Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Argo (2012)

Seen: At the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square.

When the corrupt, much-loathed shah of Iran is taken in by the United States after his country revolts against him in favor of Ayatollah Khomeini, there is a riot at the US embassy and most of the staff is taken hostage. Six employees manage to escape to the Canadian ambassador's house, and after a few months the CIA takes action to get them out. Exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) forms a daring plan to impersonate a Canadian movie crew scouting "exotic" locations for a fake Hollywood sci-fi flick, enlisting the aid of seasoned monster make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and director Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to make it convincing. It's a weird, dumb plan but we can assume it works somehow, otherwise why make a movie about it?

Argo reeled me in mostly due to its strange and interesting premise, a (mostly) true story I'd never heard of because, well, I'm an ignorant American with shaky grasp of Cold War history (we never seemed to make it past WWII in my history classes). I was most worried about how the Iranians might be portrayed in a movie fraught with actual racial and religious tensions, but Affleck does his best to be even-handed. The opening scenes laying out the poor treatment suffered by Iranian citizens at the hands of the opulent shah make their anger and desperation understandable, and various shots of them burning American flags are eventually paired with news clips of prejudiced Americans burning Iranian flags and even beating up a peaceful Iranian-American. They're still the bad guys, but I kind of felt like everyone was an asshole on both sides, so that's realistic.

For the most part Argo is a tense thriller with well-placed moments of levity and a number of digs at the Hollywood system. It is well aware of both how ludicrous its premise is as well as how real the people are, effectively communicating the danger of the situation and the fear of everyone involved. The cast is strong, with Affleck a little flat but ably leading a large number of charismatic and recognizable co-stars. I felt we didn't really get to know the six "house guests" very well, but the actors all did their best to portray well-rounded characters with limited material (especially Clea DuVall, yay!). Obviously Goodman and Arkin steal the show with all their old-man, fuck-Hollywood banter, and they even get in on the nail-biting climactic escape. This movie is easy to like, distilling a complicated historical event into something exciting and dramatic- though notably downplaying Canada's aid in the extraction. I pretty much dug it.


Pair This Movie With: Naturally John Goodman and movie satire had me thinking of Matinee, which I watched fairly recently. Both films also deal with real-life historical events through the eyes of the movie business.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

L.A. Story (1991)

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

Harris K Telemacher (Steve Martin) is a clever, well-educated aspiring reporter wasting his talents as a "wacky" tv weatherman, socializing with dull, vapid famous people and going to fancy events in Los Angeles. When he meets British journalist Sara (Victoria Tennant), he is instantly smitten, but various romantic attachments on both ends- including her ex-husband Richard Grant and his hot young date Sarah Jessica Parker- keep them from being together. Luckily, a magical billboard, seemingly an embodiment of the city of L.A. itself, helps him through his trials.

So I'll say right away, L.A. Story really doesn't have much actual story to go on, and is basically just an excuse for Steve Martin to make regional jokes and hang out with satirical characters. The romantic plot is ok, not especially engrossing or special, but Martin and Tennant are adorable and the script is hilarious, so as a film it's not really lacking for much. I loved the good-natured digs at Los Angeles (a place I've never visited but feel I know a lot about from the movies), the ridiculous supporting characters, fantastic cameos (most especially Rick Moranis as a Cockney gravedigger, I was elated), and the cutesy fantasy angle. Plus there are multiple scenes set in an art museum, which leads to art jokes! Steve Martin loves art, you guys, for real!

I liked this movie but I don't have a whole lot to say about it. It's funny and sweet, mostly, though sort of meandering. I didn't love Sarah Jessica Parker's character, but that's primarily because she was super energetic and fidgety and she made me nervous moving around so much.


Pair This Movie With: Hmm I don't know, more Steve Martin I suppose? I am a fan of The Jerk. Or maybe The Man With Two Brains?


Monday, October 29, 2012

Alex Makes Art #98

Hello all, surprise! I've decided to move my Alex Makes Art feature to Mondays since it'll be easier on my schedule. So here's some art! Remember how I made that little Clueless comic a few weeks ago? Well I had fun with it and I like the idea in general so I want to make some for other movies too. This week I took a scene from Empire Records, featuring one of my favorite lines of the movie. It was a goofy time doing AJ's super 90's haircut, but I made it through. Click through to see, and you can purchase a print of it on etsy!

This week I'll be starting a non-movie-related commission that I'm very excited about, not sure if I'll finish it in time for Monday since I have midterms but WE SHALL SEE. Hope fellow East Coasters are ok in the storm.


Friday, October 26, 2012

Rockin' Teens Double Feature: Hairspray (2007) and Shake, Rattle & Rock! (1994)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, from my personal collection (Hairspray); Streamed on netflix instant on my computer (Shake, Rattle & Rock!).

Last time I was at my parents' house I had a serious hankering for some musicals (I had listened to my musical soundtrack playlist the whole bus ride there). I remembered that somewhere in the depths of my family's amassed dvd collection lay both Hairspray and Chicago, both of which I'd been meaning to revisit. The former I popped out last week, and the latter I'll be viewing at some later date when I'm in the mood. I followed up Hairspray with Shake, Rattle & Rock!, a made-for-tv Allan Arkush movie that I had started weeks ago and never finished. Its early introduction of television discrimination against black singers made me think it'd be a good pairing, though that turned out to be a more minor part of the story than I anticipated. Still a fun double feature though, and ahead I shall discuss the relative merits of each film!

Persistently upbeat and an extremely talented dancer, chubby teen Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) is delighted to be living in a more open-minded age as the 1960's transform her beloved city of Baltimore, MD. She dreams of becoming famous and eventually lands a role as a dancer on a local tv show aimed at young people who dig rock n' roll. While the show's lead dancer Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow) resents an unconventional girl like Tracy stealing the spotlight, her manipulative mother, station manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer), is outraged at Tracy's mission to integrate the station so that skilled black students at her school can join the show. There's lots of singing and teen romance and backstage conniving and body positivity and oversimplification of race issues and silly jokes and DANCING OH SO MUCH DANCING.

I remember in my sophomore year of high school a lot of my peers (especially the wealthier ones) had big fancy sweet 16 parties with candle lighting ceremonies and expensive dresses and huge crowds. Me? My parents took me and a few of my closest girlfriends into New York to see Hairspray with, if memory serves, some of the original cast still intact. It's one of the best birthdays I ever had. So, naturally, I was PSYCHED for the movie, and I've gotta say I think it's one of the better stage musical-to-film adaptations. Revisiting (and, naturally, live-tweeting) was super fun because gosh darn if it isn't just a jolly time. The music is catchy as hell and, say what you will about Adam Shankman, but he can choreograph and capture the hell out of an exciting musical number. That sequence on the bus? Thrilling. Well, all of "Run and Tell That", really, since that's my favorite song AND the main time Elijah Kelley gets to show off his hot skills. It also helps that most of the film is imbued with candy-colored costumes and sets, creating a hyped-up 60's wonderland that perfectly suits the lead character's gleeful energy.

Story-wise, Hairspray does have some problems, though I think the whole "fat girl likes to dance and then finds love" angle is handled pretty well. Tracy is shown as loving herself for who she is, never trying to lose weight (except one lyric about being "hungry for something that I can't eat") or change for other people. In the end she gets the hot popular guy and is set to become famous, simply because she's awesome and has supportive family/friends. But the other plotline about segregation is sort of weird, mostly because it oversimplifies race issues and also has that tired "white savior" angle. BUT it also talks about how black musicians set the standards for a lot of white musicians who stole their songs and style, and it showcases a lot of really talented black singers/dancers, including Queen Latifah who is THE BEST. And considering it's primarily a happy-go-lucky kind of musical, I can't expect insightful narratives about race, really. I haven't seen the original Waters film in a while so I don't remember how it's handled in that. The other frustrating thing is John Travolta, who is obviously a great singer and (at times) fun actor, but I remember there being a lot of controversy about his portrayal of a female character. It's tough because no one could fill Divine's shoes, obviously, and no one wants an asshole Scientologist playing an overly realistic woman and totally ignoring the context of drag culture. I don't know, it's not really something I'm informed about so I wasn't as offended as I know some others were, though it's too bad they couldn't have had Harvey Fierstein back. The third thing I thought would be a problem was Zac Efron, but dammit he's actually really funny and likable as popular teen singer Link Larkin.

Ok wow I could go on about this movie forever but let's stop. Hairspray is so much giddy fun I can look past most of its negative aspects, and that CAST, my GOODNESS, just adds to the pleasure. Michelle Pfeiffer gets to be super hot all the time, duh, and Christopher Walken shows off his dancing skills (what a pro!) and Amanda Bynes reminds me why I always liked her, and James Marsden justifies my crush on him and, best of all, Nikki Blonsky charms the pants off every single person- in her first film role! Adorable. I wish she would get super famous already.


So I started watching Shake, Rattle & Rock! on a whim a while ago and was instantly reeled in by the incredibly cute and fun credits sequence, featuring a young Renee Zellweger as a hip 1950s teen dancing around her room and singing along to "The Girl Can't Help It". I realized maybe my favorite thing is when movies open with girls singing along to songs in their bedrooms? Like in Adventures in Babysitting! Anyway, the movie follows Renee's character Susan as she dreams of a way out of her small town, hoping the rock band she's formed with her friends will give her an opportunity. After dancing on a local music show that also brought in a teenage doo wop singing group, Susan is chastised by her backward-thinking mother. The more the teens of the town try to express themselves through music, the more their strict (and racist) mothers (led by Mary Woronov!) try to ban it. Eventually rock and roll as an entity is put on a televised trial, with wacky music-loving host Danny Klay (Howie Mandel) defending and the moms prosecuting. And yes, it is loosely inspired by the 1956 film of the same name.

Dealing with some of the same issues as Hairspray (racism/segregation, teen dance shows, parents just not understanding), and sporting a great soundtrack of its own, Shake, Rattle & Rock! turned out to be the perfect follow-up. It's definitely in the same vein as Rock n' Roll High School- hell, half the cast is the same- so I'm catching on to what Arkush's strengths are. The story is super simple, with little depth of character and little actual conflict. But there's great music, with Zellweger faux-rocking out (that's not her voice, right?) and awesome performances by R&B group For Real as a cappella quartet The Sirens. And I loved that there's a wise-cracking teen lady who plays saxophone! I relate to that!

I dig the cast and the pro-rock and roll storyline, especially since the music is so fun, but the romantic subplot is really dumb and I hated that it ended with Susan driving off with whats-his-name Old Greaser Guy. The strongest aspect of the film is definitely Siren lead singer Sireena's story, as she and her band combat both racial prejudices as well as parental disapproval. Her mother gave up a singing career of her own, and she doesn't want her daughter reaching for unachievable goals, but she eventually supports her talent and their story wraps up really nicely post-credits. Overall it's just an enjoyable, easy-to-like movie that had me dancing around almost as much as Hairspray. ALMOST.



Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Master (2012)

Seen: At the Kendall Square Landmark Cinema in Cambridge.

After serving in the Navy during WWII, severely alcoholic and volatile sailor Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) struggles to settle down upon his return to the United States. He drifts through multiple jobs, focusing more on mixing up tongue-melting moonshine that eventually gets him expelled on the accusation of poisoning a coworker. He ends up a stowaway on a private pleasure cruise headed by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), known generally as "Master". He claims to be an extremely learned, experienced scholar who has discovered a means of salvation through recalling memories of past lives. He has gained a devoted following through his book, and is working on the sequel when he finds Freddie hiding out on his ship. They become unlikely friends, and the sailor joins Master's entourage- much to the suspicion of Master's strict wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), who fiercely works to protect her husband's reputation.

With a drawn-out, detail-oriented style of storytelling and several dedicated performances, The Master is the type of movie that a lot of "film people" understandably go for. The script tantalizingly draws from the larger-than-life historical figure of L. Ron Hubbard, while the camera artfully lingers over intimate period settings and scenic all-American vistas. In many ways it is a beautiful and thought-provoking film, cleverly distancing itself from the issue of "Is he making it all up?" and focusing more on "How can one man manipulate others into following his teachings?" Freddie's transition and transformation is the real narrative pull here, and while his character is loathsome and frequently unsettling, I did appreciate his unexpected journey and Phoenix's intense embodiment of the character (his off-kilter posture made me wicked uncomfortable for some reason, though). Hoffman is of course fantastic as the charismatic but somewhat explosive cult leader, but honestly I'm no longer impressed when he turns in a great performance. Like, we get it, guy, you're a consistently terrific actor. Tell me something I don't know. For me Amy Adams was actually the surprise standout. Her role isn't huge but she made an impact in several key scenes, and it was great to see her as a more serious, controlling character with very little of the vulnerability that often works its way into her parts.

HOWEVER. This movie's got some problems. My biggest issue is that I found it very unsatisfying as a whole. The pacing and story structure felt like they were gradually building up to something, but then there's barely a climax, and the ending is this nonentity. I'm not saying I needed some big blow-out or life-affirming message, but it would be nice to have SOMETHING to sort of round out the strange development of Freddie and Dodd's friendship and the former's uneven life story. I don't know, I guess I wanted more out of my time with these weird, unlikable characters. The Master is an interesting and intense film, and overall I did enjoy it, but the ending (or seeming lack thereof) left me with an empty feeling.


Pair This Movie With: Dang, I don't know. Personally I need to get around to finishing Anderson's filmography.


Monday, October 22, 2012

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010) at 366 Weird Movies

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

So I missed Beyond the Black Rainbow when it played a weekend here, which was a bummer but hey, it happens. A friend brought it to my attention ages ago when he sent me the trailer, saying it sounded like Lost/Dharma Initiative-type stuff, which I am totally into! So I finally got around to seeing it, and dang it is sort of Dharma Initiative-y but it's more in the psychedelic horror vein of Altered States and other weird movies from the 70s and 80s. So, appropriately, I wrote about it for 366 Weird Movies! We think it might have a shot for Weirdest Movie of 2012, but who knows. It has absolutely fantastic visuals and I loved how creepy the main character was, plus the synth-heavy soundtrack is wonderful. It's a bit abstruse, though, and slow-moving.

Anyway please head over and read my full review!


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Clue (1985)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, from my personal collection.

I've never been very into board games, but I will say that Clue was always my favorite. Something about the combination of violent murder mysteries and fancy dinner parties really appealed to me, plus I was generally really good at it. Thus it thoroughly pleases me that the best board game film adaptation we're likely ever going to get is 1985's Clue. A stellar cast of funny dudes and ladies leads the way for this goofy caper, involving a party in the 1950s held under mysterious circumstances. Someone has gathered together a group of people all connected to politics in Washington, DC, and all being blackmailed for some illicit truth. Pretty soon members of the household start turning up dead and it's unclear who can be trusted, if anyone. Also: hilarity ensues.

Taking an already-goofy concept (turning a board game into a movie) and making it even goofier, Clue is a sheer joy to watch. Once the characters are assembled, it hops along at a clipped pace, packing in as many verbal jokes as it does visual gags. The script is extremely quotable, though most memorable is probably Madeline Kahn's ad-libbed "FLAMES! Fla-Fl-Flames! On the side of my face!" It all leads up to a gleeful Tim Curry stealing the show in a hilarious climactic recap as his character Wadsworth briskly re-enacts the events of the evening in order to solve the murder. And the best part is, he gets to do it three times for three different possible endings! It's a cute gimmick that really suits the source material.

You might come for the novelty of the premise and the ample amounts of cleavage, but you stay for the amazing cast. Naturally I think the aforementioned Madeline Kahn and Tim Curry are the best parts, but really everyone is superb. Christopher Lloyd is lascivious and pseudo-intellectual as Professor Plum, Eileen Brennan is constantly in hysterics as Mrs Peacock, Michael McKean is adorably excitable as Mr Green, Martin Mull is gruff and overly assured as Colonel Mustard, and Lesley Ann Warren is the hot one. Just kidding! Colleen Camp is the hot one. Warren is very funny and sexy as Miss Scarlet, I just wish she was wearing red!

Anyway, this movie is hilarious, though it drags a bit in the beginning and parts of the story don't really make any sense. But mostly it's just great!


Pair This Movie With: Another goofy mystery would suffice, I think, maybe something along the lines of A Shot in the Dark? Or I haven't seen it but Murder By Death sounds really fun, and similar in theme.


Friday, October 19, 2012

Alex Makes Art #97

Alright obviously there wasn't any new art last Friday, it appears you all survived somehow. I'm continually bogged down with work and school stuff so that's my tired excuse. Luckily I had time to finish a little project I've been meaning to do for a while, which was updating my Beauty and the Beast print from a while ago. I went back to the original pen drawing and colored it in photoshop, adding a texture and text from the fairy tale to give it a bookish feel. It's for sale as a small print, and the old one is too if that's more your speed.

This week the main artistic thing I worked on was a logo for my friend Harry's production company. He's making a webseries and it's gonna be so great, you should all watch it when it's done! I will remind you. Anyway he wanted a logo that combined ideas of labor unions and communism with tv... so that's what I did? Remember that I am not at all a graphic designer, luckily my very talented boyfriend gave me helpful advice.

Anyway have a nice weekend, all!


Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Shining (1980)

Seen: On blu-ray on our projector set-up, recently acquired for our collection by Miles.

So we are getting through a few horror movies this month which is exciting! Miles saw Room 237 at Fantastic Fest and was thus inspired to revisit The Shining, which I hadn't seen in several years anyway. On our projector screen with surround sound and all the lights off, I will tell you that it is Damned. Effective. Adapted from Stephen King's novel (though he notoriously hates Kubrick's take on it), The Shining settles in at the beautiful but isolated Overlook Hotel during its closed winter months. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a teacher-turned-writer, and his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and young son Danny (Danny Lloyd) all move into the hotel as caretakers, hoping for a relaxing few months so Jack can work on his novel. Before taking the job he learns that the previous caretaker had had a nervous breakdown and killed his whole family and himself during an earlier winter at the hotel, but Jack is unfazed. As the weeks pass it becomes clear that some crazed force is seeping into Jack's psyche, leading him down the very same path. His psychic son is the only person who can see what's happening, but he's too young to fully understand.

Ok obviously I can't really actually summarize this movie, because I don't really know what the fuck is happening at any given moment, I just know that I LOVE IT. The Shining is strange and beautiful and terrifying and intriguing, and I know I can't really add in any meaningful way to the many analyses already available. But that's ok. This is a movie that really sticks with you, seeping into the viewer's brain with its long steady zooms and simultaneously expansive and claustrophobic spaces. Every visual detail is so deliberate, so precise, that one could easily watch the film on mute and still be incredibly absorbed. For once the sound is what really gets me though (I'm usually an extremely visual person), and those high-pitched tones and hushed chanting set the mood so perfectly that my anxiety increases astronomically as the noise escalates. I remember the first time I saw this movie with a group of friends in my freshman-year dorm, we were all biting our nails and whispering "oh my god oh my god" as the eerie wail grew louder and we were convinced something awful would happen, then suddenly that title card dropped to read TUESDAY and we all screamed. Since then Tuesday is the most terrifying fucking day, goddammit!

I like that this film takes its time. It's a long slow journey from good-natured Jack Torrance and his cute family hanging out in a gorgeous old-timey hotel, to harrowing homicidal madness in a dark, snowy labyrinth. We've gotta watch all this freaky shit gradually unfold for a while to truly appreciate where it's headed. Nicholson is fantastic as a man possessed, slipping into a madness that he eventually accepts whole-heartedly. Danny Lloyd is effectively creepy due to his hellish monster voice, which makes lines like "Danny's not here, Mrs Torrance" somehow the scariest words I've ever heard. Scatman Crothers stands out as the hotel's psychic head chef Dick Hallorran (who unfortunately fits into that "mystical black person" stereotype), but this time around I found myself drawn in the most by Shelley Duvall's performance. She is an emotional wreck for a lot of this movie, and it works really well, since her desperation and isolation were so palpable. Her character is one of the loneliest people I've ever seen, with literally NO ONE to talk to about all of the fucked up things that are happening, and then at the end she goes on this horror house adventure that could easily send her over the edge, but instead she pulls herself together and saves herself and her son (well, unless they froze to death after the credits rolled). In the beginning of the story she seems too easygoing, too passive, but she quickly takes control of the situation the best she can, and I dug that. I'm sorry Duvall was so tortured on set by Kubrick, though, what a dick.

Oh where to go next? The Shining is a kickass movie all around, really. It is deeply unsettling and unquestionably eerie in the best way, and while it is laced with ambiguities I love that it leaves me with so much on my mind. The strange nature of the Overlook Hotel and its demonic presence is clearly demonstrated, but never really explained, so that multiple watches ensure as many new questions as they do answers. The breathtaking sets, tricky camera work, bizarre horror visuals, spine-tingling score, and top-notch performances combine perfectly to make it a memorable, one-of-a-kind film. I'm now convinced I'll see ghosts from the 1920s everywhere I go, which is obviously the point, right?


Pair This Movie With: I really want to see Room 237 now, but I know it's not available to most people. I'm also now really curious about Stephen King's own tv remake, which features Melvin Van Peebles! I know it sucks, but I can't help but wonder about it.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The House of the Devil (2009)

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

After my love affair with The Innkeepers last year, I've been excited to see Ti West's first film, The House of the Devil. The main thing I knew about it was that it was a similar slow-burn horror-thriller with a lady protagonist and that it was released on vhs as a reference to its 1980s setting and inspiration. Jocelin Donahue stars as Samantha, a college sophomore who is struggling financially but for some reason has just taken out a lease on a house. She accepts a dubious but well-paid "babysitting" job out of desperation, and GETS MORE THAN SHE BARGAINED FOR MUAHAHAHAHHAHAHA.

This is a movie that takes its time, and while generally I like that in a horror story, West's restraint continues even up to the final moments. It takes about 30 minutes for Samantha to get to the titular house, then she spends about 40 minutes hanging out by herself and wondering what's up with the spooky family that hired her. THEN there's all this crazy devil cult stuff for a little bit and then it's over. It felt like too much waiting for too little payoff. Not that the final scenes aren't cool, it's just all over pretty quickly. Had the main character been more interesting or charismatic I would have been fine spending all this down-time with her (that's one thing I loved about The Innkeepers), but while she is sympathetic, I feel like I didn't get to know her at all. She's sort of closed-off. Greta Gerwig as her best friend Megan is oozing with enough personality and energy for the both of them, but she's out of the picture earlier on (her final scene is totally rad, though). Mary Woronov is probably my favorite part, because she's Mary Fucking Woronov, and she gets to be creepy as hell.

The film is set in the 1980s as a way of paying tribute to horror films of that period, with West laying his love for the time on thick as retro tunes blare out of Sam's headphones and her big hair bops around and grainy visuals entice the eye. The 80s-ness was a little on the nose, I thought, but it did help give the film a very specific atmosphere, which I assume was West's intention. He aptly builds the tension gradually throughout, and I was holding my breath more than once as I worried for unsuspecting Sam. But the actual scary part wasn't all that scary, and everything went by too fast. Plus there's a weirdness to the very last moment, wherein a person survives something they shouldn't have survived and it didn't make sense to me. Huh.

Anyway, I can appreciate The House of Devil in many ways, but ultimately I wasn't too impressed with it. Some great moments and a nice aesthetic, but as a horror movie it wasn't incredibly effective. I can see how West's style and approach developed into something great for The Innkeepers, though, which is similar in a lot of ways but ultimately much more satisfying.


Pair This Movie With: There are some parallels with Halloween, which I believe is one of the films he drew from.


Sunday, October 14, 2012

Celda 211 (Cell 211) (2009)

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

The other night Miles and I sat down to watch an Alex Cox film we didn't know much about, since he's been on a Repo Man kick and wanted more of the director. But it looked terrible and everyone was a bad actor so within 10 minutes we shut it off, and decided to watch Cell 211 on a whim since we both missed it at IFF Boston a few years ago. Set almost entirely within a high-security prison in Spain, the film follows the events surrounding a riot led by Malamadre (Luis Tosar), a charismatic killer who knows he'll never get out, and now fights only to improve living conditions for himself and his fellow prisoners. Caught within lock-down is young security guard Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann) on his first day, who poses as a prisoner to protect himself and manages to seriously affect the outcome of the riot.

Cell 211 expertly combines nail-biting dramatic tension with a sober look at the experiences of prisoners serving long terms. Characters evolve unexpectedly over the course of two days, influenced by traumatizing events and shifting motivations. The two main leads are fantastic, with Tosar's penetrating gaze and gruff voice playing off of Ammann's boyish good looks and escalating desperation. We learn more about each character as the film progresses, resulting in altered perceptions and eventual transformation as their relationship solidifies. The weak link for me was Juan's pregnant wife, who is used only as a plot device, and a stereotypical one at that. I didn't mind how her character played into the story, since she has a significant effect on how Juan acts, but she was portrayed as a flat archetype and as the only female in the entire movie it was very noticeable. This is NOT a movie about ladies and that's ok, but if you're going to have one woman in your movie you could put a little more work into her character.

Aside from the lady thing, this movie is extremely well-done. I loved how the space of the prison wing is used, with claustrophobic cells and wide-open congregations juxtaposed as the guards try to follow their charges around on the movable security camera. I don't know much about general conditions in high-security Spanish prisons but the themes discussed felt pretty universal. What struck me most was how reasonable Malamadre's demands were. He had one prison guard and three political prisoners held hostage, sure, but all he wanted was improved medical treatment for ailing inmates (in the titular cell 211 a prisoner had recently committed suicide to escape the pain of his malignant tumor), the allowance of regular visits from family members, and more humane conditions under the abusive guards. The solution seemed so simple, I was crushed as the situation escalated to more and more violent ends. This movie is really good, but goddamn is it bleak. Do not expect anything good to happen, like, at all. JUST LIKE REAL LIFE.


Pair This Movie With: I had the excellent Le Trou on my mind, probably because that's the most recent prison movie I've seen, and it's a very different look at prisoner relations and treatment.


Friday, October 12, 2012

Frankenweenie (2012)

Seen: In 3D at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square.

Young Victor Frankenstein is a clever inventor and filmmaker whose only friend is his dog, Sparky. When Sparky is killed by a car, Victor devotes himself to bringing him back to life through SCIENCE. As students at school discover his secret, a chain of events is launched that eventually leads to re-animated mutant pets terrorizing their small town. Tim Burton's return to stop-motion animation (and original material) is an adaptation of his live-action short film from 1984.

Seriously infused with all things Burtonesque, Frankenweenie is a fun, simple tale rife with horror and pop culture references. There's an asshole neighbor who looks just like the Burgermeister Meisterburger from Santa Claus is Coming to Town (and indeed his name is Mr Burgermeister), a dog who gets Bride of Frankenstein hair, a turtle who morphs into a Gamera-esque kaiju monster, a science teacher modeled after Vincent Price, Gremlins-esque sea monkeys, and a hamster Mummy. Once I recognized the direction the film was heading (that is: turning into a mash-up monster movie), I was pretty cool with it, despite how clear it is that the entire movie is just an excuse for Burton's inner child to talk about the things he loves. Which I guess is actually kinda cute.

The animation is superb, as expected. (Side note: Have I mentioned how fucking EXCITED I am that there have been three major stop-motion films in theaters this year? Like, how fantastic is that?!) I love that the artist's touch is apparent in the characters- there are thumbprints and slight inconsistencies, as well as touches of sketchy pen/pencil drawing. The black and white palette is great, well-suited to the story and overall aesthetic, and I loved how Burton's 2-D drawing style is easily translated into 3-D figures, with the design reminding me more of his illustration work than his previous stop-motion films. Great voice acting as well, especially Catherine O'Hara and Martin Short as a range of characters, and Martin Landau as the spookily awesome science teacher Mr Rzykruski. The time period is ambiguous, sort of the updated 1950s suburbia of Edward Scissorhands, complete with stereotypically closed-minded townspeople who hate science. The creatures at the end are awesome, and honestly kind of actually scary? Mostly that cat/bat creation creeped me right the fuck out.

One of the main issues with Frankenweenie is that its premise really doesn't warrant a feature-length film. The original story is stretched out with all the monster movie and science fair stuff, but it still drags a lot. The other big issue is the weird casual racism in the character of Toshiaki. I get that he was meant to be a vessel for the Kaiju movie references, but he is also the only character of color (with lines) and all he does is conspire evilly against the protagonist and obsessively film the town's destruction, all while speaking in a very exaggerated Japanese accent. I doubt that the writers meant to be offensive, but they are ignorantly propagating a tired stereotype and it made me uncomfortable in general. I think Burton could have worked in the Japanese monster movie angle with a less stereotypical character, if he had stopped to think about it.

Anyway. I liked Frankenweenie, but it has its problems. Mostly I'm just excited for all the stop-motiony goodness that's been happening lately. And that someone made a black and white kids movie.


Pair This Movie With: The aesthetic and story are basically an amalgam of Burton's early shorts "Vincent" (one of my favorite short films ever) and "Frankenweenie", both of which are in the video below. And of course comparisons can be made to the superior ParaNorman, which was completely awesome and you should all see it this instant.


Thursday, October 11, 2012

Resident Evil (2002)

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

Initially our plan for October horror movies was to blow through the whole Resident Evil series, so naturally we started with the first one. When a deadly, highly contagious virus breaks out in the top-secret underground research facility of the all-powerful Umbrella Corporation, the company sends in their own team of specialized security agents to investigate. Along for the trip are two agents of the company suffering from short-term amnesia (Milla Jovovich and James Purefoy) and a cop who stuck his nose where he shouldn't have (Eric Mabius). As they move deeper into the expansive structure, they find a wealth of horrors waiting to meet them.

So I've never played the Resident Evil games, though once I watched a friend play the fourth one and it was rather exciting. I saw this movie years ago on tv and remembered it being good, but couldn't remember any details about it. Basically I'm saying that I went into this with a fairly blank slate. And came out with little enthusiasm to continue the rest of the series. It's not that Resident Evil is bad, it's just that I'm told it's the best in the series and I'm not exactly salivating for more. For the most part it's a fairly standard horror-thriller, with members of the cast picked off in small groups by lasers and surprise zombies (who take their damn sweet time appearing, let me tell you) and a killer computer system. We gradually learn about the characters' backstories as memories surface and secret intentions are revealed. And there's some butt-kicking and nail-biting escape scenes along the way. Also: skinless dogs. Shudder.

Obviously, Michelle Rodriguez is the best part of the movie, given her innate badassery and my personal crush on her as an actress, but Milla Jovovich is pretty decent in the lead role. Her character is kind of flat, especially while she's flailing about with no memory for the first two-thirds, but Jovovich shines those beautiful eyes at the audience and does her best to beat up zombies in a ridiculously impractical outfit (seriously, what the fuck is up with that flowy asymmetrical dress? She just looked DUMB). James Purefoy does sort of a poor man's Hugh Jackman impression, with a faltering accent that threw me off and a character who barely had any lines until he became narratively relevant at the end. Everybody else is pretty forgettable, except maybe Colin Salmon as the head of the special forces team or whatever they were considered. He's out of the picture pretty quickly though, unsurprisingly.

Resident Evil is a passably entertaining video game adaptation with some cool ladies and a solid premise, but for me it doesn't do anything really special. There are many other movies in this vein, some with better special effects and stronger scripts, so except for Milla and Michelle I can't think of much that would draw me into the series. Even if they do always look really cool to me from the trailers (I am SUCH a sucker.)


Pair This Movie With: I don't know, the amnesia thing had me thinking about Dark City, but also in general look and feel I think Pitch Black would make a good combo.

PS In case anyone was wondering, yes this movie does pass the Bechdel Test, which is always nice for a genre flick of this nature.


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Looper (2012)

Seen: At the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square.

*DISCLAIMER* I went into this movie knowing very little about it, and that was a great way to see it for the first time. If you don't want spoilers don't read any further, but know that this movie rules and you should see it.

Looper is set in a not-too-distant future where specialized assassins kill unarmed men sent to them by crime lords from a future 30 years forward, when time travel is invented (and immediately made illegal) but bodies are hard to dispose of. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one such hitman (known as "loopers"), a drug-addicted jerk who believes he won't hesitate when the time comes to kill his future self, a part of his contract with the mob organization. Unfortunately when his future self (played by Bruce Willis) is zapped back to him, he escapes and starts hunting for the child who grows up to become an all-powerful kingpin who ruins everyone's lives. Now Young Joe is hunting Old Joe so he won't be fired, while Old Joe is killing people who may or may not grow up to do a thing, like the fucking Terminator. It all comes to a head on some broad's (Emily Blunt) farm, because there are still farms in the future.

Combining elements of action, sci-fi, fantasy, noir, thriller, romance, and existential crisis, Looper is a fascinating blend of genres and ideas. On paper it sounds convoluted, but for the most part all the parts come together in a way that makes sense. The tonal shifts and narrative twists are well-placed and the characters develop along an interesting course, and generally all the time travel stuff is treated intelligently. This is the kind of "smart sci-fi" everyone hailed Inception as being, only better, and it's got more Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I loved the thoughtful details in the sets and characters, paired with quick pacing and unexpected turns. It's the kind of movie you walk out of and think, "I need to see that again." It has some technical narrative flaws, certainly, but honestly what futuristic and/or time-travel-related movie doesn't? The manner in which the story unfolds made it easy for me to accept any minor issues I had.

Of course, the cast makes it. Gordon-Levitt is eerily believable as a young Bruce Willis thanks to fantastic make-up effects, and his transformation from complete asshole to asshole who's rethinking his assholey ways is compelling. Willis gets to be a super badass and also wear a bad hairpiece at one point, so everyone's happy, plus Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, and Noah Segan all have great smaller appearances as Joe's criminal cohorts. I loved Emily Blunt as the tough-as-nails Sara, a dedicated mother to a weird little boy. Her character and that of Old Joe's unnamed wife (played by Qing Xu) are sadly the most problematic, however. I liked Sara's gruffness and badassery right away, so I was pretty into her character at the start. By the end I was still on her side, but frustrated with how she had become a sort of mother-savior trope. Looper is certainly not the first or worst offender in this area, but goddammit I am just so sick of female characters defined wholly through their motherhood or mothering capacities, like that's the only way writers can make women relevant to their stories. Like I said I LIKED Emily Blunt's character, and I loved her performance, and her mother-ness certainly had bearing on the overall story (unlike Qing Xu's, who was portrayed only as a silent mystical savior for Old Joe), it just elicited these general feelings I have about this issue.

Ok so Looper is honestly a super solid, enjoyable movie that manages to be smart, thrilling, and emotionally resonant. Its script, performances, and visuals are all equally excellent. Yes, I had some problems with the female characters, which is a common gripe with sci-fi movies (and most movies, really), but they weren't enough to turn me off to the film as a whole. I acknowledge these problems but do my best to look past them, because there is such a great movie waiting past that hurdle.


Pair This Movie With: As referenced earlier, part of the premise is definitely reminiscent of The Terminator, a movie I'll always recommend despite its less-than-stellar handling of time travel. Or maybe if you want more time-traveling Bruce Willis you could do 12 Monkeys, which I've been meaning to re-watch for a while.


Monday, October 8, 2012

You've Got Mail (1998)

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

Set immovably in the late-90s/early 2000s, a time when big chain stores dominated book retail and everyone used dial-up AOL to get online, You've Got Mail is Nora Ephron's modern-day love letter to romance through the written word. Meg Ryan plays Kathleen Kelly, a hardworking children's bookstore owner who finds herself swept up in an email correspondence with a well-spoken stranger. Unbeknownst to her, he is Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), an affable millionaire who is the heir to Fox Books, a giant megabookstore that's opening a new branch just down the street from her shop. When the two meet in real life they clash instantly, but their anonymous online romance deepens.

The quintessential adaptation of Miklos Laszlos' play Parfumerie will of course always be The Shop Around the Corner, but I must say I do really enjoy this update. It's been altered enough to be a stand-alone film, but it's laced with these great little references to the source material and its earlier versions. Ryan and Hanks are both adorable in the lead roles, especially the former, who bubbles over with enthusiasm and righteous indignation and hatred for The Godfather (I could totally relate to her character). Plus I love her super 90s working woman wardrobe with its muted color palette, colored shirts, and big shoes. The whole cast is pretty amazing, with a number of actors who got more famous later. There's a young Steve Zahn and Heather Burns as Kathleen's employees, a gloriously pretentious Greg Kinnear as her boyfriend in the beginning of the film, and Parker Posey as Joe's hilariously self-obsessed girlfriend. One of my favorite things about this movie is that Dave Chappelle is in it, since it's totally not a place you'd expect him and it's usually not a movie many of his fans have seen, so it's great to psych them out when he comes up in conversation and I can say "Oh yeah, Dave Chappelle, of You've Got Mail fame?!" Try it out, I recommend it.

Anyway. You've Got Mail is just super cute. Sure, it's already incredibly dated for both its discussion of technology and its focus on chain bookstores taking over the city, but I kind of like that it captures this very specific moment in time. I also love how reverent of books it is, with numerous discussions of literature and the book business. It was cool to see the interior of Kathleen's shop and recognize several kids titles that we sell at the shop where I work. The whole movie is pretty obsessed with words and writing and I think that's just great.


Pair This Movie With: Well obviously the aforementioned The Shop Around the Corner would be a nice fit. Or maybe another Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan team-up, either Sleepless in Seattle (which I remember not loving, though it's been a while) or Joe Versus the Volcano (which is kind of awesomely bizarre). Finallllly there's Must Love Dogs for another romantic comedy about online dating.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

Alex Makes Art #96

Blurrrgh my intense work/school schedule is catching up to me and I'm lagging in my internet duties, which is a bummer. We'll see how much I flounder as the semester continues and holiday times near.

Anyway. I have had this idea for a new series for a little while, and this is my first try. Basically I want to make some little comics based on funny scenes from movies I dig. Obviously Clueless was my first choice, since I showed it to a friend the other day (his first time! Eep!) and was moved to give one of my most-quoted movies a try. I think it came out well, especially since I am notoriously bad at both coloring and text, so this was outside my comfort zone! It's for sale on etsy as a print.

I would like to make a lot more like this, but I'm not sure how many I'll actually do. An Empire Records scene is likely happening though.


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Gun Crazy (1950)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from Hollywood Express in Cambridge.

I picked this up on a whim while browsing the Noir section of my favorite video store, attracted as I am to ladies with guns and fashionable outfits. Turns out I made a good decision! Based loosely on the Bonnie & Clyde legend and with a script co-written by Dalton Trumbo, Gun Crazy follows good-natured gun fiend Barton Tare (John Dall) as he goes from small-town ex-soldier to nationally known robber along with his equally-skilled wife, Annie (Peggy Cummins). The two meet while working as sharpshooters for a traveling carnival, and while Annie makes no attempt to hide her own opportunistic, self-interested nature, Barton is instantly smitten (which makes a lot of sense, since she's super hot and really skilled with a gun). They run off together after their boss tries to kill them in a jealous rage, and take to robbing banks and stores after a time. Bart's strict ethics soon go up against Annie's looser moral code, but their love for one another remains strong as they run from the law.

The story of two people in love going on a crime spree has been done in various incarnations, and it's always kind of a romanticized thing. Two against the world, misunderstood by the general public, taking risks for their love, etc; it's easy to fall under its spell. Gun Crazy (originally titled "Deadly is the Female") is advertised as a portrait of an all-American Good Boy turned bad by his seductive, evil ladyfriend, but I found it more nuanced than that. Bart is a basically good dude, yes, and generally naive, but it's not like Annie is some horrific she-devil who hypnotizes him into robbing banks and sometimes killing people. She has a lot of regrets and hopes she can "be good" with Bart, but finds her nature doesn't lend itself easily to settling down and living a standard, boring life. They decide to turn to a life of crime together, and even when they try to go straight, their desperation and true affection for one another keep them on a destructive path.

A solid script, varied pace, stylistic flair, and two top-notch performances make Gun Crazy an all-around enjoyable film. I loved both John Dall (who is fucking ADORABLE) and Peggy Cummins (who is wonderfully intense) in the lead roles, they took a not-so-new story and gave it a fresh and sexy feel. There are a few compositional missteps (the drawn-out opening flashback stands out, especially) but overall I really dug it.


Pair This Movie With: I couldn't help but think of Malick's Badlands, which has a different tone and style but similar themes.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Matinee (1993)

Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from Hollywood Express in Cambridge. Encouraged to see it by Jake's great review.

When shameless self-promoter and filmmaker Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) rolls into Key West, FL with a new monster movie, he finds his screening uniquely timed with the Cuban Missile Crisis just a few miles off the coast. Woolsey's complex system of shock tactics involving vibrating chairs, enhanced speakers, and a costumed monster running into the audience is installed in the theater to augment the film's terror, both taking advantage of and competing with the town's heightened fear of nuclear destruction. Meanwhile, hapless teens Gene (Simon Fenton)- a b-movie nut whose Navy father is stationed nearby- and Stan (Omri Katz) navigate the complicated waters of unpredictable hormones, young romance, and pending apocalype. It all comes to a head at the premiere of MANT ("Half Man, Half Ant, All Terror")!

I can't quite describe just how good Matinee is. It does this amazing thing of combining emotionally resonant childhood experience and enjoyable, referential humor, setting it all within a recognizable historical framework that feels all too real when contrasted with Woolsey's over the top gags. There is a lot going on- a lot of characters, a lot of subplots, and a lot of detail- but everything fits together perfectly and nothing seems superfluous or tacked on. I loved all the 50s monster movie/William Castle stuff, especially the MANT scenes with the fantastic Cathy Moriarty as a reluctant scream queen. Of course Goodman is the main attraction, in all his loud, showy grandstanding and wonderful quick moments of down-to-earth truth. And he is surrounded by an able cast of youngin's, including one of my grammar school crushes Omri Katz!

I was impressed by both of the love interest characters, who seem to represent two opposing versions of young womanhood of the time period. Sherry (Kellie Martin) is on the surface a Good Christian sweetheart, all lovely blonde locks and frilly dresses. But she used to date an older bad boy, and it's clear she's had sexual experience and keeps an open mind about it, much to the surprise and nervousness of Stan. Sandra (Lisa Jakub) is the product of two super liberal parents, who tell her the truth about civil rights issues and nuclear weapons and encourage her to speak up. Her outspokenness keeps her at a distance from other kids her age, but it's clear she wants to make up for her lack of social experience when fellow outcast Gene takes an interest in her. Overall I really liked the portrayal of young teenage issues, with the emotional rollercoaster and self-obsession of that age perfectly aligning with the city's escalating fear and general uncertainty.

What else can I say? Matinee is a fascinating, extremely well-assembled piece of filmmaking. The incorporation of a famous Cold War event makes it a perfect venue for commentary and satire, considering how closely connected those notorious monster movies of the 50s and 60s are with fear of radiation and scientific experimentation. And yet, it's also really lighthearted and accessible. The script is funny and varied, and I loved the attention to detail in the characters. This movie has stuck with me all week, in a great way.


Pair This Movie With: I wanted to watch more Joe Dante after this, like revisiting Gremlins and Small Soldiers, or seeing something new to me like Innerspace or Piranha.


Monday, October 1, 2012

Wir Sind die Nacht (We Are the Night) (2010)

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

After showing a friend Thirst, my favorite vampire movie, she recommended another off-the-beaten-track foreign vampire film that she caught at an LGBT Film Festival: We Are the Night. A lady vampire trio in Berlin parties it up every night while their leader Louise (Nina Hoss) searches for her one true love to bite. She sets her sights on Lena (Karoline Herfurth), a young thief, and turns her without her consent. With few other options, Lena joins the coven, at first enjoying the freedom of their lifestyle but continuing to struggle with their homicidal tendencies, especially when a cute cop (Max Riemelt) starts to pursue her romantically.

With slick cinematography and a fast pace, We Are the Night is a fun, straightforward tale that doesn't add much to the sizable vampire canon but does have a kind of interesting female-centric angle. In their mythology, women vampires purposefully eradicated their own male population, creating a happy-go-lucky matriarchy across multiple nations. After Lena is transformed there's a cool montage of the lady friends just having a swell time: robbing a department store, doing blood shots, dancing at a club, driving fast cars, walking on walls, and making out. There's definitely something of a straight male fantasy embedded in the film's premise, but there is also an element of sisterhood as well as positive portrayal of lesbian characters (well, positive for bloodsucking vampires, anyway). Everything looks so sleek and self-assured, with an undercurrent of urban grittiness, that I was enjoying myself on the visuals alone. The strong performances ultimately seal the deal, and while Karoline Herfurth is great in the lead, the exquisitely beautiful Jennifer Ulrich steals the show as a fashionable former silent film star who continues to mourn the loss of her past life.

It's not groundbreaking or exceptionally original but We Are the Night is a decidedly fun, appropriately dark vampire movie with a couple of strong action sequences and a very cool aesthetic. And attractive ladies!


Pair This Movie With: Another gritty, dark vampire movie like Near Dark would do, or maybe The Hunger for more vampire life-partner stuff.