Thursday, January 31, 2013

Alex Makes Art #102

I think I'm just gonna be posting art things whenever I can, as opposed to a fixed day in the week, since it's easier for me to deal with. So today I have a commissioned poster that I mentioned yesterday, inspired by The Grey. It was requested by Blake Howard of Graffiti With Punctuation, and it got me to finally see the film and also to have fun drawing a wolf for the first time! I made two versions, one's more to his preference and one I personally liked better, though there's not a huge difference either way. Both are below! And the one second one is for sale!

I thought I mentioned it here but I guess I forgot: I had another cool commission that has just come to full fruition. Paul Rodgers of Fear of a Ghost Planet has released an e-book compiling his 2012 film reviews and other articles, and he asked me to do the cover design for it! It was pretty exciting for me, since I've never done a book cover before. The image is of course inspired by The Master, and a text-less version of the design is available for sale as a small print. Also go buy the book, it's only .99 cents!

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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Grey (2012)

Seen: On blu-ray on our projector set-up, rented from the Tisch Library at Tufts.

When a small plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness, the few survivors- all workers for an oil drilling company- must quickly find a way to cope with the freezing temperatures and, more menacingly, the threat of a nearby wolf pack on whose territory they're encroaching. The group makes for the woods hoping to reach civilization, cautiously relying on Ottway (Liam Neeson), a professional wolf-killer, to lead them.

I kept seeing The Grey pop up in discussions of 2012 in film, and it sounded like it rose above many people's expectations so I figured I'd check it out (more to the point, I was commissioned to make a poster for it, which I'll post soon). I have to say, I wasn't especially impressed. It's a competently-made adventure-thriller that strives to focus on character and manly drama, and that's cool, but I don't think it's as emotionally effective as it wants to be, at least for me. I appreciated the gradual backstory reveals and psychological effects of subzero survival and wolf interactions, but it slips into cheesy territory too often for me. It felt a little forced, I guess. I mean, how many times do we need to hear that poem recited? Or see Neeson's recurring dreams about his wife?

I don't know, dudes. I thought this movie was ok but it didn't leave much of an impression on me. There are some awesome action-y parts involving huge fucking wolves and that old badass, Liam Neeson, and the landscapes are gorgeous. Also I liked Dallas Roberts a lot, he was giving off a Peter Sarsgaard vibe and just had a nice way about him. But otherwise I don't have much of an opinion. Except that I don't think they communicated the extreme cold enough, I mean the fact that their faces weren't covered and Neeson never had his hood up made me worry for everyone.

I enjoyed making a poster for it, though!

3/5

Pair This Movie With: Maybe it was the bit of mountain cliff-jumping but I was totally in the mood for awesome survival thriller A Lonely Place to Die. Alternatively, a bunch of dudes freezing in the mountains made me think of Cannibal! The Musical. Obviously.

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Monday, January 28, 2013

Hodejegerne (Headhunters) (2012)

Seen: On our projector set-up, streamed from netflix instant.

Goodness will the stream of 2012 movies I missed never end? Probably not, since I'm typically terrible at catching up with these things. Anyway Headhunters tells the woeful tale of smarmy jerk Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), a headhunter who knowingly compensates for his shortness by becoming an art thief so he can shower his super hot wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund) with gifts and generally live beyond his means. When dashing retired businessman Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) waltzes into Diana's art gallery for an appraisal of a Rubens stolen during WWII, Roger sees a perfect target. But when he sets out to steal the painting, everything goes downhill, like really downhill. Like, jumping off a cliff. Literally.

With a gross protagonist and a twisted plot, Headhunters is a darkly funny, somewhat gory thriller that moves its way slightly into mindfuck territory. You're kind of equally horrified and terrifically entertained as the plot moves into unexpected areas and Roger contends with worse and worse challenges to survive. I hated Roger, the dude just sucks, but it was fascinating to see how he handled this crazy life-or-death situation as he ran from a mysteriously driven mercenary. No one is especially likable in this movie, I don't think the filmmakers were out to get us on anyone's side. I'll admit I was rooting for Clas Greve, mainly because he's so handsome! And scary.

Initially I thought this was more about art heists than it actually is, it's more a mad dash for survival with a few sexy bits and relationship squabbles thrown in. Plus a mystery, kind of. It's still a very good film, even if I was caught off guard by how harsh it was. Good twists, great action, and an interesting premise; my main issue is with the ending. *Spoiler Alert* I really didn't want Roger to get away! He was such a dick, and far less capable than Clas, it just seemed so unlikely that he could win. And the fact that he didn't even have to move or anything, I figured at the very least they could have him starting over in a new city or something. Jeez. It was just too ridiculous.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: The Scandinavian black comedy-thriller atmosphere reminded me of Terribly Happy, a Coen-esque Danish film from a few years ago.

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Seen: At the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square.

Based on true events (although some of their information seems questionable), Zero Dark Thirty traces the search for Osama bin Laden after the tragic events of September, 11, 2001. Beginning in 2003 a young CIA agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain) joins the team in Pakistan, and over the years she becomes obsessed with finding a man known as "Abu Ahmed", believed to be bin Laden's personal courier and therefore the key to finding the al-Qaeda leader himself. She tracks down various leads and participates (though somewhat reluctantly) in interrogations involving torture. Her search culminates in a raid on a fortified mansion believed to be bin Laden's residence.

Kathryn Bigelow may be known for making overlong films, but damn can she pack in the tension and thrills between all the talkie bits. Zero Dark Thirty builds gradually, thoughtfully, spilling state secrets all over the place until we are brought to the payoff we all knew was coming. Maya is a serious character, single-minded in her search for reasons unknown (was she personally affected by 9/11?) but likely because this is the only mission she's ever known (she was recruited by the CIA out of high school). I liked that her gender is never touched upon, only her youth. Chastain is extremely strong in the lead, conveying Maya's intensity and passion, as well as her moral quandary regarding the use of torture- she does it because she feels she has to, but gets no pleasure out of it. And it's ugly and hard to watch when it happens, just as it should be. Bigelow is neither condoning nor condemning torture, she's just presenting it as a cold, grisly fact.

The attention to detail is actually too close, unfortunately, making the story wear thin at parts as we are shown more interrogations and false leads and side-plots than really necessary. It's not that it was boring, just that I felt several scenes were unnecessary, and it's a more noticeable flaw in a film this long. Of course Bigelow's slow, focused approach is appreciated in the climactic raid on bin Laden's house, as the tension mounts and we wait to see what we know must be coming but still somehow have doubts about. Yes at times the movie is too hurrah-hurrah-America, because this is a one-sided approach to telling this story, but maintaining focus on Maya and her remarkable drive gives it a personal, multi-layered interest that kept me engaged throughout.

Just one final note, about the cast: Daaaaaaamn this cast is crazy! Every five seconds there was a new, unexpected person, often just for a minute. Chris Pratt, Harold Perrineau, Kyle Chandler, Mark Duplass, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Joel Edgerton, John Barrowman! Whaaat? And best of all Jennifer Ehle! Doing a pretty bad Southern accent but who cares! Actually there are a lot of British/Australian actors playing Americans here, which was interesting for me since I was listening for accents everywhere.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: At a few points I was reminded of Argo, probably because it's the most recent movie I've seen about a CIA mission in the Middle East, but also because both films are filled with recognizable actors in bit parts and it's like a fun game to spot them all as the movies progress.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Mack (1973)

Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from Hollywood Express in Cambridge.

Set up to take the fall during a shoot out and physically abused by racist cops (Don Gordon and William C. Watson), Goldie (Max Julien) spends 5 years in prison. When he gets out he pledges to become king of his neighborhood, building himself up as a pimp so he can support his doting mother (Juanita Moore) and help out the local kids who don't have any spending money. Those asshole cops are back on his tail, and he'll need all the help he can get to take them down, including his activist brother (Roger E. Mosley) and his buddy Slim (Richard Pryor).

So I guess on paper The Mack is supposed to be about a good dude who happens to be a pimp, using his status and money to clean up his neighborhood and fight police corruption and drug dealers and such. And that sounds nice. But ACTUALLY this movie is half misogynistic male fantasy and half surreal rambling fantasy-fantasy. The story is all over the place, a fair chunk of the scenes don't relate to any other scenes, and I could not get a handle on Goldie's character at all. He somehow convinces a wealthy white lady to be a sex worker, he's super nice to his ladies but then he'll randomly emotionally abuse them, he plots heists that never take place, he has this facial structure that changes his age by a decade depending how he turns his face. There are a lot of inconsistencies, is what I'm saying.

And so I have a theory that I think is pretty damned strong, but was never confirmed, but is definitely 100% correct: Most of The Mack is a dream. Yup. Near the beginning Goldie sleeps with Lulu (Carol Speed) and then gets out of bed to observe himself in the mirror, planning his big pimp plans. There's this weird cross-fade and he's like hanging out with the boss criminals and throwing lots of cash into the air and you think it's him dreaming about the future, right? But then suddenly it's just like, this is his life and it's a really confusing transition. AND SO I posit that from this point on everything is a dream, because that's the only way anything makes sense. Why else would there be a pimp ball? A Pimp Ball? Like, they step out of limos and walk down a red carpet and the press is interviewing them and once inside they get awards. Pimp awards. According to imdb this whole scene was inspired by something Richard Pryor actually witnessed, but that doesn't make it any less bizarre.

Ok so obviously this movie stuck with me even if I don't think I particularly liked it. I was entertained by how strange and surprising it was, loved the wacky costumes, and I did enjoy Max Julien in the lead as well as Roger Mosley as his awesome black activist brother. But all the misogyny got to me (not that I was surprised by it) and there wasn't enough Richard Pryor.

3/5

Pair This Movie With: When I found out that star Max Julien wrote Cleopatra Jones for his girlfriend Tamara Dobson, I was totally in the mood to revisit that rad movie.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

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

Lately I've been getting more interested in female writers and directors in Old Hollywood, since there have been several very cool women doing their thing behind the scenes from the silent era and onwards. One of the main ladies who caught my eye was Dorothy Arzner, a medical student turned film editor turned director, who produced a number of films between 1927 and 1943. One of two films available from netflix is Dance, Girl, Dance, a romantic drama centered on Judy O'Brien (Maureen O'Hara), a soft-spoken dancer who longs to join a ballet company but feels her talents aren't worth more than the vaudeville-type dance troupe she's in. Her fellow dancer and frenemy Bubbles (Lucille Ball) finds stardom as a burlesque performer and brings Judy along as her ballerina stooge. The two manage to work together but find their friendship crumbling when both fall for the same man (Louis Hayward).

This movie doesn't break too many conventions- it's generally light-hearted and still sort of patriarchal and filled with romantic comedy stereotypes- but it does put forward some interesting female characters, who seem to represent two sides of standard femininity. The old "Madonna/Whore Complex," you know. Bubbles is sexy and forward, never too modest to use a man to get what she wants, and she is successful because of it even if her emotional life is lacking. Judy is prim and proper, so timid and "good" that she allows herself to be walked all over, but she charms the man she loves and gets a happy ending. The two truly are friends even if their relationship is passive aggressive as hell, and it is their circling around each other that really forms the core of the story, not the romance that only becomes a focus in the third act. Ball steals the show as loud-mouthed Bubbles, while O'Hara bides her time until the final few scenes when she gets in not one but TWO great monologues. Also: they fight each other. It's awesome.

It's got some cute musical numbers (though sadly an otherwise lovely ballet sequence has two background dancers in blackface), and I really enjoyed the cast. I was especially a fan of the sassy secretary of the ballet company, I'm not 100% sure of her name though so I can't pinpoint the actress. Katherine Alexander, probably? Anyway, thanks Dorothy Arzner, you were a super kickass lady, you invented the boom mic, you dressed like a man, you were openly gay (I think?), and hopefully I can see more of your films. And read that biography.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: The focus on relationships and behind-the-scenes drama of women in theater definitely calls to mind Stage Door. And they've both got Lucille Ball!

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Monday, January 21, 2013

Alex Makes Art #101

Weirdly enough I've totally been making art, I just keep forgetting to post since I have a bit of a movie review backlog brewing over there. Catching up with 2012 and such, you know how it is. Anyway today for you I have TWO new poster designs that I am pretty excited about. But before I show them to you let me first announce an exciting new project I've started with Sasha James. We are both supreme poster nerds, so we've created a movie poster tumblr to showcase our loves to each other and to you. There'll be a new theme every 20 days or so, and they will all be awesome, and you should check it out!

Anyway here's some of my own poster art!

So you might remember my gushing post about The Royal Tenenbaums a few weeks ago? Since then I'd been concocting an idea for poster design but didn't have time until recently. I'm really happy with how it came out, I had been thinking about the imagery with Richie's tent and wanted to do something in a more sketchy, freer style. I think it worked! It's available for sale for $15.



It's been a while since I did a movie band gig poster, but I've still got some brewing in the back of my mind. I had an idea for Phoenix from Phantom of the Paradise and had to see it through, it's a little different than anything I've done but I like that. I wanted it to be a little trippy and colorful, so there it is. Also for sale for $15.



And hey while I'm self-promoting, here's a reminder that I'm still unemployed (but have an interview for an unpaid internship next week, oh happy day!) and could use any extra money I can get. So if you'd like to buy any of my stuff, please take a look at my etsy and redbubble shops! I can do commissions as well.

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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)

Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge.

Ok. A douchey British guy known only as John (Scott Adkins) watches his family get super murdered and is thrown into a coma. When he wakes up he's got amnesia and doesn't remember much about who he is, except for the traumatic events just before was knocked out. An FBI investigator is trying to find his attacker, a crazed killer named Luc Deveraux (Van Damme), and hopes John can help track him down. But John has other worries as he tries to reclaim his memories, especially since some huge dude (Andrei Arlovski) keeps trying to kill him for no apparent reason. Eventually it all comes together, sort of, mainly involving Deveraux's underground super-soldier army that he's been brainwashing for a while with the aid of fellow UniSol Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren).

This movie had been on my radar for a while, but I guess I still wasn't really sure what to expect. I had heard it tantalizingly compared to David Lynch and David Cronenberg, and am forever psyched to see Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme do their thing. I'd seen the first and fourth Universal Soldier movies, missed the fifth, and hoped for more of the same, but more intense I guess. But. Whew. I don't know what's going on here, really. This is a pretty weird movie. It's dark as fuck, with several scenes more reminiscent of an experimental horror (hence the Lynch/Cronenberg comparisons, I assume) and the story is as rambling as it is intriguing. Because I spent most of the movie confused, I was engaged as I tried to figure out what was happening. Honestly, there are a couple of Lost-level bombs going on here. And Apocalypse Now-esque developments.

The fight scenes are awesome and truly gory, with Scott Adkins taking one hell of a beating for two hours. My main issue is that Van Damme and Lundgren were barely in this movie, and I. Want. Them. Adkins looks exactly like Ben Affleck, which is distracting, and his character sucks. Like, super sucks. And yet he's on screen 75% of the time, so it was difficult to really care about the film overall. I was interested in the story, but not the protagonist, so that makes it only partially worth it, to be honest. Plus at times it was downright hard to watch, I felt a little queasy afterwards, possibly from all the intense strobe light visions.

Day of Reckoning is definitely daring, and I applaud Hyams and crew for taking the UniSol series in such a strange and unexpected direction. It just didn't quite work for me, and definitely didn't have enough of Van Damme and Lundgren doing their thing!

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Um I guess the aforementioned other Universal Soldier movies are ok. Alternatively there are definitely Apocalypse Now connections.

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Friday, January 18, 2013

Top Five: Favorite Movies of 2012

Obviously I've been a bit slow this year with my year-end listing, but well the past few months have been kind of shitty, and the whole year sort of feels like a loss since I spent most of it super stressed from my first year of grad school. I've missed a lot of 2012 releases but I've been trying to make up for it this month, and while there are still a couple I'm missing (most notably Holy Motors and Cosmopolis), I feel like I can do some sort of list for myself, as has become my custom. I think I've said it before but just to reiterate, I'm never a person to declare something "best", I think all taste is subjective so all I can do is list my personal favorites- movies I want to watch again and again, ones that affected me on an emotional level, and ones I found most memorable. For this reason my lists typically don't have the prestige-type films that I often see on other lists, but hey, I haven't seen most of them this year anyway!

Overall I didn't watch as many movies as last year, and generally fell off in blogging due to school and personal issues. But maybe this year will suck less. WHO KNOWS. At least I made a lot of pretty artwork in 2012. Oh yes. Anyway, list is below, all titles link to my original reviews, some of which are at 366 Weird Movies so don't be confused. There were some pretty good movies this year, as usual, but I was most excited about all the great animated fare.

The Avengers
The most fun I had at the movies in a good long while, I saw this 3 times in a theater, which is rare for me. It's just everything I want in a superhero movie- exciting, action-packed, funny, and perfectly character-driven. AND THERE'S A KICKASS LADY WHAAAAT. OH WAIT TWO OF THEM. And everyone is perfect, basically. I know it's not actually breaking the mold of a typical superhero flick, but it definitely stretched it. And gosh darn it's just so FUN, I wanted to instantly re-watch it the second it was over. Certainly the mark of a successful movie?

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Beautiful, dreamlike visuals, an effective musical score, inventive storytelling, and a truly impressive performance by young star Quvenzhané Wallis; I consider this film a memorable and unique experience. It's definitely an interesting step for fantasy/science-fiction filmmaking, and I really hope Wallis has a long career ahead of her (unless she decides to become a dentist, which I believe is her goal).



For a Good Time, Call…
I feel like this is the main one that won't be on many other End-of-Year lists, but I just really loved it. It's light-hearted and really funny, and left me with a huge smile on my face and a hankering for girl bands. The parodying of romantic comedies through the framework of a female friendship is strangely brilliant, and the two leads are super charming. Plus it's raunchy but not in a self-satisfied way, you know?

Haywire
Dude. Gina Carano. The most kickass lady I've ever seen, probably? This movie is so rad, it's just all fighting and running and spy mysteries and an unknown Carano kicking the shit out of all these attractive Hollywood hunks. It's a solid action/thriller without being too stupid. I loved it! Thanks Steven Soderbergh!

ParaNorman
This is the main movie I've found myself recommending to people this year, because I think that on the surface it does not look as amazing as it truly is. This is not some Tim Burton knockoff, this is a superbly animated, surprisingly progressive family-friendly horror-comedy. I loved the Salem Witch Trial-inspired story, the seriously fantastic visuals, the horror movie references, and especially the deft handling of character- most of them are first presented as stiff stereotypes but their personalities are presented as layered and unexpected. It's just a great, great movie. And funny!

Honorable Mentions
Beauty is Embarrassing
Cabin in the Woods
Looper
Sound of Noise
The Pirates! Band of Misfits

And I need to give a special shout-out to Manborg, which was on my 2011 list because I saw it at Toronto After Dark and absolutely adored it, but it got more play in 2012 so I think some are considering it 2012? No matter its year, it's amazing and I just want to laud it some more. Laud laud laud.

Weirdest Movie: I'd probably say Beyond the Black Rainbow? Grungy 80s-style thriller with an ambiguous plot and super trippy imagery, plus a haunting synth soundtrack. Yeah. Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie must run a close second though.

Worst Movie: Hmm V/H/S, probably? It's an anthology, and I liked two of them but the others were all awful or just boring. Disappointments of 2012 (as in, movies I wanted to be better) include Lockout, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, The Expendables 2, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.

Some Numbers: 270 total movies seen. 156 new-to-me movies. 60 seen in a theater. 43 movies from 2012 as of this writing (meaning I saw a few in 2013). The first movie I watched was (appropriately) The Apartment and the last was Premium Rush.

See you later, 2012. I hope 2013 doesn't suck as much as you did. (Not in terms of movies, I mean IRL. Movies were pretty solid.)

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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Batman Animated Double Feature: Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000) and Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)

So the other day a friend and I had an animation day, which we'd been planning for a while. We wanted to watch like 15 animated movies but settled for four, hoping to continue another time. Of the films we watched, I've already reviewed ParaNorman and Anastasia, so I figured I'd just do a double feature post about the two Batman movies my friend brought over. I will remind you guys that I'm not especially well-versed in the Batman universe. I enjoy all the films and I've seen the 1960s show and some of the animated ones, but I haven't read much of the comics. So revisiting the futuristic world of Batman Beyond where the Joker canon is somewhat altered, while also diving into the sad story of Under the Red Hood that draws from the comic arcs dealing with Jason Todd, the second Robin, was an educational experience too.

For those who weren't hanging out watching tons of cartoons in 1999, Batman Beyond is a re-imagining of the character's world set several decades into the future. Bruce Wayne is an old fuddy duddy who takes on young upstart Terry as the new Batman. This means new toys, new villains, and a lot of grungy electronica. Oh and hovercraft. Always hovercraft. The film has Terry facing off with Batman's ultimate nemesis, the Joker, despite the villain's definite death years earlier. Terry tries to unravel the mystery of his return, enlisting the aid of Commissioner Barbara Gordon, while also contending with Bruce's ever-increasing moping. Perhaps something happened in his past involving one of the Robins? Hmm?

This movie is a pretty fun time, but it helps if you're into Batman Beyond to begin with. I loved that show when I was in middle school and it was great to revisit it. I love this lithe, acrobatic, snarky take on Batman as a superhero, it's a little more Spider-Many than Bruce. And I love the very late 90s take on the future, where everything is neon and there's a lot of black leather. The animation's a little choppy, and the final reveal about the Joker's return is almost too weird and nonsensical, but I found the story leading up to it very compelling. There's even a bit of Harley Quinn, and best of all, Mark Hamill's Joker!

4/5

Ok now we take an angsty turn. There's a lot of brooding in this one. Under the Red Hood first reminds us of Jason Todd's death at the hands of the Joker, and everyone is sad for a while, but then flash forward and there's a new anti-hero in town! His name's Red Hood and he's taking control of Gotham's organized crime scene, while also destroying the competition. He's highly trained and seems to have no qualms killing anyone who doesn't serve him, and Batman is determined to find out who he is. Nightwing's there to help, but Batman gets all testy because he's still depressed about Jason or something.

Obviously these two movies have a lot in common, both dealing with Batman's whole thing for taking in young boys, training them to fight, and then sending them out into the night in a brightly colored costume to wantonly attack armed criminals. This film is generally very dark, sometimes ridiculously so, but it has an interesting story and I was glad to know more about this comic arc that I'd heard about but wasn't overly familiar with. The action scenes are good, surprisingly bloody at parts, and I dug John DiMaggio's Joker even if it's not as iconic as Hamill's. All in all a strong animated feature.

4/5

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Django Unchained (2012)

Seen: At the Kendall Square Landmark Cinema in Cambridge.

So this is what everyone's been talking about, huh? After reading several articles about it and having multiple real-life friends want to discuss it with me, I figured I should finally see Tarantino's latest revisionist period piece, Django Unchained. Jamie Foxx stars as the titular Django, a freed slave who teams up with chatty German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). After brutally destroying three sadistic overseers who were wanted for murder, the two plot to rescue Django's still-enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a malicious plantation owner whose delusions of highbrow pretension make him easy to manipulate.

Ok so yes a lot of people have a lot of problems with this movie, and I can understand why. I am not qualified to go into the various nuances regarding race and Hollywood and exploitation and whatnot, though many other well-informed writers already have. But I do have a few things to say, I guess. My main concerns/questions regarding racism/sexism in this movie stem from wondering about Tarantino's intentions, and his awareness of his fanbase. On the surface, the premise of an ex-slave avenging the shit out of some asshole white slaveholders seems like an easy thing to support. And I'm sure that's how a lot of viewers might see this movie. You can either read a lot of subtext and details in the script and characters, or take it at face value. I'm afraid too many people might be doing the latter, especially since I've heard many reports of audiences laughing at things that aren't particularly funny. I just can't say how much Tarantino meant to be funny or one-dimensional- is he fully to blame, or is it partially his audience? Of course for many viewers and commentators, the biggest issue is that this type of story had to be told by a white filmmaker, since black filmmakers would likely meet a lot of resistance if trying to do this through a studio.

This movie does reinforce certain stereotypes- the stoic, macho black man, the damsel in distress, the complacent slave/Uncle Remus, the white savior- and in some ways it can get a pass because of its obvious foundation in exploitation and western genres. Some of these are archetypes known to those types of movies, and I guess no one's walking into a 60's western expecting strong female characters (unless it's True Grit!). But you know what? This isn't 1960's-70's grindhouse. This is 2012, and I would like to think that Tarantino might have learned a little bit about character development in his many years of filmmaking. I couldn't stand Kerry Washington's put-upon Broomhilda, whose sole purpose is to be shown in many scenes of torture or pretty, silent visions, acting only as a goal for Django to reach, a trophy to be reclaimed. I know this isn't her story but jesus, SOME agency or even personality would have been nice, all I know about her is she can speak German and she's got a badass husband.

It's the white savior stereotype that stuck out to me the most, primarily because I really enjoyed Christoph Waltz's performance as King Schultz. He's funny and endearing and he gets most of the best dialogue. He also represents another angle of racism in 19th-century America (and beyond), in which even those who are anti-slavery did not view black men and women as equals, but something more akin to children. Schultz considers Django his friend and partner, but also frequently speaks down to him, never fully trusting his intelligence and often acting like he is some sort of unskilled teenager when he's at least in his 30s. He claims to be against slavery, yet still uses its laws in his favor when he needs Django's help, and upon setting him free he "feels responsible for his well-being" or something to that effect. Their relationship is interesting, and I'd like to think that had it been given more time Schultz would have eventually realized that despite his good intentions he was acting like a condescending jerk- I really wanted Django to call him on it at some point but he never did. And so again I must wonder, how much of this somewhat subtle racism is intentional in Tarantino's writing? And how much is picked up by casual viewers? Schultz is definitely meant to be a good guy, and hey, I rooted for him, but I hope everyone realizes that his type of character is also part of the problem.

Ok jeez I promised myself I wouldn't get too rambly and yet here I am, sorry. Anyway. Django Unchained has a lot of things to recommend it despite its other issues. I loved the visuals- the bright colors, detailed costumes, and sprawling landscapes. The eclectic soundtrack is excellent, pulling from different periods and genres to aptly match Tarantino's many references and inspirations. The cast is great, clearly, with Waltz stealing the show but Foxx, DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson all getting in some fantastic scenes. It's funny too, including a ridiculous bit concerning the precursor to the KKK that reduces them to utter fools. I didn't mind the gory violence since it was pretty stylized, suitable to the overall grindhouse vibe, and there are some fun and memorable action scenes. The only part that grossed me out was DiCaprio wiping his bloody hand all over Kerry Washington's face, since I knew it was real blood and I could only mentally weep for Washington's many difficult experiences while working on this film. The movie as a whole is waaaaay too long, but hey, that's kind of Tarantino's thing, so I can't say I was surprised. Just... antsy.

ONE final thing that bothered me, then I'll let you go. There's some comment about Django being that "One N-word in 10,000", like he's the ONE could liberate himself and take revenge on his oppressors. I know it was meant to just be a good line at the end of the film, but it struck something with me. It sounds to me like Django considers himself the only slave strong-willed enough to take action, to save the princess, to kill the bad guy. Are the other unnamed 9,999 slaves so unwilling, so unmotivated, so unable? Pretty sure that's not true, and its this reductionist view of the time period that rightly angers a lot of the film's critics. Taking a very serious, traumatic moment in this country's history and presenting it through the showy, simplified lens of a spaghetti western just doesn't quite work the way Tarantino wants it to, even if the good guy wins in the end. There's too much you're forced to ignore.

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: There were a few points where I was reminded of Blazing Saddles, and I think that'd be an ok pairing. Alternatively, the concept of a fast-talking white bounty hunter teaming up with an intimidating black bounty hunter reminded me of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr, especially since Lord Bowler (played by Julius Carry) is my favorite character on that show. Or hey, if you want to learn a little bit about real blaxploitation and black filmmakers, check out the absolutely amazing Baadasssss!

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Bernie (2012)

Seen: On our projector set-up, streamed from netflix instant.

A polite, effusive, intelligent assistant funeral director, Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is beloved by all in the small city of Carthage, Texas. He is very socially active in the community, especially in church and theater, but it is his unlikely friendship with wealthy, surly widow Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine) that eventually immortalizes him. The questions surrounding their relationship (at times manipulatively romantic, at others bordering on indentured servitude) are explored, as are the strange events surrounding Marjorie's (premeditated?) death at the hands of Bernie himself. Told in a semi-documentary style, their tale is elaborated upon by actual denizens of Carthage through interviews, with key players depicted by actors.

Quirky and a little bit weird, Bernie is a fun and somewhat sad slice-of-life offering from Richard Linklater, whose films I've realized I've never reviewed on this site since I guess I watched several of his movies before starting a blog. Oh well. I loved the half-documentary, half-acted style of filmmaking, fusing fact and fiction and a whole lot of supposition. Jack Black is fantastic, funny and kooky and warm, with this slight hint of pent-up frustration that really does make you wonder, even though by the end you're with everyone in the town and you want to believe him to be a good guy. He even gets to sing a bunch, and after seeing his rendition of "Seventy-Six Trombones" I'm convinced a Jack Black-starring Music Man is an excellent idea. MacLaine and McConaughey give great supporting performances, but their roles are limited. Also what the hell did they do to McConaughey's hair? Seriously, he looks like shit and it's unnerving. Is his hair the source of his power or something?

The story is a bit meandering, which I understand makes it more realistic since real life doesn't follow the standard points of a fictional narrative, but it does make the movie drag at certain parts. But overall it's charming for its earnest characterization, innovative stylization, and unexpected plot developments. Though I don't know how much he adhered to the known facts of the story, Linklater seems intent on delivering some semblance of honesty and objectivity when representing this town and its inhabitants- at least I hope that's true.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: The sensationalist real-life story and questionable events made me think of Tabloid, the memorable 20120 documentary from Errol Morris.

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Monday, January 14, 2013

Lockout (2012)

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

SPACE JAIL. That was all I really needed to know about Lockout to pique my interest, I'll be honest. But when we finally sat down to watch it, surprise surprise, the promise of SPACE JAIL wasn't enough to propel an entire movie. Damn. Guy Pearce stars as cheeky federal agent (or something?) Snow, wrongly accused of murder and about to be shipped out to... space jail. It's the future, ok? But before he's locked up there's a space jail riot, and the president's daughter (Maggie Grace)- who was visiting- is taken hostage. Now Snow is sent up to infiltrate space jail to save her, while also hunting for his incarcerated partner who knows the location of a briefcase that could exonerate him.

This movie is so forgettable it was out of my mind mere hours after seeing it. I was seriously brushing my teeth before bed and thinking, "What movie did I watch tonight?" So I'm not sure how much I'll have to write about it. It's not necessarily bad, just disappointingly bland. Pearce shows off his biceps and Grace gets a shitty hairdo, they banter forcibly while some sort of background plot about his past troubles plods on. The action scenes are decent but there aren't enough of them, and the script is all over the place. I didn't care about any of the characters except for Grace's Emilie, and she doesn't get much to do despite being written as competent and aggressive. I don't know man, I guess Lockout is too dumb even for me, maybe because it's missing the self-awareness that makes such a ridiculous premise fun.

2.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Umm Luc Besson's superior film District B13 has a kidnapped lady too so maybe that's it.

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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Harold and Maude (1971)

Seen: On Criterion blu-ray on our projector set-up, from my collection.

Listless, friendless, super-rich, and generally unsatisfied with life, twenty-something Harold (Bud Cort) spends much of his time staging elaborate fake suicides in an attempt to get an emotional response out of his snooty mother (Vivian Pickles). She decides it's time for him to get married and sets him up with college girls through a computer dating service, while he sneaks off to attend funerals, where he meets 79-year-old firecracker Maude (Ruth Gordon). Over the next few days the unlikely pair strikes up a friendship and eventually a romance, with Maude bringing Harold out of his morbid shell, sharing with him the many wonders of her long life.

If I ever wanted to find an absolutely, completely perfect movie, I don't think I could do better than Harold and Maude. A lot of my favorite films are ones I also find flaws with, but love despite them (or sometimes because of them), but I wouldn't change a thing about this one. It's just this remarkable assemblage, perfectly mixed, of black humor, dramatic tension, social commentary, heart-breaking and believable romance, thoughtful cinematography, layered performances, and absolutely wonderful music. (Seriously let's listen to Cat Stevens all day every day and sing along and cry every time "Don't Be Shy" comes on.) From its quiet, close-up opening montage of Harold preparing one of his fake suicides, to its explosive, strangely reassuring ending, the film captures a transformative moment in two disparate lives as their paths converge for a brief period, all in comforting shades of brown and yellow, and it's just really beautiful.

The script combines elements of slightly preachy life lessons, anti-establishment satire, and cutesy comedy that Ashby sets against hilarious (and often very dark) sight gags and gorgeous settings filmed in long takes. The pain in both Harold and Maude's pasts is ever-present, but rarely dwelled upon, with a few telling scenes that deliver emotional veracity through their theatrical staging. Cort and Gordon are equally fantastic in their performances, with the former fully embodying the gawky, soft-spoken Harold and transitioning easily into his goofier outbursts. He's also a really good crier, it just tears me up inside. Gordon makes Maude as adorable as she is super badass, and she lights up the screen whenever she's around. Their chemistry is very sweet, and despite their significant age gap their attraction feels natural. Vivian Pickles is kind of the secret standout, though, expertly merging pert authority and exasperated motherhood in a great send-up of the privileged class. Her taut, high-pitched line deliveries and fabulous outfits are so funny, but the coldness of her character is sadly palpable.

This is a film that never fails to make me laugh out loud, while consistently reducing me to sobs by the end. It's not that the story is some kind of emotional rollercoaster, it's more that it touches upon such truth (both personal and universal), such lovable and relatable characterizations, while also providing memorable comedic bits that are equally over the top and impressively understated. It's just everything I could want, really.

5/5

Pair This Movie With: So many filmmakers have pulled from his movie, it's easy to find parallels especially in indie movies from the 90s and 2000s. I think Wes Anderson has tried to recapture Harold and Maude in every film he's made, so I might go with Rushmore. And there's a little bit of it in Lost in Translation, Igby Goes Down, etc.

A long time ago I made a digital collage for this movie and it's for sale as a print.

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Friday, January 11, 2013

8 Mile (2002)

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

So a sort of unexpected thing about my boyfriend is that he loves Eminem. It's just the kind of thing I always forget about him until I'm reminded, like when he tells me I really need to see 8 Mile. Based in part on Eminem's experiences as a poor teen in Detroit trying to make it as a rapper, the film stars the controversial performer as Jimmy "Rabbit" Smith. After breaking up with his girlfriend he's forced to move back in with his gambling-addicted mother (Kim Basinger) and young sister, resulting in clashes with her abusive boyfriend (Michael Shannon). By day Jimmy works at a metal stamping factory, by night he tries to compete in rap battles to get more recognition, but stage fright gets the best of him. His friends believe in him and they all dream of a career in hip hop, but Jimmy is driven enough to align himself with a few untrustworthy characters, and hot-headed enough to constantly get into fights with a rival rap group.

Turns out this movie is pretty ok, definitely better than I'd expect. The story is so-so, mostly typical underdog-overcoming-his-limitations-type stuff punctuated with some great musical scenes and a mix of darkly dramatic and comically upbeat moments. Eminem isn't the most charismatic actor but he's got this very serious, intense look on his face at all times and it gives the character some sort of gravitas. Plus I admired his work ethic. He's backed by a strong supporting cast, like Basinger and Shannon's dysfuntions and Anthony Mackie's small but memorable role as rival rapper Papa Doc. I loved Jimmy's little buddy gang, which includes Mekhi Phifer as his Number One Friend and De'Angelo Wilson as the smart, political friend (you can tell right away because he has glasses). Brittany Murphy has a good turn as a potential love interest for Jimmy, but her character is super underdeveloped and it's actually kind of confusing and frustrating.

I make no claims regarding any knowledge of hip hop's inner workings, I'm just not well versed in the players or the scene or 1990s Detroit in general, so I can't really speak to how realistic this movie is. I dug the rap battles and the focus on this close-knit community, but I did not dig the homophobic language or the under-written women characters (though I can't say I'm surprised by either). Most of the performances are good and the music is excellent, and overall it's a worthwhile viewing I'd say.

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Ummm I don't know why but La Bamba (the Ritchie Valens movie) keeps popping into my head. Otherwise maybe another movie about rappers? I don't know too many.

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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Prometheus (2012)

Seen: On blu-ray on our projector set-up, borrowed from the Tisch Library at Tufts.

My first movie of 2013 was one of the more polarizing films of 2012, as I recall anyway. So many of us were super excited for Ridley Scott's return to the world of Alien, but after many disappointed reviews I just sort of let its theatrical release pass me by. But now here we are. Prometheus. In the future, archaeologist/biologist/explorer/doctor(?) Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her boyfriend (husband?) Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) think they've discovered an ancient alien race that came to earth and essentially established humanity, but then abandoned us for no good reason. A dying man finances their exploratory mission to a faraway planet where they hope to learn more about these superior beings and their motivations, but only terrible things await their team. Only. Terrible. Things.

With a strong cast, elegant and grandiose visuals, many dollops of mindfuckery, and a tantalizing connection to everyone's favorite space horror (no, not Jason X, you big dopes, ALIEN!), Prometheus has a lot to recommend it. Unfortunately, the script is all over the place and even the film's positive elements can't keep it on track. I liked the characters- especially Charlize Theron's tough-as-nails Meredith Vickers, who spends the entire movie sneering and it's intoxicating. Michael Fassbender stands out as creepy robot David, all soft-spoken voice and dead eyes and uncertain loyalties. The setpieces are spectacular, the creature design is awesomely gross, and the technology is fun. Rapace's whole self-abortion scene is hard to watch but at the same time totally badass, she rapidly takes control of a terrifying situation and it sort of defines her character for the rest of the film.

At first I liked how ambiguous the plot was, since it forced me to ask questions and challenged my assumptions, but as it went on the pieces moved further and further away from each other, and the developments of the final act were all pretty much expected. And then the actual ending doesn't feel like an ending, it feels like a transition to a new act, so it's extremely unsatisfying when the credits roll. There are some fresh and interesting ideas in this film, and yet Scott and Co. barely touch the surface of their concept. I know it's long enough already, but it could have used another hour to continue the story, or at least a little more resolution leading into sequel territory. I mean, this was basically the first half of a movie. It's not a full story, so it's ultimately unfulfilling. It's not that I didn't like it, it's that I needed more to make a complete story. Scott throws all these half-explained (or completely unexplained) elements at us and then forgets about them, or maybe he's just saving them for later. It's no surprise Damon Lindelof worked on the script, since there are definitely those infuriating Lost-ian tactics at work here, only without the lovable characters keeping the audience grounded.

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Daaang I don't know, I mean Alien makes the most sense, right? So you can try to glean the connections? Otherwise for more psychological space horror you could do Event Horizon.

PS What the hell was with Guy Pearce as the old guy in the ridiculous prosthetics? I mean, why not just cast an actual old guy unless you're going to show him young at some point? I kept expecting a Peter Weyland flashback or like a fountain of youth or something?

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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Premium Rush (2012)

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

So now we come to Part Two of our New Year's Eve double feature, I just didn't feel like combining it into one post. Premium Rush is another 2012 movie I missed in theaters, and we were excited to watch it mostly because Michael Shannon is so great (and of course I personally was looking forward to Joseph Gordon-Levitt doing... anything). Taking place over the course of about 90 minutes during rush hour in Manhattan, the film follows Wilee (Gordon-Levitt), a skilled but reckless bike messenger, as he transports a mystery envelope across the city to Chinatown. A sadistic police officer (Michael Shannon) with a large gambling debt wants his cargo, and pursues him in a ridiculous chase involving car crashes, flashbacks, many broken traffic laws, and one really pissed off bicycle cop. Fellow bikers Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), his ex-girlfriend, and Manny (Wolé Parks), his competitive coworker, are along for the RIDE of their LIVES.

With a quickened pace and an eye for the preposterous, Premium Rush is just the right kind of mindless fun that you'd expect in a bike messenger-themed action/thriller. It's got slick zooms of everyone's different routes, time stamps that mark the flow of different subplots/flashbacks, plenty of spills and collisions, and just enough narrative to keep me interested. The cast is almost as nonchalantly diverse as the Fast and the Furious movies, which is pretty cool, but of course Michael Shannon stands out in his villainous role, chewing every piece of scenery he can get his hands on and donning this strangely high-pitched voice. Gordon-Levitt is cute and cheeky, and rocking some cargo shorts, but I wanted more of Dania Ramirez.

Sure, sometimes it tries a little too hard to be "cool" but for the most part Premium Rush doesn't overthink it. It's good, dumb (but not STUPID) entertainment, reminiscent of "simpler" times when a movie could just be people driving or riding around for an hour and a half. Like, Hal Needham could have probably made this movie only it would have had more Burt Reynolds.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: The only other movie about biking that comes to mind is The Triplets of Belleville, which is amazing but would also be a big shift tonally/stylistically. For another over the top chase movie, perhaps Vanishing Point or Smokey and the Bandit? Or even The Terminator!

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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sound of Noise (2010)

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

On New Year's Eve, my boyfriend and I had the best idea: Let's stay in and watch movies! It was really nice and relaxing and also I cooked a tasty dinner. For the next few weeks I'll be playing catch up with all the 2012 movies I missed, so that was the theme for the evening, starting with Sound of Noise (a 2010 release in its native Sweden, but didn't make it to the US until last March). After a group of drummers starts staging wacky musical acts of terrorism around a Swedish city, Amadeus Warnebring (Bengt Nilsson), a tone-deaf cop who hates music, is on their trail. Their high-concept performance art infuriates the classical-music-loving public, but something about their drumming causes anything they use as an instrument to become silent to Warenebring's ears, even people. This fascinates Warnebring, who becomes obsessed with the musicians, especially their lead organizer Sanna (Sanna Persson).

Within the first ten minutes of this movie, a large van speeds down a highway with a man drumming in back and a woman shifting gears to match the beat. They crash into a quiet suburban neighborhood, leaving only a ticking metronome that the unsuspecting public assumes is a bomb. This is a fucking killer way to start a movie. The premise of guerrilla acts of musical terrorism played out upon an unenlightened urban public is fantastic, and Sound of Noise runs with it in a fun and engaging way. The musical performances are excellent- strange and exciting and at times emotionally uplifting. It's the kind of movie that energizes you, and makes you want to make music out of everything in your house. The story isn't especially complex, though I did like how the quiet, stern central character of Warnebring grounded the whole plot. He looks like a sadder Clark Gregg and his presumably tortured upbringing as a tone-deaf child in a famous musical family just tugs at your heartstrings. As a person who is sensitive to certain sounds I also really felt for his own extreme reaction to music. He is a perfect foil for the rowdy, wild drummers who compose his targets, and you just know he wouldn't actually arrest them, he just wants to know more about them.

I can't quite explain it, this movie just gives me really good feelings. I love a world where everything can be music and music spills over into public performance art. I loved the self-assured weirdness and touch of surrealism, as well as the kooky characters. One of the drummers even looks like Brian, my favorite character on Spaced, so that was an added bonus! The little romantic angle is unnecessary and poorly developed, but I can't say it bothered me much, since I enjoyed everything else a whole lot.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: I saw Subway suggested on the imdb page, and I think that would be a really good double feature. Fun, foreign-language musical times!


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Friday, January 4, 2013

Vamps (2012)

Seen: On my laptop, on a train ride.

Everyone who's anyone knows that Clueless is one of the greatest movies ever made, of course. It's one of my most-watched, most-quoted, and most-loved movies, and to me Amy Heckerling is just an awesome filmmaker. Her latest feature, Vamps, has been a long time coming and its floundering theatrical release kept me from seeing it for a while, but, lo, finally it made it to home video and my life could once again have meaning. Re-teaming Heckerling with Clueless star Alicia Silverstone, Vamps centers on best friends Goody (Silverstone) and Stacy (Krysten Ritter), two fun vampire ladies living it up in New York City. They attend night classes, party at the hottest clubs, and work as rat catchers, living off rodent blood instead of humans. When their master vampire (or "stem"), Cisserus (Sigourney Weaver), arrives unexpectedly, Goody reconnects with an old flame from the 60s (Richard Lewis), and Stacy starts dating a cute guy (Dan Stevens) who happens to be a Van Helsing, their lives suddenly become more complicated.

Ok naturally I wanted this movie to be one hundred percent amazing, simply because its various components made me so excited. Realistically I understood that it couldn't be perfect, and from a few reviews I'd read I came to expect it to be middling. And you know what? Vamps ISN'T perfect, and it DOESN'T live up to its awesome parts, but it is actually pretty satisfying. The script is cute and un-self-conscious, with clear nods to German Expressionist cinema and a number of digs at modern technology. There is a range of funny characters propped up by an excellent cast, from Malcolm McDowell as a reformed Vlad the Impaler to Sigourney Weaver as the bloodthirsty, irresponsible Cisserus. Silverstone and Ritter are adorable in the lead roles, perky and fashionable and sympathetic in their good-natured shallowness. You know I love stories about lady friendships, and while there are romantic subplots (Hell-ooooo rumpled Dan Stevens), the ultimate connecting thread through everything is the relationship between Goody and Stacy. It's very sweet.

I know, vampire movies are a dime a dozen these days and a lot of them are stupid or uninspired, but this one is worth a look for giving the old tropes a somewhat different spin. Because they're like vegetarian vampires (attending group meetings and everything), their vampireyness comes up more in discussions about aging and the past. I loved the idea of Goody's sort of double vision, where she would see a place as it exists now, and then flash back to its previous iterations as it changed over the 200 or so years she'd lived. I would have liked more of that concept explored, actually, but on the whole the tone is extremely light, because Heckerling isn't really setting out to get our intellectual juices flowing. As far as I can tell, she wants to provide a female-positive showcase for some great comedic actors while fiddling about with the vampire genre. The production values are kind of horrible (the CGI made me wince), the story is pretty scattered, and Heckerling is showing her age with all the anti-technology banter, but overall I found it delightful. And oh, the CLOTHES!

4/5

Pair This Movie With: If you want another ladyfriend vampire movie, there's We Are the Night. Or obviously you can just follow it up with Clueless AKA THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER MADE ARE YOU EVEN LISTENING TO ME GOSH.

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Thursday, January 3, 2013

Top Hat (1935)

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

So a terrible thing happened on Christmas, and in times of grief I usually turn to movies. My mom and I threw our sorrows into Top Hat, perhaps Fred and Ginger's most lavish musical. Set at two stunning British and Venetian resorts, the film features Ginger Rogers as a young model and Fred Astaire as the dancer who falls for her. Unfortunately, she mistakes him for his amazingly-named manager Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton), who is married to her best friend Madge (Helen Broderick). Thinking him a predatory adulterer, she rejects his advances and falls into the waiting arms of fashion designer Alberto (Erik Rhodes). All this is just comedic filler for some excellent dance numbers for Astaire and Rogers, and a gorgeous array of Art Deco sets and frilly costumes. Everyone has a nice time.

Though Top Hat might be their most iconic, I've never considered it my favorite simply because I don't think the script is as strong as a few of their other films. Of course, it's still a truly lovely time, and viewers receive exactly what they should expect: exciting dance numbers, fluffy romance, sarcastic jokes coupled with some slapstick and sight gags, and that special kind of 1930s decadence. You've got a snarky but also adorably naive Ginger (who was my age when this movie came out, so now I'm really reconsidering all of my life choices...), and a typically smarmy but likable Fred, with Horton and the ever-droll Eric Blore backing them up in a zany subplot and Helen Broderick throwing out misandrist zingers left and right. It's not really a laugh-out-loud kind of film but darnit if it doesn't make me chuckle throughout. Everyone is just so silly, and the story line is so unabashedly frivolous, that there's no choice but to sit back and let it all happen.

Of course we're here for the dancing, and naturally Top Hat does deliver on that front. The Irving Berlin score is fun and hummable, containing memorable songs "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" and "Cheek to Cheek". I love all of their extravagant duets at the hotel, but I might be most won over by their first dance together for "Isn't This a Lovely Day (to Be Caught in the Rain)?". Set in a spacious gazebo, the scene is notable (to me, anyway) for Ginger's costume- instead of her usual flowing gown, she's wearing a riding outfit, which means: PANTS! So often her footwork is a bit lost in the folds of her dresses (which do produce a lovely effect), so it was nice to see her freer and more exposed. I know this isn't the only time she wears pants for a dance number, but it's been a while since I've seen it happen.

Shallow, lighthearted, and ludicrous, Top Hat doesn't set out to make its audience think very hard, but as a fun, escapist musical after a rough day it hits the spot.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: Shall We Dance, perhaps? Or Swing Time.


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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Decoy Bride (2011)

Seen: Streamed from netflix instant, on my laptop.

So I am a person who generally needs to watch something before I go to bed, when I'm alone. When my boyfriend is away I tend to suddenly fit a lot of MST3K episodes and netflix instant into my schedule. A few nights before Christmas, after a busy night packing up final etsy orders, I figured I'd fall asleep to some dumb romantic comedy on instant, and decided to try out The Decoy Bride, and somehow I watched the entire movie without meaning to. Oops. Set on the picturesque (and fictional) Scottish island of Hegg, the film offers an unsurprisingly ludicrous rom-com premise: Well-respected novelist James Neil Arbor (David Tennant) is engaged to Lara Tyler (Alice Eve), a wildly successful actress and very likely the perfect woman, but the marriage is perpetually spoiled by ravenous paparazzi. They move their nuptials to the small, isolated island where Arbor set his book, and due to ridiculous circumstances that lead to Lara's disappearance, he is forced to marry one of the locals (Kelly MacDonald) posing as the actress to fool the members of the press who followed them. Arbor and his unintended bride, Katie, find themselves on a weird journey around the island, rife with misunderstandings and silly happenings, all while trying to locate Lara so the real marriage can take place.

Ugh on paper this movie sounds so stupid, I know! I hated writing that convoluted plot summary! But seriously, The Decoy Bride is actually pretty enjoyable, with a cute script and a really great cast, and characters I actually give a shit about. It helps that I really love Kelly MacDonald, and that I find David Tennant weirdly attractive (the hilarious fur vest and striped bell bottoms he's saddled with for half the film put a damper on that though). Extra goodies include Michael Urie in a funny (and ADORABLE) turn as Lara's overworked manager- just after I'd been obsessing over Ugly Betty (late to the party on that one, I know, but what a great show!)- and Dylan Moran with a little screen time as a hungry reporter. Plus the cinematography is beautiful, thanks to fantastic scenery and some fun locations, and there's a lot of clever talk about writing. It's nothing groundbreaking or especially memorable, but overall it's just an enjoyable, silly-but-not-stupid romantic comedy. It sticks close to a good central female character and gives her most of the best lines, which is kind of neat since usually it seems like with these types of movies we're often meant to laugh AT the female lead for her clumsiness or whatever, instead of WITH her for her wit. MacDonald really shines here, I hope she gets more leading roles since she tends to pop up in supporting or ensemble parts when I see her in film and tv.

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Umm I don't know, another romantic comedy about weddings? There's My Best Friend's Wedding, Made of Honor, 27 Dresses, and The Wedding Date, but none of those are very good. And yeah I have seen all of them because guess what? I watch a ton of shitty romantic comedies, it's a sad but true fact about me. Anyway. The Wedding Singer? The Philadelphia Story, maybe?

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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

May (2002)

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

This came to my attention quite a while ago, it feels, but only my recent deepening interest in horror has forced me to finally sit down and watch it. Written and directed by Lucky McKee, May follows the titular character (Angela Bettis) as she explores new relationship options after finally getting contact lenses that correct her lazy eye. A shy, lonely young woman who works as a surgical assistant at a veterinary clinic, May's only friend since childhood has been a fragile doll kept in a glass case, and she longs for someone she can actually touch. Her attempts to connect to a horror movie buff with nice hands (Jeremy Sisto) and a gay secretary with a nice neck (Anna Faris) prove challenging, and as her grasp on sanity gradually slips away May seeks an atypical solution to her social problems.

Establishing itself early on as a slightly unsettling drama, May's darkness bubbles underneath the surface for most of its first two thirds. As a character May is off-putting but sympathetic, and her genuine desire to connect meaningfully with people who just don't understand how she sees the world is touching. Bettis is so strong in the central role, moving between naive girlishness and unhinged hostility in the blink of an eye. I loved Anna Faris as the ditzy Polly, leading May on with a manipulative sweetness and a real interest. Jeremy Sisto and the perpetually doofy James Duval are great in their roles as well, both playing men in whom May quite mistakenly perceives a kindred spirit, much to their misfortune.

With an eye for symbolism and good use of dark interior spaces, McKee creates an eye-catching, enticing film that manages to be funny and weird and sexy and weirdly sexy all at once. The interplay of sex and violence is connected cleverly through sewing and surgery imagery, drawing parallels between them until they're both equally horrific. The extent of May's paranoia and self-delusion is not explicitly clear at first, and the tension builds as the viewer waits for all the pieces to come together in a chilling way. The climax of this movie is fucking amazing, and well worth the slow-burn build-up. I won't say I didn't see it coming (it's not really meant to be a surprise), but damn was I satisfied when it did! Excellent film all around.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: The movie as a whole made me think of Cindy Sherman's Office Killer, but if you want to lighten things up there are also parallels to the very silly Frankenhooker.

For a more erudite take, check out Andreas's awesome film studies project: "Gender, Sympathy, and the 'Monstrous Hero'"

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