thing, and Cunningham putting in a very enjoyable performance as the spacey and overly-polite mother.

While the dialogue is hilarious by itself, a lot of the humor comes from little visual details, much of which highlights Shaun and Ed's ridiculously clueless nature. The whole film is quite smart, with a clever script and a shooting style that effectively utilizes that quick-cut film technique Wright repeats in Hot Fuzz. Watching it now I love the cameos from related Britcoms that I wouldn't have recognized years ago- you've got Jessica Stevenson from Spaced, Peter Seafinowicz from lots of stuff, Martin Freeman from The Office, and Tamsin Greig from Black Books. Plus Coldplay shows up for like a split second.

Shaun of the Dead is definitely one of the best of the horror-comedy genre, setting new standards for the style and sparking new interest in zombie movies in general (something I certainly appreciated). It's extremely fun and incredibly re-watchable, with a very likable cast and some impressive details. Also: it's got jokes!

4.5/5

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Film With Me In It (2008)

Well lucky for me, my recent Dylan Moran fixation (thanks so much Hulu, for Black Books) coincided with his latest movie role in the decidedly black comedy A Film With Me In It, currently showing at the IFC Center in Manhattan (a pretty nice place despite its obsession with Lynchian coffee). Screenwriter Mark Doherty stars as Mark, a down-on-his-luck unemployed actor living with his hardworking girlfriend Sally (Amy Huberman) and paralyzed brother David (David O'Doherty). Having spent his overdue rent check to pay the utility bills, he's been avoiding his landlord Jack (Keith Allen), and spends a lot of time with scruffy upstairs neighbor Pierce (Dylan Moran) attempting to write a screenplay.

After Amy gets fed up with their decrepit, broken-down apartment and Mark's money problems, she decides to move out. Mark is prepared to spend the night solemnly playing clarinet, but when a series of household catastrophes leads to three successive deaths, he desperately calls on Pierce for help. They haphazardly try to determine a way to not look like murderers as more accidents pile up, with Mark in a state of shock and Pierce approaching the whole situation like a movie script. And trust me, hilarity ensues.

This is basically the perfect example of a black comedy. It's full of death (and a lot of it), lost love, unemployment, depression, problems, and heartbreak, but somehow had me giggling the entire time. It helps that Moran is so naturally funny with his ludicrous observations and ever-indignant manner. It also helps that the script is really good: fast-paced, tightly-packed, serious when it needs to be, and frequently unexpected. The characters are very well-written and acted, never resorting to caricature despite their zany antics. I really came to feel for Mark and Pierce, with both Moran and Doherty turning in surprisingly heartfelt performances on top of excellent comic timing.

A Film With Me In It is primarily a comedy, but it gets a little too real at one or two moments. While these intense scenes feel somewhat out of place, they lend the film a surprising edge and sense of daring. The ending is strange, but still pretty satisfying. All in all this is a delightfully dark and often ridiculous Irish comedy with some great writing and fine performances. I'm not sure what its distribution situation is, but hopefully it'll get wider release in the US or at least a DVD soon.

4.5/5

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Los Abrazos Rotos (Broken Embraces) (2009)

I'm so grateful for the Clairidge Cinema in Montclair- it's basically the only place to catch independent and foreign films in northern NJ (otherwise we have to trek into New York). Surrounded by chatty senior citizens, I caught an afternoon showing of Broken Embraces, Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar's newest film. It tells two connected stories set 15 years apart. Both concern Harry Caine (Lluís Homar) aka Mateo Blanco, a blind screenwriter who's been struggling with the ending of latest script, much to the frustration of his agent and long-time friend Judit (Blanca Portillo) and her son/his assistant Diego (Tamar Novas).

An over-eager young director calling himself Ray X (Rubén Ochandiano) proposes a revenge story for him to write, but Harry recognizes him as the creepy son of a producer he worked with 15 years ago, Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez). When Judit goes on a business trip, Diego seizes the opportunity to find out the seedy story of Harry's last film shoot, which involves Ray, Ernesto, and the alluring secretary-turned-actress Lena (Penélope Cruz), who becomes trapped in a relationship with her former boss.

This is another beautiful and tragic entry into Almodóvar's lexicon of dramatic films. The visuals are of course spectacular, as so many shots explode with color and detail through eye-popping costumes and set design. The performances are excellent, and I especially enjoyed Portillo as the hard-nosed but sympathetic Judit. Of course Cruz stands out as Lena, smiling through her inner turmoil; unfortunately I felt her role was under-written. She comes off as this very significant, complex person but because we never really get her side of things, it's not actually apparent. But since the stories are told through Harry's point of view and memory, I guess that's understandable.

While I really enjoyed the film in most ways, it felt lacking by the time it ended. I think that despite its terrific look and performances, Broken Embraces fails to be a great film because of its story. Though Almodóvar handles the plot very well, it's a bit slow-moving and not terribly engaging, due to its overdramatic aspects and general predictability. I didn't feel involved in the story, because it didn't seem real enough. Still, it's a wonderful film filled with an emotional depth and impressive performances.

4/5

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Monday, January 11, 2010

The Mummy (1999)

I took a course on ancient Egypt this semester, and upon learning I didn't fail the class despite the painful final, I was eager to watch The Mummy. Because it's rad, and also because I had spent the whole class making references to it when appropriate. Drawing loosely from The Mummy of 1932, the story concerns clumsy and highly educated librarian Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) as she travels to the legendary lost city of Hamunaptra with her thieving brother Jonathan (John Hannah), greasy warden Gad Hassan (Omid Djalili), and ex-con and war vet Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser), one of the few people who's actually been there. They run into a group of rowdy Americans who also have a guide in O'Connell's former soldier-in-arms, the cowardly Beni (Kevin J O'Connor).

As both teams explore Hamunaptra's ancient wonders, Evie accidentally awakens Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), former priest of Seti I who was cursed eternally for touching the pharaoh's wife. The mummy becomes more powerful the more he kills, with crazy sand powers and control of the Biblical plagues, and he's hellbent on re-awakening his love by sacrificing Evie. It's up to her, O'Connell, Jonathan, local badass Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr) (a descendant of Seti's palace guards who is dedicated to protecting the world from the mummy's curse), and a whole lot of guns to save the world.

This movie is awesome, and I don't care who knows it. The cast is perfect, from John Hannah's lovable scampiness to Fraser's snarky half-smiles to Weisz's indignant over-intelligence. The opposites-attract relationship between Evie and O'Connell is one of the more believable romances I've seen in an action film, and the endearing chemistry between the three main characters separates The Mummy from a lot of the more standard fare. The script is well-paced and often quite clever, combining thrills with comedy and a dash of gore.

Sure it has its flaws: the CGI is a bit dated, the story is fairly predictable, and it isn't exactly accurate in its discussion of ancient Egypt (for example, Hamunaptra was made up for the movie). But that honestly doesn't matter, because none of them stop it from being an insane amount of fun. It still looks good enough to freak me out, the dialogue and characters are well-written enough to keep me engaged, and there is actually a decent attempt at realism, seen in various details of the excavation of the city. The Mummy is a movie I have loved since middle school, and will continue to love out of habit. It never fails to entertain me, and it helped spark an interest in ancient Egyptian culture, so yay for scholarly pursuits! Also: painted-on costumes.

But most importantly: this movie has inspired the greatest ride in existence at Universal Studios. I have ridden it 50+ times, and no I can't make that up. It even led to the best-ever ride-related goofy photograph. Yeah, I guess I'm best friends with Spider-man.

4.5/5

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Alien: Resurrection (1997)

Well, we're rounding out our journey through the Alien series. It's been a nice ride. In the days leading up to watching Alien: Resurrection, I kept finding out awesome but unexpected things about it bit by bit. First I saw that Winona Ryder, Ron Perlman, and oddly enough, Dominique Pinon were all in it. Then I learned that Jean-Pierre Jeunet directed it. Then the opening credits reveal that Joss Whedon wrote the script! This movie had a lot going for it from the start, and did a pretty good job with these elements. 200 years after the last film, and however many centuries after the beginning, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is cloned by evil scientists, who mix her DNA with the alien's, giving her superhuman strength and healing plus a psychic connection to the creature.

Her body hatches the new queen but she survives, and the scientists work with the military to study and experiment on the aliens, and not long after, a mercenary crew that includes petite-but-fiery Call (Winona Ryder), wheelchair-bound Vriess (Dominique Pinon), gun-happy Johner (Ron Perlman), and interestingly-tressed Christie (Gary Dourdan) arrives. Call knows the history of Ripley's experiences with the company and the alien, and intends to kill all the alien specimens locked away on the space station before they can do any more damage. Of course they escape their cells to wreak havoc on everybody, so Ripley teams up with the mercenaries to destroy the creatures. Her weird alien genes and connection to the queen make her suspicious to the others, but her mad skills make her integral to their survival.

A thing about all the other Alien movies is that I've disliked almost every character except for Ripley (and Michael Biehn, obviously), so it's never been a big deal that everyone's always dying. With Resurrection, I actually liked a lot of the main characters, and I feel we get a lot more time with them and get to know them better. This increased attention to characterization is aided by the awesome cast, with everyone having a pretty fun time with their roles. Ripley is a bit unnerving, but that's appropriate since she's part alien and hasn't had much human experience (having been grown in a lab and locked in a cell). I liked that the possibility of her betrayal was ever-present, because it gives the whole story good tension.

The plot itself is alright, but really just more of the same. The scientists/government/military are still self-destructive idiots, the alien is still scary and abnormally reproductive, Ripley is still super badass, and there are still a bunch of people stuck in an enclosed space with alien monsters chasing them. It's entertaining, but not as memorable or thrilling as the first two films. I think the terrific cast is really what makes it. Jeunet's direction isn't as daring or colorful as I'd expected but that's understandable considering he didn't speak English at the time, and the script is decent but Whedon isn't as clever here as when he's writing his own material. Nevertheless, Alien: Resurrection is an engaging and exciting entry into the series, and much better than its predecessor.

4/5

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Saturday, January 9, 2010

Kreativ Blogger Awards

Univarn over at A Life in Equinox very kindly bestowed the "Kreativ Blogger Award" upon me. I like this because it features a German word! Also, because he said really nice things like "Variety and Intelligence. The first two words that come to my mind when I think of this blog." and "Seemingly never afraid to tackle a new genre, Film Forager is a perfect display of what separates a movie goer from a movie lover." Awww! You guys, my ego is feeling awesome right now. I work really hard to sound moderately intelligent, plus I do sort of go out of my way to have a wide variety of movies to see and write about, and it's really gratifying to know that someone picked up on these things! So this is the deal, I guess (after the jump):

"Receiving such a kind honor comes with some criteria as well (7 in fact):

1. Thank the person who nominated you for this award.
2. Copy the logo and place it on your blog.
3. Link to the person who nominated you for this award.
4. Name 7 things about yourself that people might find interesting.
5. Nominate 7 Kreativ Bloggers.
6. Post links to the 7 blogs you nominate.
7. Leave a comment on each of the blogs letting them know they have been nominated."


Jeez, this award is a little bossy, huh? The price of being adored, I suppose.

1 Thanks dude! I only started reading Univarn's blog a little over a month ago, but I immediately found it really fun and interesting. He's got some cool segments, including a highly detailed end of the year award series (complete with extra-shnazzy banner), and a great sense of humor. Plus, he likes anime, but maybe that's kind of a secret? And I'm looking forward to his Kurosawa series in March!

2 There you are.

3 Already did that part, hello.

4 Ick. Spoiler Alert: I am not that interesting, but here are some things.
One) I dye my hair like once a month, and by now it's been several colors of the rainbow. Currently it's sort of a red/burgundy, but for a good chunk of last semester it was a nice turquoise.

Two) I make art sometimes when the mood strikes or when I'm taking an annoying art class for my studio minor. Mostly it boils down to comic book pinups or movie characters. Examples: Here is a thing I painted. Here is a thing I drew. Here is a thing I drew with that guy from that movie (this one's several years old, and it is apparent, sorry).

Three) I'm a bit of a stickler for grammar. I'm constantly picking out grammatical errors or misused vocabulary in things I'm reading, and often it's in the back of my head when I'm in conversation. I know that makes me an awful person, but whatever- I do my best to keep it to myself when I'm talking to someone in real life. Plus it helped out when I worked as a copy-editor for a textbook company. Ever want your blog proofread? I will do it for free because I find it relaxing.

Four) I really love comic books. I'm loyal to Marvel, especially X-Men since that's what initially drew me into comics in 7th grade, but lately I've been getting into more independent stuff. I've also been trying to find more by lady writers/artists since those don't seem as common (and you know I'm always on the lookout for ladies doing things). One of my favorite artists is Farel Dalrymple, who did the art for Marvel's Omega the Unknown. His book Pop Gun War (the cover of which is tattooed on my person) inspired me to try different things with my own art, plus he's the only celebrity-ish person with whom I've ever corresponded.

Five) Um. I'm from northern NJ. Don't worry, I don't have the accent. But I am part-Italian. But! I don't like The Godfather, The Sopranos, or cannoli.

Six) Running out of ideas now. I spent the morning watching Dylan Moran videos on the internet, having recently become a bit obsessed with the perpetually scruffy Irish comedian after watching all of Black Books on Hulu. I also just caught his latest movie, A Film With Me In It, which will get a review soon enough.

Seven) Are you still here? If you actually want to know a seventh thing, just ask me in the comments I guess.

5, and 6 Jesus ok sorry you had to go through that. Hopefully you skipped it all to here, the most important part: Blogs I dig! (in alphabetical order, and in an effort to avoid repetition, I didn't name people I'd already seen receive this award from other blogs)

1416 and Counting: Caitlin's been on a bit of a break lately, but I believe she's returning soon with new posts. Her blog is fun to read no matter what she's writing about, thanks to her casual style and incredible wit. I love her "Reader's Choice" series- even though it means she's subjected herself to some pretty bad movies, it leads to some really entertaining reviews! Plus yay for her frequent spotlights on Hot Old Men.

Cinematronica: Eric's ambitious 365 movies in 365 days project just came to an end, but it was pretty great. I only started reading his blog a few months ago but it became an instant favorite. He writes about a great variety of films, mixing a good dose of humor and an impressive verbosity into his reviews. His next venture isn't up yet (it will be at http://ifreviewscouldkill.com), but be sure to read through some of his archives!

The Daily Robot: Not a movie blog, but that wasn't part of the criteria, plus this truly exemplifies the "kreativ" aspect. Every day a beautifully crafted and excitingly imaginative robot is posted, and often the image is accompanied by "Encyclopedia Robotica" short fiction. His artistic range is really admirable, as he tries out lots of different styles, materials, and approaches to his favorite subject. He sells raaad shiiit on etsy.

The Flick Chick: This has been one of my favorites for quite a while, since I first started blogging I think. Norma's reviews are so insightful and so intelligently written, yet still very accessible. She's the kind of writer whose posts will inspire me to write better, as cheesy as that sounds. She reviews a lot of lesser-known Canadian and foreign-language films, plus I love her top 5 lists. Also, she enjoys making references to Kids in the Hall as much as I do!

House of Self-Indulgence: Yum Yum sees the type of movies I should really watch more often- those gloriously strange, trashy, campy, and horrific films that are really entertaining to read about. I love the screencaps, sarcasm, and scintillating observations of everyone's gams, and it's become one of the blogs I most look forward to reading whenever there's a new post. Also: killer sidebar.

Japan Cinema: Well I do love Japan and Japanese things in general, despite (lamentably) not yet having visited. Japan Cinema offers a radical view of films and tv series that have come out of East Asia or have been somehow influenced by its culture. I often haven't heard of the films he talks about, but his posts are always informative and interesting, and will turn me on to some new things to add to the ol' Netflix queue. I love the banners he makes for each review, and the general design of the site is quite visually pleasing!

Twisted Flicks: I'm so glad this site is back from hiatus! The title says it all: movies filled with gore, violence, sex, and general weirdness taken from "the seedy underbelly of cinema". It's awesome. Along with summaries and insight, there's always a wealth of screencaps coupled with cool background information. Every post is always very well-thought-out and intelligently written, and I just enjoy reading it!

There you have it. This took a surprisingly long time. Go read these blogs!

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What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

The poster alone piqued all my interest in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? because it seemed to promise exciting heights of campy thrills and Hollywood decay, like a more cult Sunset Blvd. The film didn't exactly deliver on these expectations, but I still really liked it. As a child, Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) was an incredibly popular stage performer whose father milked her talent for all it was worth. As she matured, she saw her older sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) become a highly successful movie actress as her own career spiraled down into obscure film roles due to her poor acting abilities. Jane loses herself in alcoholism and is involved in a major car accident that puts Blanche in a wheelchair.

The two women grow old together in a quiet neighborhood, with Jane venomously playing servant while her sister, relegated to the upstairs floor, signs the checks. Blanche has secretly planned to sell the house and move to a smaller venue with Elvira (Maidie Norman) the kind cleaning woman who visits once a week. She's worried about Jane, who's been drinking again and has been acting increasingly more malevolent, but feels moving is the right decision. As Jane tries to get a comeback act off the ground, Blanche becomes more and more paranoid that her sister will try to kill her.

This movie is a little all over the place, and I don't think it's as crazy and shocking as it would like to be because it doesn't exactly build well. It starts off slowly and doesn't seem to be going anywhere in particular, then all of a sudden it picks up at the end. I think more freaky, thriller-type moments could have been sprinkled throughout to balance it out a bit. The story is still very good, exposing a complex sibling rivalry and relationship through snippets of interaction as well as telling personal moments.

The performances really make this movie. Bette Davis is terrifying in the best way. She has like 30 layers of make-up caked on and persistent little girl curls, giving her this eerie, sinister babydoll look. She's funny and strange and oddly sympathetic, and it's kind of fun to see her just being super mean to everyone around her. Joan Crawford is great as well, if much more understated. I really felt how inhibited she was and how truly scary her situation became as Jane got crazier and crazier.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? may not be as horrific or out there as I'd expected, but it's still a very good exploration of the effects of celebrity, jealousy, and guilt at the family level. There are some great creepy moments and big freakouts, and the uneven script is bettered by the terrific central performers.

4/5

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Friday, January 8, 2010

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

My buddy and I have sort of made a tradition of watching Rocky Horror on New Year's Eve, but we didn't quite make it on time this year. No matter, since a viewing of this film is appropriate at pretty much any time ever. Richard O'Brien's twisted, sexually charged musical begins with the upright Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) proposing to his goodie two-shoes girlfriend Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon). On their way to visit their old professor, Dr Scott (Jonathan Adams), their car breaks down and they seek shelter and a phone at a large mansion in which an odd party is being held.

They meet the creepy butler Riff Raff (Richard O'Brien), his sister/maid Magenta (Patricia Quinn), and the adorable groupie Columbia (Little Nell), and are witness to a strange "folk dance" by a group of satiny-suited party-goers. Their host is revealed to be corset-wearing mad scientist Dr Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry), who has created a bodybuilder sex slave named Rocky (Peter Hinwood). He refuses to help the couple and instead Brad and Janet are pulled into a strange night full of rock music, aliens, science, murder, and sexual awakening.

This movie is super wacky and nonsensical, and that's what I love about it. The characters are kind of crazy but very fun and mostly likable, complete with Frank's over-dramatic one-liners, Columbia's high-pitched whining, Brad's antiquated displays of manliness, the narrator's drawling commentary, and Janet's flexible morals. The story isn't especially complicated but puts a great spin on the typical "car breaks down and owners are trapped in a spooky house" scenario- the second Brad and Janet enter the mansion it's clear that nothing expected will be happening any time soon.

For all its ambiguous weirdness and super camp, Rocky Horror is also a legitimate investigation into the traditional sexual repression experienced by those who continue to follow 1950's standards of "normal" behavior and gender roles. O'Brien works in his open-minded message in a non-intrusive way, allowing the audience to interpret for themselves the advantages and disadvantages of Frank's uninhibited "don't dream it, be it" lifestyle.

This movie never gets old, and probably gets better every time I watch it. The music is stellar, and probably one of my favorite soundtracks for any musical ever. The musical sequences are marked by awesome costumes, trippy sets, and the considerable charisma of the actors, with little reliance on choreography or splashy film techniques. I love the kooky script, layered with references and general strangeness and amplified by the really cool cast. Rocky Horror is hilarious, sexy, crazy, rockin', and unquestionably unique. There's a reason it's developed such an avid and significant following over the years- I'm actually planning on going to my first midnight showing once the semester starts. I hope I find something suitable to wear!

5/5

"Sweet Transvestite"
"Rose Tint My World"

"Science Fiction, Double Feature"- The Dresden Dolls (cover)
"Planet, Schmanet, Janet"- Tsunami Bomb (cover)

My original art for this film is for sale as a shirt!

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Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Princess and The Frog (2009)

It's too bad that local theaters often attract local rowdy tweens with nothing better to do than pay money to watch a Disney movie and then yell and talk to one another all through it. Go vandalize a park or something, you damn kids. The Princess and the Frog marks Disney's return to traditional animation, something I've been excited about because even though I'm not the biggest fan of the standardized Disney style, I'm worried about the oncoming demise of any non-CGI form of animating. It's also a return to their fairy tale leanings in its plot. Living in 1920's New Orleans, Tiana is a hard-working black waitress who's spent years saving up to open her own restaurant, but is considered a high risk by the realtors due to her "background". Meanwhile the prince of the made-up-but-presumably-Latin-American-country-Maldonia, Naveen, arrives with the intention of marrying Tiana's rich friend Charlotte, a wealthy heiress who can help alleviate his money troubles.

Before he meets Charlotte, Naveen is turned into a frog by local voodoo sorcerer Dr Facilier, aka the Shadow Man, while his butler is given a special talisman that makes him look like the prince, all in a scheme to get Charlotte's money for themselves. He escapes and meets Tiana, dressed as a princess for a costume ball, and upon coercing a kiss out of her Naveen just sees her turn into a frog as well. The two of them escape the Shadow Man's clutches and travel through the bayou looking for Mama Odie, a powerful voodoo witch whom they hope can change them back into humans. Along the way, they make friends with Louis, a trumpeting crocodile, and Ray, a Cajun firefly, and deal with one another's perceived personality flaws (Naveen is pampered and overconfident, Tiana is a stick in the mud).

I'm sorry, that was an oddly long plot summary. Hopefully you all just skipped ahead. Well, either way, here you are now. This movie is ok, I guess. The animation is honestly pretty stunning; there are several inventive musical sequences and wonderfully soft but detailed backgrounds for the swamp scenes, appropriately evocative of watercolors. I really enjoyed the Art Deco-esque treatment of Tiana's "I'm Almost There" song, and the glowing neon figures dancing around the Shadow Man for his main number are pretty cool (I didn't get the African mask imagery, though- I'm far from an expert, but I didn't think Louisiana voodoo involved tribal masks. Not sure). The animators also had a lot of fun with light, especially with the various fireflies involved, and I was fascinated with the frightening shots of Facilier's awesome demon shadow servants. The character design is of course over-simplified and over-exaggerated- typical Disney fare, really.

Obviously this movie is a big deal for more than its traditional animation. I'm happy Disney is spotlighting a black central female character (it'd be nice if they'd moved away from the princess fascination, but whatever), and I think generally they did an ok job. Race doesn't play a big role in the story, but is still apparent in elements like Tiana's lower social status and her "background" prohibiting the realtors from selling a building to her. While it definitely glosses over segregation and racism issues of the time period (no one thinks it's weird that a privileged socialite white girl like Charlotte is best friends with a black waitress?), but considering it's a kids movie and it isn't meant to be historical or realistic, I guess that's unsurprising.

It's good that even though it's a major stepping stone to have a black Disney princess, the writers didn't make it about race. She's an admirable, hard-working, independent young woman who doesn't let anything hold her back from achieving her dream. No matter what her ethnicity, she's a good role model and a refreshingly self-sufficient female lead in a family film. The fact that she spends a good chunk of the movie as a frog is indeed frustrating, but her strong character still shines through.

Despite its achievements in visuals and characterization, The Princess and the Frog is still just a typical kids movie. The story is cliche, sporting the same structure and supporting figures we've been seeing for decades. The humor is generally tired and banal, though there are some cute jokes found in the background details like Mama Odie's clever snake, and Naveen gets a couple of good lines. The music is so-so, and just kept reminding me of older Disney films. All in all, it's enjoyable enough, and yay for traditional animation and finally for once putting black people in your movies, but I'm not giving it any awards or anything.

3.5/5

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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

New Year's Eve Double Feature: The Thin Man (1934) and After the Thin Man (1936)

As has been the tradition for many years, I was wicked sick on New Year's Eve. While my friends and family partied elsewhere, I sat in with some herbal tea and an adorably tuxedoed Robert Osborne to watch the first two entries of TCM's Thin Man marathon, since oddly enough, I've never seen any of the famed classic mysteries. In The Thin Man, private detective Nick Charles (William Powell) marries wealthy socialite Nora (Myrna Loy) and retires from investigating to take over her family business. After her inventor father Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis) goes missing, Nick's old friend Dorothy (Maureen O'Sullivan) asks him for help finding him. Nick is reticent to get back into the PI game, but the wry Nora looks forward to adding some excitement to their lives. He's pulled into the case by the police and his connection to the crime world, as multiple murders follow in wake of the inventor's disappearance. After some clever deducing, Nick rounds up several seedy suspects, including Wynant's money-hungry ex-wife Mimi (Minna Gombell), for an elaborate dinner party that exposes the culprit.

The mystery itself is pretty straightforward, so the real joy of The Thin Man (the film and the series in general) comes from the terrific rapport between the central figures of Nick and Nora. They're witty and sarcastic, bouncing off one another playfully for their own amusement. It's really nice to see a husband and wife who get along well but aren't afraid to make fun of each other. Nora is probably the best character- she has a thirst for adventure and her personality reminded me a lot of the under-appreciated Liz from The Philadelphia Story. I was disappointed though, that she really wasn't given much to do. I was always under the impression that these films were about a husband and wife who worked as a team to solve crimes, but really Nick does most of the work and half the time didn't allow Nora to become more involved in the case. It's still a very well-written and interesting film, but didn't quite live up to my expectations.

4/5

I'd been excited for After the Thin Man because it marks an early role for Jimmy Stewart, one of my favorite actors. Unfortunately I knew something about his character in advance, so a major plot point was spoiled for me. This time, the central couple are visiting snobby relatives for New Year's, only to find that the asshole Robert (Alan Marshal), Nora's cousin Selma's (Elissa Landi) husband, has gone missing. It's clear he's been cheating on her, and Nick and Nora find him drinking at a Chinese club, watching his mistress, the beautiful singer Polly (Penny Singleton). Robert, who only married for the money, is now trying to extort thousands from David (James Stewart), who's in love with Selma and would pay to see his main competition leave town. After Robert is found shot in the street, Nick once again investigates a group of seedy figures connected to the case and gathers all of the suspects together to determine the murderer.

This is very much in the same vein as the first film, but in a good way. The mystery is engaging, but less interesting to me personally since I already a knew a central plot point. And of course there are plenty of wisecracks and suspicious characters mixed in. Once again Nora is shut out of actual detective work while Nick goes charging into gun-toting danger, but their relationship maintains its alluring camaraderie and entertaining dialogue. Of course Jimmy Stewart is adorable and tall, as is his want, though I sort of hoped he'd be in it more. The main detriment of After the Thin Man is its uninspired ending- not the wrap-up of the mystery, but Nora's personal reveal. All in all though, a nice enough way to spend New Year's Eve.

4/5

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