Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Last Boy Scout (1991)

Seen: On our projector set-up, streamed from Miles' computer.

Tony Scott's passing reminded me that I really haven't seen too many Tony Scott movies, which is unfortunate since most of them sound pretty cool. The Last Boy Scout was considered the most necessary viewing for its inclusion of Bruce Willis and a Shane Black screenplay. Willis stars as Joe, a drunk, cynical, world-weary private detective (duh!), who used to be a big-deal Secret Service agent. After a woman he's hired to guard is killed, he teams up with her boyfriend Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans), a former NFL star, to find her killer. They find a case of corruption that spreads from the NFL to a high-profile senator, and a trail of bodies following in their wake.

After a super dark and kind of awesome but mostly tonally dissonant opening sequence, The Last Boy Scout settles into the kind of quick, mean-spirited but hilarious dialogue and relationship struggles with which I identify Shane Black (since the main thing of his I'm super familiar with is Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). Willis and Wayans are kind of a weird team but they make it work by marking their differences in age/wealth/experience/style/etc and then piling on the sharp comebacks every chance they get. Plus they both have fucked up family problems so their friendship has that as a strong foundation. Good team.

Aside from all the quips, this is a solid action/mystery with a kickass car chase and a surprising number of explosions. Very exciting finale, too- there's even a horse! I loved Taylor Negron as the bleached-blonde, ice-cold bad guy Milo, who may be just a henchmen for the big villains but manages to be the most unhinged and unkillable, so he becomes the greatest threat. My only issue with the movie is that it takes a little while to get going, focusing a lot on Joe's family nonsense in the beginning. I didn't especially care about his wife or their relationship, I didn't even understand why they were still together when presumably he was a pretty shitty husband/father, and it just didn't have much of a bearing on the story as a whole. His foul-mouthed young daughter ("played by Danielle Harris of Eerie, Indiana fame," says nobody but me) gets to play an interesting part towards the middle, which was nice I thought, but that's about it. Once the plot picks up it gets really good though, even if everything's poorly-lit. (I feel like there was some sort of darkness standard for a lot of early 90s movies, so I don't count that against it.) The best part is obviously Damon Wayans' AMAZING outfits.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: Ummm well something about how he had to save his daughter or whatever reminded me of True Lies. Or of course for more Shane Black goodness there's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or Last Action Hero.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Seeing Ghosts Double Feature: ParaNorman (2012) and The Frighteners (1996)

I'd been pretty psyched for ParaNorman for quite some time, ever since I saw a trailer for it last year and became instantly smitten with its Coraline/Tim Burton-y aesthetic. Stop-motion has this effect on me, it's one of my favorite art forms and certainly my favorite type of animation. When accolades for the film began pouring in I was nodding my head along with them before I'd even had a chance to see it, just so elated that a non-CG animated film was receiving such widespread recognition. Then I finally saw the damn thing and guess what? IT RULES. The general premise reminded me strongly of The Frighteners, aka the only Peter Jackson movie I own, so I went home and watched that right after. It was a wonderfully spooky, funny, generally ghost-tastic double feature!

Norman is a weird kid, a self-made loner with poofy hair, a love of zombie movies, and the ability to see and talk to ghosts everywhere. No one believes him of course so he finds solace in his ghost friends, especially his caring grandma. But when a centuries-old witch's curse (he lives in a Salem, MA stand-in) threatens his whole town, Norman takes matters into his own hands, joined by some unlikely companions- including his vapid sister, the school bully, and eventually, his gabby parents.

This movie is soooo fucking good you guys, sorry to cuss but GODDAMN. The visuals, as expected, are absolutely stunning. I want to drink in everything I see so I can make it a part of my being, or something. I'm really into how it looks, basically. The animation is fluid and the character design is great, with strong elements of caricature and emphatic expressions. The sets are fantastic and I loved the ghostly effects. Seriously, that witchy storm-cloud sky? MY GOD, MAKE THAT MY SKY.

While I could gush about the visuals for hours (isn't that what you want?) I have to say that the script is completely great, too! It's funny and interesting and surprisingly progressive. At first I was like "Ugh, witch's CURSE, really? Shouldn't we be teaching these kids how shitty the pilgrims were and how young girls were being killed needlessly?" But then the plot develops into something much more nuanced and I was really happy with how it all turned out. No one is the all-out "villain", here, everyone has understandable motivations and eventually they all realize their wrongdoing. The biggest threat is the mob mentality of the present-day townspeople, who ransack the town center the second a few zombies walk harmlessly into their midst. What dicks.

ParaNorman stresses acceptance and open-mindedness, so it's like the opposite of Cars 2. There's even an out gay character, which for a kids movie is pretty cool, right? Has that happened in a mainstream family film before? I was sure early on that Mitch was gay, mainly because there was a point made about how he totally wasn't into Courtney and her very obvious advances. I figured I was wrong, because how could that happen, but there's a cute reveal at the end that confirms it. At first I was frustrated that a character's sexuality was used for a joke, but it's not mean-spirited, and revealing this big super-jock as a gay character at the end is probably the best way to make it easily acceptable to any kids who aren't familiar with the idea- the character reads as stereotypically straight and you come to like him as this sort of dumb jock guy, but then he's revealed as gay and you realize you were buying into that stereotype and you shouldn't assume things about people. Right? I hope that's how it works for anyone who didn't realize right away, and everyone is cool with it.

Anyway I'm really in love with this movie, I hope that's obvious. It's got lovely little horror references and a good story and strong voice acting and drop-dead-gorgeous visuals and I LOVE IT OK.

4.5/5

So Frank Bannister (Michael J Fox) is probably what Norman would grow into if he wasn't such a well-adjusted kid to begin with. A former architect, he's been seeing ghosts since he witnessed his wife's mysterious murder years prior, and now he employs his ghost buddies to haunt local houses so he can exorcise them for cash. A number of healthy people in his community keep dying of mysterious heart attacks, and it's up to Frank to stop the ghostly Death Specter who seems to be the culprit. After teaming up with Lucy (Trini Alvarado), a doctor whose asshole husband is among the victims, he realizes that the deaths are connected to a serial killer (Jake Busey) thought long-dead.

This has long been one of my favorite horror movies, but it had been a good few years since I'd last seen it. Luckily it totally holds up as a movie, even if the effects reeeeeally don't. The Frighteners is from the mid-90s and it definitely looks it, from Trini Alvarado's hilarious Andie MacDowell complex to the super dated CGI. Some of the imagery is quite scary- especially the house that comes alive with killer Johnny Bartlett's haunting- but it's so fake-looking it's hard to be really affected. This was made during that interim period when CG effects were a hot new thing that everyone wanted to use, but they hadn't developed the technology enough to actually look good. Just a few years after this Jackson would knock it out of the park with the visuals of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, so I guess this was kind of like a practice run. The first pancake, as it were. Some great ideas, not the best execution.

Dated visuals aside, this movie is pretty swell. I love Fox in the more serious role of Frank (this is his last starring film role to date, actually), where he's able to combine his sarcastic delivery with a more tragic character. Supporting stars Chi McBride, John Astin, and Jake Busey are all having fun, but it's Dee Wallace as Johnny's committed girlfriend Patricia and Jeffrey Combs as disturbed FBI agent Milton Dammers who really steal the show. The former switches between childlike innocence and sociopathic mania with chilling ease, while the latter is his usual darkly wacky self, only covered in weird tattoos and a Hitler hairdo. Ugh, Jeffrey Combs! The best guy. This is the first time I ever saw him, actually, though it took me a while to connect him with his younger Re-Animator self.

4/5

I seriously recommend The Frighteners to any ParaNorman fan, and vice versa. Not only are both about dudes who see ghosts, they've also both got freaky flashback visions, long drives through forests, great soundtracks (Danny Elfman and Jon Brion!), historical mysteries, supernatural comedy, tragic pasts, and lessons in friendship. And while the effects are at times distracting in the former, they don't detract enough from the film as a whole to make a huge difference. The ghosts looks pretty good, actually, it's the Death Specter that doesn't work so well. Oh also even though it's filmed in New Zealand, I'm pretty sure The Frighteners takes place in New England? So that's another connection. What a good pairing.


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Monday, August 27, 2012

The Bourne Identity (2002)

Seen: On hd-dvd on our projector set-up, from our surprisingly sizable hd-dvd collection.

All this talk of the new Bourne movie reminded me that, oh yeah, I'd never seen any of the others in the series. Always meant to, just never got around to it. Turns out we've had a copy of The Bourne Identity lying around for a while though as part of that big batch of hd-dvds we got with our player. So it was time. When a dude (Matt Damon) is found half-dead floating in the ocean, he has no memory of who he is or how he got there. He gradually pieces together his identity and isn't happy with what he finds out. A down-on-her-luck German woman (Franka Potente) is along for the ride as he escapes hired hitmen and the police while seeking out the truth about his past.

So I kind of had a general idea of Bourne's lost identity- that he's a secret agent/assassin-type for some secret government organization, and maybe he's genetically engineered or altered or something?- so hopefully I'm not spoiling that for other people when I talk about it. I figure it's kind of common knowledge, especially by now. But even with some knowledge of the mystery I still found the film quite compelling, it's less action-focused than I expected and really more about fleshing out this character. He doesn't want to accept that he is the kind of person he must be, despite all evidence that proves it. He can kill a person a dozen ways and he knows how to operate various weapons and he can scope out any area with a photographic memory of its exits, denizens, etc. He also has a ton of different passports and a LOT of cash in varying currencies. All of this is totally awesome but he's a bit wishy washy and seemingly DOESN'T want to be a badass cold-hearted killer. Pssh. I wish I had a wild secret past, jeez.

Anyway. This movie is pretty cool, overall. I liked the mystery, and the shady dealings of all the secret government people led by Chris Cooper and Brian Cox (including a tiny appearance by Walton Goggins! Oh my!), and the action sequences were quite exciting. Car chases through European cities are always great! I dug Franka Potente as the slightly addled but generally level-headed Marie, and she had strong enough chemistry with Damon that watching him give her a seemingly shitty (but later improved) haircut turns into something surprisingly sexy. I've never been that into Matt Damon, but he's convincing in the changeable role of Bourne, equal parts innocent confusion and deadly vengeance.

It's a little slow-moving, and all the parts don't quite come together, but overall I did find The Bourne Identity very enjoyable. Glad I caught up with it after ten years of missing out (sheesh). I want to check out the new one, and I guess I'll see the second and third entries eventually. Might take another decade, though.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: Well I have heard the sequel isn't very good but I guess that makes the most sense. I was reminded of Run, Lola, Run at times (and not just because of Franka Potente) so that'd be a nice thematic pairing.

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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Frankenhooker (1990)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix. Live-tweetin' with Corey Atad.

Soooo I saw a trailer for Frankenhooker at the Coolidge Horror Marathon last year and thought it looked hilarious, and became even more interested when I realized it was Frank Henenlotter (of Basket Case fame), a filmmaker I've been meaning to get into. James Lorinz stars as Jeffrey Franken, an eccentric young electrician and amateur inventor whose lawn mower contraption accidentally maims and kills his girlfriend Elizabeth (Patty Mullen). Distraught and half-crazed with grief, he hatches a plan to bring her back to life by giving her head (the one part he could save) a new body composed of prostitute components. Hilarity ensues, as does a lot of murder, mayhem, and explosions.

While generally fun and hilariously gross, Frankenhooker suffers the same drawbacks as so many other awesome-sounding b-movies: a decent premise spread too thin, resulting in large portions of mediocre padding between awesome moments. But I did so love those awesome moments, it's easy enough to forget the dull bits. There are long stretches of nothing happening, of unimportant conversations, and generally not enough of the title character. When she finally awakens I think there's about 15 minutes left of the movie, and she's the best part so it's too bad. Before that there is of course Super-Crack(TM), exploding prostitutes, and James Lorinz becoming more and more deranged as he talks to himself endlessly and tries to rationalize his actions, so I was reasonably entertained. At first I thought he was a bit bland in the role, uncharismatic and uninteresting, but he really grew on me as the film progressed and I ended up enjoying his take on the Victor Frankenstein-esque character. Patty Mullen is hilarious and downright weird as Elizabeth "Frankenhooker" Shelley, I totally loved her loud, twitchy performance at the end. It helped that her repurposed body also has deadly electric sex powers. Yowza.

Frankenhooker isn't much more than the sum of its parts, but my- what parts! I appreciated its twisted sense of humor, impressive make-up and effects, and general silly atmosphere. A cool bonus was that it takes place near my NJ hometown- it's set specifically in Ho-Ho-Kus which is totally a place I know about! I have family who live near there and also it's on the way to my mom's office building. Everyone's even got super North Jersey accents. Neato!

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: The main premise is very similar to Bride of Re-Animator, and I definitely felt like watching a little Herbert West after this. Then again, I'm always up for that.

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Friday, August 24, 2012

Alex Makes Art #92

Hey guys, how's it hanging? I would like to take this opportunity to remind everyone that Commando is a fucking awesome movie, maybe the best Schwarzenegger movie outside the Terminator series. I'm dead serious, why the hell isn't it more famous? We should all be talking about it all the time and watching it regularly. To aid this ennobling process, I've created what I think is a pretty cool poster for the film, featuring Arnold armed to the teeth while shit explodes behind him. No big deal. Check it.


I don't have anything else to add, really. The poster's for sale on etsy, and you can look at earlier entries in my Alex Makes Art series if you so desire. Summer's almost over but I've done my best to be productive, art-wise, before the fall semester starts.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Cyborg (1989)

Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, recently purchased as part of a Van Damme 3-pack, a gift to myself. I deserve it.

By now you're probably well aware that all I really want in life is to watch Jean-Claude Van Damme high kick things and mumble in his cute high-pitched Belgian accent. Adorable. So obviously I was pretty psyched for Cyborg, which pairs Van Damme with my favorite thing: a post-apocalyptic future. This one's got a deadly plague and an East Coast run wild with overgrown plant life. Also: asshole pirates. Or something. Van Damme plays Gibson Rickenbacker (what?), a badass motherfucker who is after revenge for his family's brutal murder at the hands of Fender (Vincent Klyn), a bigger badass motherfucker. There's also a pretty cyborg lady (Dayle Haddon) with a cure for the plague who needs his help, but that's not really integral to the plot. The title is definitely misleading.

Dredged up from the mind of Albert Pyun (whom, you may recall, brought us ARCADE), Cyborg is in league with various other poorly-plotted, nonsensical dystopian movies of the 80s and 90s. This is a genre I love, clearly, and Van Damme's high-kicking ridiculousness fits right in. It's got the grungy, hodge-podge aesthetic to make it recognizably post-apocalyptic, and some truly cool, crumbling sets. The story doesn't make ANY sense, really, and at any given time I wasn't quite sure what was going on or who anyone was (not an unusual experience for me, though). There are a lot of dopey flashbacks that re-use the same five minutes of footage. If they were that strapped for padding, couldn't they have added more fight scenes? Because I gotta say, there are not enough fight scenes in this movie. Any time Van Damme wasn't kicking someone's ass I was kind of bored.

BUT OF COURSE the movie has its merits: Van Damme's absolutely terrible wig in the flashbacks, the supreme badassery of villain Fender, the weird future-guns, the crazy-long chase scene through sewers and meadowlands, a surprisingly gruesome crucifixion, and a weird PLOT TWIST. And when the fight scenes do happen they're pretty great, especially since Fender is a legitimately formidable villain (and HUGE) so there's more at stake. I wasn't a huge fan of the Annoying Lady Sidekick (every Van Damme movie's got one, as far as I can tell) played by Deborah Richter, but at least she got to be useful once or twice and he wasn't constantly saving her.

Cyborg is fun at times and laughably bad at others, but a good chunk of it is sort of dull, and it's sad when an 86 minute movie drags in pacing. I wanted it to be SO AWESOME so I guess part of my disappointment is my own fault- I got my expectations too high! But I will never give up on Van Damme, I've got two more amazing (I hope) films in that 3 pack to check out, plus the billion others he's made that I haven't seen.

As a movie: 2.5/5
As entertainment: 3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: The overall feel reminded me a bit of Johnny Mnemonic. Coincidentally that's also the first result you get when you search for "Cyborg" on imdb. So: destiny.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, from Miles's collection.

I don't think Apocalypse Now is the best thing ever but I have been interested in seeing the behind-the-scenes documentary Hearts of Darkness because of how crazy everyone supposedly is. Composed primarily of footage shot by Francis Ford Coppola's wife Eleanor along with interviews shot after the fact, the film is an intimate look into a grueling production. The cast and crew spent months in the Philippines as a revolution went on around them, their shoot basically following the journey of the characters down the river, deeper and deeper into the jungle and subsequent madness. Coppola is a bit of a mystic tyrant, choosing to allow the film to evolve organically and without clear direction, much to the frustration of his actors and crewmembers. It's kinda like that episode of Community, you know?

For the most part this was what I expected, since I had already heard so many stories about this production, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a really interesting documentary. Eleanor's narration (taken from her diary notes) provides insightful commentary and a personal touch, while the range of interviews offers various perspectives and hindsight. Martin Sheen candidly discusses his alcoholic rage during the hotel scene and subsequent heart attack, while Coppola breezily compares their experiences to actual soldiers in Vietnam. There is awesome footage of how certain effects were created, and wild sets being built. Several actors admit to being drunk and/or high for most of filming, and it's not a surprise.

So this is a good documentary, I just don't have that much to say about it. I'm just not super into Apocalypse Now or Francis Ford Coppola.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: Well if you have like 8 hours to spare I suppose Apocalypse Now makes the most sense.

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Monday, August 20, 2012

Killer Joe (2012)

Seen: At the Kendall Square Landmark Cinema in Cambridge, where I got carded for NC-17. Me and my fucking baby face.

When idiot drug dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch) finds himself in debt for several thousand dollars to a local mobster, he hatches a plan to kill his mother so he can claim her life insurance plan. He brings in his father (Thomas Haden Church) and step-mother (Gina Gershon), conspiring to hire a cop known as Killer Joe (Matthew MacConaughey), who works as an assassin on the side. Joe agrees to do the job and get paid his fee once they get the insurance money, but takes Chris's pretty sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as collateral. Of course, nothing goes as planned and soon the whole family is in deep shit with a terrifying sociopath.

Killer Joe stands out primarily for its performances, especially Matthew MacConaughey and Juno Temple. He is creepy as hell as well as brutally funny, continuing to prove himself more versatile in his more recent roles. She brings a mixture of innocence and self-assurance that makes her character the most formidable of all, as those around her underestimate her maturity and understanding. Thomas Haden Church is great in a supporting role as Ansel, the put-upon patriarch whose easygoing nature and alcoholic retreat allow him little control over his own fate. I was also impressed with Emile Hirsch, who gets uglied up really fast so his acting stands out more than his considerable good looks.

With a decidedly dark streak of humor and little in the way of moral reservations or limitations, Killer Joe is summed up as intense... but also funny. It's an at-times strange mix of the two but works primarily as a straight thriller. Its moments of levity are often unexpected, offering breaks in the tense and generally seedy atmosphere. I was genuinely uncomfortable during several scenes, and while I realize that's pretty much the point, it didn't exactly endear the film to me. I had expected a lot of gore or weird sex stuff from the NC-17 rating, but it's really the general ickyness of Joe and his interactions that got to me. Shudder.

And I can tell you that I definitely won't want to eat fried chicken for quite some time.

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Buhh I thought of one as I was watching but then I forgot, darn it all. I haven't seen Bug but that's the main other Tracy Letts work I know of. Or if you want to see Juno Temple naked some more there's Kaboom.

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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Night Catches Us (2010)

Seen: On dvd on my laptop (on a bus trip), rented from netflix.

Night Catches Us came and went pretty quickly in theaters, as I recall, so I missed it the first time around. I'm very grateful I bumped it up my netflix queue, though, because it is an exceptional film. Written and directed by Tanya Hamilton as her first feature, the film examines the lives of two former Black Panthers years after the movement lost its momentum. Marcus (Anthony Mackie) left the group under mysterious circumstances and is assumed to be a snitch by his former comrades, but is now back in his hometown of Philadelphia for his father's funeral. Lawyer Patricia (Kerry Washington) was married to a now-deceased Panther leader, and continues to operate social programs that provide food and shelter for the disenfranchised in her community but doesn't work closely with her old Panther members. As Marcus reconnects with Patricia and her 9-year-old daughter (Jamara Griffin), the two reflect on their choices and beliefs, and how their situations have changed over the years. Meanwhile, Patricia's teenage nephew Jimmy (Amari Cheatom)- who idolized the Panthers growing up- begins to form a plan of his own to take revenge on the racist cops in their neighborhood.

I will immediately state that I know very little of the Black Panthers and their history. It's not something I ever remember covering in school and I never really looked into it myself, so I saw this film as an opportunity to gain some insight into the group as well as catch two excellent, under-used actors in good leading roles. Night Catches Us served these purposes while also being a gripping, emotionally eloquent film. Hamilton's script is sparse but multi-layered, focusing as much on what is said as is unsaid. Each character carries their history with them at all times, bringing subtle meaning and gravitas to the at-times ambiguous dialogue. It's a good story that brings together multiple periods of the movement's history, but is in its essence a wonderfully understated character study.

Both Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington are so good in this movie, they sink into their roles so effortlessly that it was easy to forget I was watching two people act. I loved watching them dance around each other warily, fearing their shared past may separate them as much as it brings them together. The supporting cast is great as well, especially Jamara Griffin as young Iris, a strong-willed girl whose need to know the truth about her parents' actions makes her fearless. It's just a great film, all around, really. Good soundtrack, well-realized mid-70s atmosphere, and powerful performances. I wish it had been a bigger deal when it came out, and I'm embarrassed I didn't support it when it was in theaters.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: I might put it with something like Talk to Me, which is another look at civil rights issues in 60s/70s urban America, and happens to also be directed by a woman of color, always something to celebrate.

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Friday, August 17, 2012

Alex Makes Art #91

Hello! Welcome back to Alex Makes Art, that thing I do where I try to make some artsyfartsy thing every week except last week I skipped it because I was at the beach for several days and didn't have a scanner. So. Some of my twitter followers have likely noticed that I have been drawing A LOT of Catwoman lately. This was all part of my big plan, which I can finally reveal after several late-night drawing sessions! I have taken each of the major live-action iterations of the character and rendered her in what I hope are dynamic pen sketches, and then I collected them all in a digital piece that lines up her various guises and actresses. Good times! I learned some things, like how the costume didn't really change at all throughout the 60s even though the actress changed three times, and that every version of this character has had to wear heels (ugh). Also Hathaway is the only one without claws, Berry's shoes are open-toed and ridiculous-looking, and Pfeiffer looks/is the best even though I imagine she had the most difficulty moving around.

Anyway. Below are scans of all 6 single drawings, followed by the big combo print thingie that's for sale. I think this is pretty cool, but that's just me. It was nice to do so much physical drawing over a short span of time, I have been out of practice.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Batman Returns (1992)

Seen: On my parents' tv while visiting, on one of their many movie channels.

So I've been on kind of a Batman-related kick lately. I didn't love The Dark Knight Rises, but it motivated me to pick up some Gotham-universe comics (specifically Batwoman: Elegy and Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum), as well as revisit some of the older movies and the 60s tv show. I'm also knee-deep in Catwoman drawings right now as I work on an art series for the character (hopefully finished by Friday, but for now keep an eye on my twitter for art updates). When I saw Batman Returns was on tv I was beside myself with excitement: I've been wanting to sink into Michelle Pfeiffer's movie-stealing performance since TDKR. Tim Burton's second visit to Gotham City pits masked crimefighter Batman (Michael Keaton) against two new villains: the irascible Penguin (Danny DeVito) and the mysterious, seductive Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). Powerful businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) is roped into helping Penguin (now going by Oswald Cobblepot) run for mayor, both intent on turning the city against Batman by framing him as a crazed murderer. Meanwhile Selina Kyle, Shreck's assistant, is pushed from a window by her sociopathic boss and miraculously survives, reawakening as the vengeful Catwoman intent on destroying Shreck's life.

For me the Batman property has always been about the villains. I don't especially care about Batman himself- he's stiff and serious and he dresses funny- but I love love love his Rogues Gallery. Watching Batman Returns for the first time in many years, I realized that the best thing about it is its focus on the villains. Batman is barely the star of this movie, it's an ensemble piece really, and Pfeiffer, DeVito, and Walken are KILLING IT. And Keaton's a nice touch too, naturally. The overall story is a bit cluttered, but there are so many awesome moments that I definitely didn't care. Between Selina's dead-eyed transformation into Catwoman (which involves both utter destruction of her apartment AND a frenzied sewing project), Penguin's awesome cadre of circus performer henchmen (including Vincent Schiavelli AND Doug Jones), and every word out of Christopher Walken's mouth, Batman Returns has got something for everybody who likes to root for the bad guys (which is often me). Batman gets to drive around in a fancy car and fantasize about Michelle Pfeiffer, so he's having a good day too. Seriously, this movie is all about her, she's just amazing. So perfect a badass anti-hero, I can even forgive her costumers for making her wear stilettos (though if you look closely at her cartwheeling/flippy moments, her stunt double's wearing flat boots). Most importantly, she's extremely anti-victimization of women. You go, lady.

This film is so much more Tim Burtony than I remembered, which is actually really nice since it serves as a reminder of why I always loved his earlier works. Stylistic details stuck out to me like the messy stitching on Catwoman's costume, the grayscale palette for Gotham's architecture, and of course Elfman's distinctive score. I realized that the misshapen Penguin looks exactly like one of Burton's Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy drawings. It's nice how he was able to merge his own very recognizable aesthetic with a comic-book world so engrained in the public consciousness to create a perfect blending of the two. It's campy and fun but also appropriately dark and unpredictable. I feel weird saying it, but this might be my favorite Batman movie? Like, historically I have a real thing for Batman & Robin and obviously I think The Dark Knight is excellent but in terms of a film I would pick above all others as the coolest and most re-watchable, it's probably this one. Just took me a really long time to realize it.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Aw man I don't know, anything with more Michelle Pfeiffer, I guess? Or another Batman movie makes sense too, god knows there's enough of them.

PS I AM CATWOMAN HEAR ME ROAR

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Dirty Dancing (1987)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from the Tisch Library at Tufts.

Somehow I just missed the whole Dirty Dancing... thing. Never saw it, never really had a reason to. Until Ryan over at The Matinee put a call out for his "Falling For the First Time" series, in which bloggers watch a "classic" from the 80s for the first time and he interviews them on their reactions. I took on Dirty Dancing for this project, and am glad someone finally motivated me to watch it. Inspired by screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein's own experiences, the film details a privileged teenage girl's summer at a resort in the Catskills. Known as "Baby" for some inane reason, Frances Houseman (Jennifer Grey) is a serious-minded student who finds herself entangled with a group of resort employees involved in secret late-night "dirty dancing". To help out Penny (Cynthia Rhodes), the lead dancer, Baby must learn a complicated mambo dance routine and perform with hunky dance instructor Johnny (Patrick Swayze) at a nearby hotel. While practicing the choreography Baby gradually falls for Johnny, but he feels their different socioeconomic backgrounds will strain their relationship if they date seriously.

I had expected all the cheese and ridiculousness of its decade, but Dirty Dancing honestly surprised me. It's primarily a well-written drama dealing with issues of class and relationships in 1960s upstate New York. Baby is a fairly strong character, an open-minded young person surrounded by stuck-up jerks, who wants to follow her physician father's example and help everyone she can. For her this means falling in with "disreputable" types and expanding her awareness of how different people live. Though pegged as a romance the film is more a coming-of-age tale for Baby as she learns how to apply her ironclad values in the real world, and how to act outside of her family's classist regulations.

But there's also some dancing. And some light cheese at the end, to be sure, since you can't get away from "Time of Your Life". Luckily the 60s setting lends itself to awesome music, and there are a few scenes that might not have worked as well if not for the excellent period soundtrack. The dance numbers are solid, and feel more grounded in reality than full-blown musical sequences. I assume Jennifer Grey did her own dancing, since she's good but not unbelievably good, while Swayze shows off his moves (and his ever-shirtless abs). Their chemistry is fantastic and I loved the very 80s use of montage showing their dance routine and DANCE LOVE develop. Lots of sexy grinding and tickling.

Sure some of its visuals and techniques keep it set in 1987, but on the whole I'd say Dirty Dancing has aged well due to its strong script and good cast. And the dancing! Oh, the dancing.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: Maybe another teenage romance with dancing? There's Save the Last Dance, or Grease, or Hairspray. I haven't seen the Step Up movies but maybe they work too.

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Monday, August 13, 2012

Miss Representation (2011)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.

Well my viewing of Miss Representation has been a long time coming. A documentary about representation of women in the media is basically all I want a documentary to be about, you know? When actress Jennifer Siebel Newsom became pregnant with a girl, she found herself increasingly worried about the culture her daughter would be born into- specifically the misogynistic environment propagated by the mainstream media. She set out to interview a range of women in different media-related fields- including newscasters, politicians, professors, filmmakers, and actors- as well as current high school students to determine the types of experiences women have both as media participants and audience members. The resulting documentary also features footage of news segments, films, tv shows, and advertisements in an attempt to encapsulate how women and girls are being treated and represented in mainstream formats.

Ok so it's no secret that everything is sexist and we are always trying to fight the patriarchy/kyriarchy. We all deal with misogyny every day on some level, often through the media we're imbibing. This shouldn't be news to anyone, but sadly I'm sure it is. A lot of people are likely either unaware or simply don't care how bad it really is, and a film like Miss Representation serves as a dark reminder as well as a call to action. The statistics and personal stories told here are frankly horrifying, and the barrage of outright hatred in news videos shown in rapid succession was hard to take at times (overemotional lady wreck that I apparently am, I cried frequently during this movie). Clips of conservative political commentators like Bill O'Reilly and Glen Beck attacking Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and other female politicians on the basis of their gender were especially nasty, especially since I tend to avoid that sort of thing so I hadn't seen a lot of it before. To temper all this negativity Newsom interviews a number of middle school and high school students, many of whom display definite awareness of the power media images have over the self-esteem and actions of young girls. One high schooler showcased is basically a young Leslie Knope, and her dreams of running for public office seem easily realized given her talents and determination. Others hope to become writers or filmmakers, to put better representations of women and people of color onscreen.

I had gone into Miss Representation thinking it might focus more on women in filmmaking, which is a personal interest, but I was actually pleased to see it include so much about female newscasters and politicians, which are areas I'm less familiar with. It also gave some of the talking heads opportunities to talk specifically about women of color in these positions, which of course should be a matter of equal importance for all feminists. I would have liked a little more discussion about women of color and LGBT issues, but I recognize that this is a very broad look at a multifaceted issue, and even just narrowing down and organizing all of the material must have been a struggle. Newsom keeps her thoughts about her daughter's future as the forward thrust of the film, and while her narration is a bit stiff I think it was a good personal narrative addition that glued various segments together.

This film is so important, and I know not enough people will see it because EVERYONE should see it. Most of its viewers will probably be women like me, and it will be preaching to the choir, as it were. This needs to be seen by anyone affiliated with media production, anyone who absorbs tv, film, and online content, anyone who's a teacher, anyone who has impressionable girls (and boys) in their lives. After I watched it I felt helpless for a while, even though I already knew about much of what was said, it's rare I am hit with it all at once like that. But obviously feeling helpless and not doing anything about it is the opposite of what I should be doing, and the whole "Be the change you with to see in the world" mantra comes to mind. I will never stop pointing out sexism in the film industry, I will never stop supporting films made by women and films featuring positive representations of women, and I will use what little voice I have to try and get others to understand my point of view, so that slowly, gradually, the media will begin to rise to meet our expectations.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: One of the ways you can help improve images of women in the media is by seeking out films and televisions shows that are written/directed by women, and feature them in positive lead roles. I do this is as much as I can already, but I feel like I don't encourage others to do so. So consider this my own call to action. You should try to do this as much as you can, while avoiding those that are sexist/ageist/racist/ableist/etc. Women and Hollywood has a great list of films currently in theaters with women at the helm, so there's a start. I know depending on where you live many of these indies may not be playing, so looking into older movies might be more doable. I collect all the films I watch with women writers and directors, as well as those with great portrayals of women even if the filmmakers are male, in my "Ladies!" page, with my favorites narrowed down in an icheckmovies list. Remember that films by and/or about women are not just FOR women. I watch a shit ton of movies about dudes that I enjoy, it can definitely go the other way around. If you're looking for specific recommendations please don't hesitate to ask me!

Check out the official website for more information about screenings and what you can do to help spread the film's message.

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Friday, August 10, 2012

Ichimei (Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai) (2011)

Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge.

Hey, a new Miike film! It sounds like that guy has really mellowed out since his Audition and Ichi the Killer days, so I'm a lot less trepidatious about seeing his newer movies. I didn't know much about Hara-Kiri, never having seen the original, but it's rare that I take in an old-fashioned samurai film despite my love for Japanese culture and history. Structured through the frame story of n poor aging samurai (Ichikawa Ebizo) requesting the honor of committing ritual suicide in the home of a powerful lord, the primary plot concerns a young man (Eita) of the samurai class who fights to make a living as a teacher in his poor town. He marries the narrating samurai's daughter and they are happy for a time, but eventually poor health and poverty threaten to tear the family apart and he must take drastic action.

Quiet and drawn out in its storytelling, Hara-Kiri is a study in samurai honor codes and the desperation brought on by peace in the Edo Period. The mood is ever-pensive, ever-reserved, all very "Japanese" in the classical sense. I can appreciate a serious, thoughtful period piece as much as the next person, but I found all the melodrama in this too much to take at times. Everyone has a million problems, everything is felt acutely, and entrenched obsession with pride and honor rules the day instead of rational thought. The cast is strong, especially Ichikawa Ebizo, who simmers with hidden badassery for most of the film and then unleashes everything for a short but sweet fight scene at the end. Stylistically Miike is fairly austere, with extended shots of darkened wooden interiors and a sparse musical score. I worried that a film dealing with seppuku would have scenes of bloody disemboweling and beheading but actually there is little in the way of gore. Unfortunately after two hours of depressing mawkishness I was kind of hoping for some blood.

Not bad, just too slow and quiet for my tastes. The lovely imagery and good performances kept me engaged, though.

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: As far as I can tell it's better to just watch the original instead of this one, but otherwise I don't know. Double Suicide, maybe?

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Monday, August 6, 2012

Subway (1985)

Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, borrowed from our friend Sam.

Luc Besson can be uneven, surely, but his output is so large it's to be expected, and generally if I see his name attached to something I'm interested. I was pretty excited to hear about one of his earliest features, Subway, which sees the filmmaker sticking to his gritty urban French roots. The film focuses on Fred (Christophe Lambert), a spiky-haired safe-cracker who flees to the labyrinthine caverns of the Paris subway when a group of armed men chase him down for robbing wealthy trophy wife Héléna (Isabelle Adjani). He meets various eccentric denizens of the underground and fights to outwit the transit police, eventually forming a band with different musicians he meets down there. It's a weird time.

I totally didn't expect what this movie threw at me, but it was so great it didn't really matter. It's rife with bizarre characters and silly subplots, and no one has recognizable motivations, and everything is awesome. There are multiple musical sequences, exciting chase scenes, super cool locations, and general fun times. I loved the appearance from Jean Reno as a taciturn drummer, and Jean-Hugues Anglade as a weasely roller-skating thief. Christophe Lambert's character is kind of an idiot with anger issues, but I liked his haircut. And Isabelle Adjani is just like... super pretty. Damn. And she hates rich people despite appearances. The real star of the movie is the setting, though, and I totally want to move into the Paris subway. It's the best place.

Subway is a strange, fun film but it does drag as the story meanders around as much as its characters, and by the final scene it's turned into this melodramatic romance that also has rock music? But it starts out as a chase-thriller with comedic elements. It's all over the place. I liked the blend of genres and unpredictable plot, but the frequent switches in tone and focus made it an uneven film on the whole. But that's a pretty minor criticism considering how much I enjoyed it overall! Thanks, Luc Besson!

4/5

Pair This Movie With: Another wacky late-night-in-the-city movie, I think, like Desperately Seeking Susan or After Hours.

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Friday, August 3, 2012

Alex Makes Art #90

Oh look, another Friday is upon us! Which of course means I have some movie-themed artwork to show you! It's been another fairly productive week, but sadly it'll have to stand in for next week too since I'll be away and without my tablet or scanner until next Friday night. But hopefully I'll have some good beach times with my family and stuff. Anyway. Compared to last week's grayscale outings, this week I have one of the boldest images I've ever made! It's even got complimentary colors, wow. This Wayne's World design started out as a personalized commission but this is a different version for general viewing. It's for sale as a small print.

Also! The other night I wanted to do some freehand drawing since I worry I rely on digital too much, so I had an idea to do a little pen-sketch series of different iterations of Catwoman. I started with Lee Meriwether from Batman: The Movie, which I watched last week. I've been revisiting the old show and am now psyched to give Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt a try.

After Catwoman I was still in a drawing mood so I took a request from Nick to do Riddick from Pitch Black, here's a quick pencil sketch of the character. Eventually I might make a more interesting piece for that movie since I do dig it.



Anyway that's it for now! I hope you are all doing well.

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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Perfect Blue (1997)

Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from netflix.

For years I was convinced I'd seen this movie, until I realized I'd been confusing it with another anime film whose name I don't remember. How embarrassing. For my love of Satoshi Kon I knew I had to see it as soon as possible. Kon's first feature as a director, Perfect Blue follows mildly-successful pop singer Mima as she attempts to transition into serious acting. After landing a recurring role on a dramatic crime series, her desire to distance herself from her girly bubblegum pop image leads her to more and more drastic action, such as agreeing to act in a graphic rape scene for the show and later posing for nude photos. She is plagued by visions of her former self, eventually sinking into paranoia and confusion as this "Other" Mima tries to take over her own life.

Satoshi Kon. I miss him a lot, actually, because as far as I can tell he could only create breathtaking, immersive works that continue to stun after repeated viewings. I'm grateful he left behind such beautiful, engaging films but I continually mourn the loss of such a phenomenal talent (plus it sounds like he was a good guy in real life).

Ok, sad thoughts aside, Perfect Blue is, naturally, a marvel. The effortlessly fluid blending of Mima's actual experiences and tortured hallucinations is fantastic, and there is a constant questioning of what is real and illusion by both the character and audience. Kon utilizes animation as a medium in captivating and inventive ways, often proving what feats it can accomplish that live action cannot, and ultimately it is gorgeous to view even if some of the styling and colors are a little dated. The approach to technology dates it a bit too (there are literally scenes of a lady explaining how the internet works), but its commentary on popular media's insensitive and exploitative tactics remains ever-relevant. Celebrity drives multiple people in this movie crazy, and no one is surprised.

The surface premise of a cute pop singer trying to be an actor is deceptively light, as the script gradually builds up elements of psycho-thriller and slasher-horror. It is always unclear to what lengths this story will go, holding me rapt as I became fully engrossed in Mima's fracturing psyche and the obsession and death that surrounds her. It is intense and at times disturbing, and I'm still thinking about it a week later. Now I'm thinking of revisiting Paranoia Agent...

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: As many have noted, Aronofsky is a big fan of this film and in fact owns the rights to an American version since he lifted shots from it for Requiem for a Dream. Its plot and themes are also incredibly similar to Black Swan, which would make a good pairing I think.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Batman: The Movie (1966)

Seen: On dvd on my friend Sam's projector set-up, from my personal collection.

The whole "Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb" part in The Dark Knight Rises obviously had me in the mood for Batman: The Movie, the delightfully campy film version of the classic 60s tv series. Starring Adam West as the eponymous crimefighter and Burt Ward as his Boy Wonder sidekick Robin, the film pits our heroes against four of Gotham's most dastardly villains: Penguin (Burgess Meredith), Joker (Caesar Romero), Riddler (Frank Gorshin), and Catwoman (Lee Meriwether). They've teamed up to combine their considerable evil skills and resources, hatching a plot to hold members of the United Nations for ransom, while using billionaire Bruce Wayne as bait to snare Batman and Robin. OBVIOUSLY THIS PLAN IS AIRTIGHT.

There is a lot of silliness afoot in this movie, and that's just the way I like it. It's got wacky action scenes and eye-searing color combinations and maniacal laughter and ridiculous leaps of logic and even a bit of the ol' BAM POW ZOCKO! I love the villainous team-up, especially since Frank Gorshin as the Riddler is maybe my favorite Batman adversary? He's up there, certainly. And everybody gets to bring their own thing to the plan. Penguin's got his adorable penguin-shaped submarine (my gosh it's too cute with its little flippers), Riddler shoots a riddle into the sky to confound Batman for like 30 seconds, Catwoman disguises herself as a Russian journalist to get into Bruce Wayne's perfectly-pleated pants, and Joker's got... jokes? I don't actually remember his contribution but I'm sure it was there. They have at least 10 supervillian schemes going at any given time time, including: kidnapping a befuddled Commodore, launching various deadly weapons, mistreatment of sharks, kidnapping a billionaire, impersonating Soviets, turning world leaders into colorful dehydrated dust, and basically murder when some of their henchmen accidentally explode. Meanwhile Batman and Robin get to shout out weird exclamations and antiquated turns of phrase and everything is just as it should be.

I've always thought this film was a pretty fun time, a solid representation of the tv series and an enjoyable feature in its own right. It knows it's loopy and over the top, and it revels in it. But rewatching it now after several years I realize that it draaaaags and generally overstays its welcome, which is too bad. There are several storylines that pop up and then fade away as the movie progresses, and there's way too much time spent rationalizing certain actions or events. Like, no one cares and certainly no one is paying attention to these details, you guys. I don't care where Penguin got the submarine, and I have no idea how the Commodore and his yacht fit into things. It matters naught. And then there's a big climactic fight scene and you think it's over, but somehow there's still 10 minutes of movie left as they hang out at the UN for forever.

I still think Batman: The Movie is a real hoot, it could just use some trimming. Or maybe next time I'll drink some more and it'll even out. Holy Alcohol, Batman!

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: I feel like revisiting the show, since it's been a few years. Looks like Youtube's got me covered.

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