Thursday, May 30, 2013

Big Night (1996)

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

Remember how Stanley Tucci's The Impostors is one of the funniest movies ever made? Well, it is. So naturally I wanted to check out his debut film Big Night. This tale of Italian immigrants in 1950s New Jersey centers on brothers Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci), the former a genius chef and the latter a business-minded restauranteur. Their floundering restaurant needs to temper its menu offerings for customers uneducated in traditional Italian food, but the cantankerous Primo is unwilling to sacrifice his culinary art. When a seedy Italian club owner (Ian Holm) promises to invite famous jazz singer Louis Prima to their restaurant, the brothers prepare for one big night that they hope will change everything, while dealing with romantic, familial, and financial drama along the way.

With a stellar cast that includes Minnie Driver, Isabella Rossellini, Campbell Scott (who also co-directed), Allison Janney, and Marc Anthony (in his first film appearance), Big Night is a well-acted, understated drama that sags a bit because of its script. I loved the examination of the Italian immigrant experience on the Jersey coast and the ins and outs of a struggling family restaurant, but the complications of infidelity thrown into the mix was unnecessary. I would have been interested to see the business/family stuff made the complete focus, instead of the weird romantic subplot that has the protagonist cheating on his awesome girlfriend for absolutely no reason. Like, for once can the likable hero in a drama not be a womanizer? Please? It's just not a part of the story that interested me.

Otherwise Big Night is a nice time, a passionate foodie movie with a no-frills production and moments of unexpected silly humor. I loved Tucci and Shalhoub in the main roles, and enjoyed everyone's Italian accents (though Holm's was hilariously exaggerated). The film is strongest as a quiet, somewhat humorous study of these characters and their uncertain situation, without leaning on overblown dramatic tension or some over the top climax. Their daily interactions, their friendships and rivalries, their reverent, almost fanatical love of food: these are the elements that work best. But the melodramatic romantic subplot took away from that for me, and I just couldn't become fully absorbed in the movie.


Pair This Movie With: Of course one food movie usually just puts me in the mood for another food movie, for this I might recommend I Am Love since it also deals with Italian cuisine. Or since half the cast shows up again in The Impostors, and The Impostors is one of the best movies, you could just watch that. Yes.


Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Nema-ye Nazdik (Close-Up) (1990)

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

I feel lately I've fallen off in watching foreign films, which has always been a resolve of mine though I don't always keep to it. I've had several bumped up my netflix queue so hopefully I can get back into it this summer. Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up seemed like a good place to start, since I've heard it praised quite often, and have always been intrigued by the premise. Using careful re-enactments that feature the actual people involved as well as courtroom footage with some scripted speeches, the film examines the actions of Hossain Sobzian, a mild-mannered film buff who impersonates noted Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makmahlbaf. For about a week he ingratiates himself with a well-off family, saying he wants to make a film with them. His deception is revealed after a few days and he is put on trial for fraud, at which point director Abbas Kiarostami hears the story and decides to film the proceedings. He also recreates the events leading up to the trial, from various perspectives.

Innovative in its structure and storytelling, Close-Up is a strange and compelling film that rides the line between documentary and drama in unexpected ways. What sounds like a weird, somewhat sensational premise turns into an introspective study of obsession and creative desire. As far as I can tell, Sobzian is not some malicious con artist, but rather a lonely, dissatisfied man who stumbles upon a way to live within another person's greatness. His Makmahlbaf persona allows him the confidence and social fluidity that he seems to lack in his own life, and while his actions are misleading and suspicious, it's not hard to see why he might maintain this charade for the Ahankhah family, whose friendliness and cinematic enthusiasm immediately bond him to them. It's a no-win situation, basically, and I could understand the reactions of all sides, with everyone seeking some sort of personal fulfillment through an association with fame but no one attaining it.

Though the story and character investigation are fascinating on their own, it is Kiarostami's interesting narrative techniques that elevate the film to something truly special. Using the actual people involved in these events to act out their own story leads to a kind of distanced documentary feel, with the performers knowingly creating a copy of the real thing. The long shots and real-time scenes that cover different elements in Sobzian's story are pieced together non-linearly, cutting back and forth from staged memories to courtroom footage that is obviously affected by the presence of Kiarostami's cameras. It is never entirely clear if Sobzian is simply putting on an act for the cameras, and indeed I think it'd be naive to assume he wasn't to some extent, but his deep respect for film as a medium and his regret that the Ahankhah family felt wrongs seem genuine. The long-form coda brings some satisfaction to all parties, a sort of sigh of relief after building tension between parties both seen and unseen. It's just a really beautiful, memorable film, a reminder that there are so many ways one can tell a story.


Pair This Movie With: I'm honestly not sure what films are similar to this, but I can say that now I'd like to see any of Makmahlbaf's films, especially The Cyclist, which is referenced a few times.


Monday, May 27, 2013

Mud (2013)

Seen: At the AMC/Loews at Boston Common.

Jeff Nichols' feature Take Shelter was one of the best films of 2011, and his prior film Shotgun Stories is excellent, so it stands to reason I would be pretty excited for his latest, Mud. This tale of runaway outlaws and boys coming-of-age and family entanglements and also boating stars Tye Sheridan as Ellis, a well-meaning kid living on a houseboat in small-town Arkansas whose parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) are on the verge of separating. An impressively independent young teen, Ellis spends much of his time paling around with his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), going on adventures in their motorboat. One morning they discover Mud (Matthew MacConaughey), a mysterious criminal on the run, camped out on a small island. Ellis decides to trust him, and he and Neckbone help Mud evade a vengeful family hunting him while also attempting to reunite him with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).

Immersing the viewer fully in the funny, transformative, and at times tragic experiences of a 14-year-old boy, Mud is a compelling film that blends honest emotional drama with sensationalistic context. Nichols creates a world seen through Ellis's eyes, where his parents' crumbling marriage and his own first-time dating missteps make a dirty outlaw's doomed romance something worth fighting for. The adults in his life are all so flawed, so disappointing, that he latches on to the one adult whose tall tales and adventurous lifestyle somehow create a hero, despite frequent reminders that he's not. Thematically it is sad but utterly realistic, even if the plot points are over the top, and I spent the whole movie knowing this poor naive kid was in for some heavy revelations by the end. It's not all hopeless, of course, and indeed a good portion of the script is humorous (especially anything involving Michael Shannon's wacky uncle character), but it grounds itself in this general process of growing up and learning to navigate the complicated interplay of love, loss, and lies.

Moving between Ellis's home life and his secret life helping Mud, Mud maintains a fairly tight focus on the boy, and Nichols draws out a wonderfully expressive performance from Tye Sheridan. McConaughey continues his impressive spurt of awesome roles, donning false teeth and a lot of dirt for the character, and he does well to remain on the edge of earnest well-meaning-ness and volatile violence. Supporters Ray McKinnon, Sam Shepard, Joe Don Baker (whaaat?) Michael Shannon, and fellow Boardwalk Empire castmember Paul Sparks all do well, too, though of course Shannon is the standout. You'll notice a lot of male names being tossed around so far. Well that's because this is a super dude-centric movie, which is a thing that happens often enough and I don't really have issues with it. But I do have issues with the women who are in this movie, since they all get short-changed in terms of writing and development. Ellis's mom is a barely-there villain whose desire to leave her husband will result in their houseboat being reclaimed by the government. She is meant to be sympathetic but isn't given enough time to actually explain her position or even exude much of a personality, while the terse father is given plenty of monologues. Ellis's pseudo-girlfriend is just a manipulative jerk for absolutely no reason, like even more than "bitchy teen girl" standards seem to allow. Mud's tragic love Juniper gets the most attention, and I can tell Nichols wanted to give her some dimension and motivation, but she also comes off as a jerk, fulfilling the "slutty" mold that exterior male characters had already fit her in.

Like his other films, Mud is a compelling, understated look at complicated relationships and the day-to-day existence of a small Southern town, but I wasn't as won over this time around. I loved the performances and the more thriller-y bits, as well as the bittersweet focus on a boy's evolving understanding of love's complexities, but the underwritten female characters took away from the experience for me.


Pair This Movie With: There are a few options I thought of. If you want more Nichols, this reminded me more of Shotgun Stories for its focus on male familial relationships and general tone. I also thought of Son of Rambow a few times mainly because Neckbone reminded me of the main kid. But I think the coolest pairing might be the True Grit remake, not sure why, but I feel like its atmosphere and outlaw characters and grown-ups making pacts with pre-teens would all fit together for a double feature.


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Re-Animator (1985)

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

Some of you may recall that I wrote a little about Re-Animator for both the Coolidge Horror Thon in 2010 and the Boston Sci-Fi Marathon in 2012, and if you follow me on twitter you probably know that I talk about it all the fucking time, because I am... OBSESSED. And yet for one reason or another I've never actually written a full review of it. The other day I busted out the boo-ti-ful blu-ray and everything was so pretty and filled with gooey innards that I decided now is the time. If you are a sad, empty person because you haven't yet seen Re-Animator, here is a little summary: Loosely based on HP Lovecraft's story, the film follows the antics of Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), a strange but lovably socially inept medical scientist who has discovered a means of conquering death. Studying at Miskatonic Medical School, he enlists the aid of student and roommate Dan (Bruce Abbott) to further his experiments of bringing dead bodies to life. Everything goes to shit when a jealous doctor (David Gale) at the school plots to steal West's work and claim it as his own. There are varying amounts of dismemberment, lobotomies, boobs, and zombies throughout.

So the thing about this movie is, it's basically perfect. Even the things that aren't perfect, well actually they are. Jeffrey Combs is a ridiculously watchable force that propels the movie forward with manic glee and hilarious intensity. His character is a perfect anti-hero, compellingly sociopathic and completely self-interested, but not as maniacal or asshole-y as the actual villain. Of course, scream queen Barbara Crampton also leaves an impression. The script is funny and fairly goofy, while buckets of blood and plenty of squishy, oozy bits are thrown in for good measure. Ultimately the film is just a delightful time if you don't lose your lunch. The effects are wonderfully 80's- everything looks simultaneously real and fake. It's not especially scary, but the exploding bodies and super zombie showdown make for thrilling entertainment, and actually the part where a headless Dr Hill is feeling up the kidnapped Meg (Barbara Crampton) is pretty terrifying, I always cringe.

I know the music was stolen from Psycho, but I don't care because the main theme works SO well, and I know actual Lovecraft fans don't like it because it's not true to the story, but that doesn't bother me either because unlike Lovecraft this movie isn't racist. It's marvelously re-watchable, with plenty of great little jokes and exciting surprises to survive plenty of viewings. A lot of its appeal rests with Combs, who is oddly mesmerizing in his most iconic role, but I think the filmmakers' able blending of humor and horror along with a bit of Lovecraft's Frankenstein parody makes for complete b-movie success on all fronts.



Pair This Movie With: Usually I just want to watch Re-Animator again, which I have done. Or you'll probably just want more Jeffrey Combs. I can recommend his other Stuart Gordon/Lovecraft/Crampton team-up From Beyond, or there's the delightfully sick sequel Bride of Re-Animator. Or Doctor Mordrid is a fun time.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Alex Makes Art #108

Hey dudes, I gotta go out and do laundry so I'll keep this short. Here is a new poster I made, a commission from someone I met recently whose favorite movie is Hocus Pocus. Which is awesome. It's now for sale in my etsy shop. I've got a few more commissions I'm working on now that my semester is over so be on the lookout for lots of new art things over the summer! Yay!

Also just fyi I'm interning at this gallery and running their blog, where I get to interview awesome artists that we're exhibiting and also generally talk about art things and post pretty pictures. If you're into that please check it out!


Friday, May 17, 2013

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Seen: At the AMC/Loew's at Boston Common.

I like Iron Man, I do, and I've loved Robert Downey, Jr since middle school (yeah, BEFORE his comeback!), but I think it's fair to say a lot of us are getting a little sick of the whole character. He's funny and smart and actiony, but perhaps his braggadocio has worn out its welcome. I didn't see any particular need for Iron Man 3 but dammit they reeled me in with two things: Shane Black, and Pepper Potts donning the suit. I'm easy, as you guys probably know. This time around Tony is still reeling from the cataclysmic events of The Avengers, suffering from insomnia, paranoia, and panic attacks. He works obsessively on more and more Iron Man suits, alienating his girlfriend Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is also the CEO of his company. When a mysterious terrorist calling himself "The Mandarin" (Ben Kingsley) begins targeting American landmarks and Tony's friend/former bodyguard Happy (Jon Favreau) is caught in a blast, Iron Man is back in action. But he soon finds himself alone and with limited resources, forced to rely on his intellect and luck to get to the bottom of things. Meanwhile, Pepper becomes mixed up with a cocky scientist (Guy Pearce) who is wielding incredible, unpredictable power.

I can spoil stuff for this by now, right? Because I'll want to talk about some events that happen at the end, so be warned. Anyway. This movie is way better than most people probably thought it would be, but I'm not that surprised since by now I'm kind of into Shane Black's MO: it's darkly funny, violent, fast-paced, pro-friendships, and set at Christmas. With the self-aware RDJ narration it's basically Kiss Kiss Bang Bang 2, and that's just fine. I love how the general story goes against the grain of a lot of superhero movies in that its not as focused on the action and big effects (though of course those are there), and really takes its time to consider Tony as a person. His experiences have affected him deeply, and while his friends see it they can't really reach him because he's so unwilling to open up, so much of the film becomes about Tony's personal quest for healing. Black deftly blends actual human emotion with over the top sci-fi and goofy pop culture jokes, it's pretty impressive. Or maybe it's that Downey is just such an effective actor, since every time he had a panic attack I thought about the times I've had one and it made me so worried for him. So um good job making me feel feelings, Iron Man 3.

I'm not a huge Gwyneth Paltrow fan but I do like her Pepper Potts. She's feisty and savvy and not particularly impressed by Tony. So I was excited when I learned she'd be donning an Iron Man suit at some point in the proceedings. Because let's face it: superhero girlfriends are generally boring and useless, and their main purpose is to just get kidnapped. Though Pepper saves some folks with the suit earlier on, she's later abducted by the villain OF COURSE. But then she's temporarily given super powers and defeats the villain by herself in the big climactic battle. So THAT was AWESOME. It's stupid she was half-dressed at the time but fuck it, I'll take it. Tony's all flying and punching everything for like 20 minutes but then he can't defeat Guy Pearce and then out of nowhere Pepper's like STEP ASIDE, I GOT THIS and she just decimates him. Boom.

Anyway, all in all it's a really good time, though not perfect of course. The overarching story doesn't quite fit together, and I wanted more of Rebecca Hall's character, who was awkwardly forced into it (though, side note: this movie passes the Bechdel Test, which is uncommon in a superhero movie). I enjoyed Don Cheadle's side plot, since it made fun of the government and also featured the dad from Wonderfalls. And the reveal with the Mandarin is pretty great, very funny and ultimately true-to-life. Lots of things going on but it all fit together well, and was consistently interesting and fun, plus I liked the darker tone and unexpected focus on character. Sooooo great job everybody.


Pair This Movie With: Well obviously the other Iron Man movies make sense if you want to make a day of it. Or the aforementioned Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Ich möchte kein Mann sein (I Don't Want to be a Man) (1918)

Seen: On my laptop, streamed from netflix instant.

It's been documented that I am a sucker for stories of ladies impersonating dudes so they can gain some privilege, so when I saw that there was a Lubitsch silent with just that premise, it seemed crucial viewing. Playful teenage tomboy Ossi (Ossi Oswalda) just wants to hang out with her bros, smoking and joking and playing cards, but her father and governess are both strictly against her wanton ways. They want her to grow up into a proper, refined young lady and so they enlist a strict male guardian (Curt Goetz) to keep her in line. Ossi realizes that she'll never be allowed to have fun as a girl, so she gets herself a nice suit, dons a toupee, and goes out for a night on the town looking like a dapper young gentleman. Of course, Ossi discovers that men have to grapple with some un-fun things too (Bow ties are complicated! Being forced to give up a seat for a lady on the train!) but ultimately she has a delightful evening with her guardian (!) who doesn't recognize her. There's a lot of man-talk, and some decidedly affectionate kissing. It's pretty awesomely gay... but only kind of?

At a curt 45 minutes, I Don't Want to be a Man wastes little time on over-plotting. This is a light, funny adventure in a young woman's life, with some silly drunken comedy mixed with satirical bending of social norms. Ossi Oswalda is adorable as the childish, impetuous Ossi, whose only goal is to have lots of fun all the time in a society that tries to pin her down. She makes a cute guy, too, if hilariously tiny. The acting is of course over the top and dragged out, but it's a silent comedy so I'm not going to fault it for that, and I did find it pretty funny for the most part. It's a little sappy at the end because of course once the guardian realizes he's been hanging out with his female ward all night, they have to fall in love. But again: whatever. The couple had way more sexual chemistry when Ossi was dressed like a dude and they kept drunkenly kissing each other, so I have no doubt her cross-dressing will continue or he'll leave her for an actual man. The whole thing felt more like a parody of romantic comedies than anything else, which is impressive considering the genre hadn't been established yet.


Pair This Movie With: For another cross-dressing oldie there is of course Sylvia Scarlett, a movie that starts off so great with Katharine Hepburn in drag and Cary Grant's Cockney accent and also con hijinks, but then it turns into a boring sappy love story, aw dang. Still a fun (if messy) film, just be prepared for ups and downs.


Monday, May 13, 2013

Mirror Mirror (2012)

Seen: On my laptop, streamed from netflix instant.

The other day I was exhausted and felt like lying in bed with a movie on, intending to fall asleep eventually. Wouldn't you know I put on Mirror Mirror on a whim and ended up watching the whole thing, curled up in bed. This re-imagining of the Snow White tale begins with the wicked Queen (Julia Roberts) describing how she took over a magical kingdom by bewitching the king, causing his death, and essentially placing his daughter, Snow White (Lily Collins), under house/castle arrest. She's obsessed with beauty and glamor and wealth, and bleeds the people dry with her tax demands under the cover of paying for protection against some mysterious beast. After she turns 18 the timid Snow finally gains some backbone and plots to reclaim her kingdom with the help of a confused prince (Arnie Hammer) and a band of valiant dwarf bandits. The queen is pretty set on murdering Snow through various magical attacks, though, so Snow will have to acquire some self-defense skills through a TRAINING MONTAGE. Oh yeah.

Let me state for the record that the regular story of Snow White is pretty sucky, mostly boring and maudlin and sexist, so I'm totally down with updates of it, and Mirror Mirror does a decent job of it. The sarcastic humor, exaggerated visuals (Helloooo Tarsem!), and, most importantly, focus on the main character's development as a multifaceted human woman instead of a bland, beautiful damsel in distress, are all welcome cinematic elements. I'm not really into Julia Roberts but she is gleefully malicious and sardonically funny as the wicked queen, while gliding about in hilariously huge ball gowns. She's evil but also kind of incompetent, and she's less a threat and more tangible motivation for Snow to stand up for herself. Collins is a little too subdued in her performance, I think, but for the most part I liked her, and I liked how her character was handled. Young and naive but also brave, stubborn, and a surprisingly good fencer. The dwarf characters steal the show, as goofy as they are badass, and I dug their action scenes on accordion stilts.

As a whole the film is a bit slow but I must say between the clever script and drop-dead visuals I was entertained the whole time. I mean, it's Tarsem Singh, I knew it would be pretty, and man is it pretty. Eiko Ishioka's fanciful, colorful costumes are icing on an already delicately baked cake. Everything is just sugary and colorful and elaborate, and while the CG landscapes aren't always the best the sets are truly elegant. And Arnie Hammer's multiple bouts of shirtlessness aren't anything to complain about, either. All in all a fun, sweet film that manages to subvert the typically passive Snow White characterization while still keeping the atmosphere light, funny, and adventurous. There's a nice Bollywood-style dance number at the end, too, as I am never one to scoff at unexpected musical numbers cropping up in movies.


Pair This Movie With: I think its tone, sourcing, and general fantasy-satire thing are in line with Enchanted, which I enjoy a whole lot.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

TerrorVision (1986)

Seen: On my tv, streamed from netflix instant.

TerrorVision was my main other priority for netflix's great purge, after Modern Girls. And another recommendation from Andreas, who just totally gets me! It's got a ridiculous premise and Mary Woronov and Gerrit Graham as swinging yuppie parents, so it's fairly enticing on paper. The plot concerns the Putterman family and their new fancy satellite tv, which seems to be attracting uninvited feeds from outer space. Little Sherman Putterman (Chad Allen) is convinced that an alien monster is infiltrating their home through the television, but of course no one believes him. As all adults in the vicinity become swallowed up by the strange, ravenous creature, it's left to Sherman, his airhead punk sister Suzy (Diane Franklin), and her doltish boyfriend OD (Jon Gries) to stop it. But I'm not betting on their chances.

This movie is goofy to the max, and that's basically the point. It's both a send-up of stupid monster movies while also being a stupid monster movie itself, and mixing in jokes about various groups- primarily yuppies, conservative conspiracy theorists, and teenage rebels. It's funniest when the adults are front and center, with Mary Woronov and Gerrit Graham forming the perfect privileged suburban couple, horrendous parents but stylish dressers. They spend a lot of their scenes seemingly in a funny-face-making competition, and they both win! While they lead the earlier part of the film, the kids take over later and for me the film took a downturn. Not that I didn't love seeing a vapid Diane Franklin with huge, colorful hair, but their characters just aren't as interesting. Luckily there is a great Elvira-esque tv show peppered throughout the movie, with a hilarious Jennifer Richards showing off her assets as well as her excellent comedic delivery, and she spices things up at the climax.

With grisly sound effects, low-budget but well-done creature puppetry, and a high body count, TerrorVision works well as a monster movie, and director Ted Nicolau utilizes his large, ornate domestic space to the fullest. With all the tacky decor and sexual innuendo it was a bit like Rocky Horror only with less singing. As a whole it's funny and a little bit bizarre, but I think I would have liked it better if the kids had been less of a focus.


Pair This Movie With: I'm not sure. I watched Eating Raoul vaguely recently so Mary Woronov had me thinking about that. Or maybe another 80's alien monster movie? I liked the Invaders from Mars remake, or there's always Little Shop of Horrors.


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Modern Girls (1986)

Seen: On my tv, streamed from netflix instant.

Last week a lot of titles were expiring on netflix instant so naturally I set to finally watching some of the things in my queue. I chose movies that weren't available on dvd since who knows how else I might see these movies. First priority was of course Modern Girls, whose Lichtenstein-esque poster and high praise from Andreas enticed me greatly. The movie revolves around three working women (Cynthia Gibb, Virginia Madsen, and Daphne Zuniga) who are roommates and good friends. They're dissatisfied with their day jobs but live it up most nights at the hottest clubs and bars in New York. The events of one particularly busy evening unfold as the girls track down a visiting rock star, rescue each other from bad decisions, sneak into clubs, and generally cause a scene, all with well-meaning dweeb Clifford (Clayton Rohner)- and his car- in tow.

This movie kind of has it all: Awesome ladies being awesome, kickin' tunes, LOUD fashions, drunken revelry, mistaken identities, a car chase, AND a food fight. Dang. The three leads are likable and funny, with cutesy waif Cece (Cynthia Gibb) taking most of the funniest bits because her character is the most exaggerated. Virginia Madsen is supposed to be the hot one, but she's a bit lost most of the time, and it's Daphne Zuniga who really sexes things up. She's got that great dry delivery and aloof coolness, paired with opera gloves and killer heels. Of course Clayton Rohner is adorably goofy in his dual role of lovesick nerd Clifford and lovesick rock star Bruno X. The choice to have him play both roles is a little weird, since there's really no reason for it except for one or two jokes around confused idenities, but whatever, he looks like he's having fun either way.

At first I thought this was going to be too shallow and frivolous for me to all-out love it, since it starts off as this night of young women who only care about dancing and boys and free drinks. There's nothing wrong with that, it's just sort of empty. BUT it turns out that there's more to these ladies than meets the eye (like how Daphne Zuniga went to COLLEGE and studied ENGLISH and so she likes to READ!) and the script toys with stereotypical portrayals of women in general. There are certain scenarios that start off cliche but are then turned on their heads, such as a near sexual assault on a drugged-up Virginia Madsen that is diffused in a cool and funny way without lessening the seriousness of her situation. And that same character's seeming victimization in a later scene becomes an opportunity for the girls to bond together and stick up for themselves. These are some pretty great ladies, even if they are a bit silly, and a lot of the movie is just learning about their neat attributes from the point of view of Cliff, who definitely judges them harshly at first and learns he's totally wrong.

It's fun, it's funny, it's fabulous- Modern Girls is a truly satisfying female-centric comedy, refreshing in its focus on friendships and lifestyle as opposed to romance (though there is of course some cute lovey-dovey stuff) and entertaining without being vapid. Best of all, it's got all those great 80's trappings I love, from outrageous fashions to a synth-heavy soundtrack. It's not especially groundbreaking, but darnit it's a good time!


Pair This Movie With: More Eighties Ladies! (Damn if that isn't the name of a screening series I'd host.) Just One of the Guys, Valley Girl, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, oh my god I haven't reviewed any of these movies somehow I'm sorry but just trust me.


Sunday, May 5, 2013

Rewind This! (2013)

Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, part of IFF Boston.

As has happened in the past, I found out about this movie through its awesome poster. And lucky me, it played IFF Boston! Rewind This! traces the history and reception of VHS tapes, interviewing collectors, retailers, and filmmakers for their personal insights and expertise. VHS launched an entertainment revolution by allowing consumers to watch films at home and record live tv, as well as offering new opportunities for studios and indie filmmakers who launched the direct-to-video market. It changed the movie industry, the porn industry, and the film retail industry, and united communities of movie buffs with video swap and bootleg programs. Though definitely a dying media, today many fans- especially children of the 80's- hold on to their VHS tapes out of nostalgia and loyalty, recognizing its importance to their personal lives and to film history in general.

While I'm not a collector or anything, I admit I've clung to VHS more than my tech-savvy friends. I grew up with VHS tapes, they were the first way I really experienced movies. Plus there are some movies that I love but aren't available on dvd or blu-ray, so every so often I have to dust off my VCR to revisit an old favorite. It's a shitty medium, definitely, but some movies kind of make sense that way! Many video artists from the 80's (who were not discussed in the film, sadly) played with the effects specific to tapes, creating artworks that are still inextricably linked to the medium. While Rewind This! does include loving commentary on the physicality of VHS and its quirks, most of the film is focused on the history, which is indeed fascinating.

The range of interviewees is pretty awesome, from b-movie stalwarts Llyod Kaufman, Charles Band, Cassandra Peterson, and Frank Henenlotter to nerds from hip movie theaters and various websites. Plus a lot of doofy horror geeks. Like, a lot. I was most surprised and pleased with the Japanese interviews, since that's where the technology was created and there is still a strong VHS culture there- they got anime filmmaker Mamoru Oshii! And some splatterpunk and J-horror people! Cool! The segments with video retailers and obsesssives were interesting as well, with some impressive home displays. I also loved the abundance of film clips, mostly hilarious and weird 80s schlock that had me running a mental list of movies to check out in the future. Generally the film is funny and lighthearted, and honestly super informative to someone like me, who grew up with VHS tapes but was not old enough to have seen the sweeping changes they made on how we experience visual culture.

I enjoyed this movie a lot, but I have to lament one major thing: There are so few women in this movie. And so few people of color. Aside from the 4 or 5 Japanese interviewees, it's mostly just white dudes. There are a few female collectors/enthusiasts, a retailer, an awesome teacher/editor (whose name I forget, damn! But she talked about home movies and film history and kids these days not knowing about VHS), and actresses Cassandra Peterson (aka Elvira) and a Shôko Nakahara. I am NOT saying the Rewind This! filmmakers were being exclusive or sexist, so stop right there with your outrage. What bums me out is that seeing so many of the same kind of person onscreen (pasty dudes in their 30's, mostly), I was reminded yet again that here is a subculture that wasn't- and still isn't- particularly open to women. I loved the commentary from all these movie fans, I wanted to join in the conversation, and yet I never saw myself represented onscreen, or even that much variety in general represented. I KNOW THIS HAPPENS ALL THE TIME but it's still frustrating, especially since this is a subject close to my heart, and the film community in general is so important to me and yet I'm constantly reminded that I'm slightly on the outside of it simply because I'm a woman. It was also surprising that with all the discussion of new opportunities for indie filmmakers that came along with VHS technology, there were no women (or non-white?) filmmakers included. I guess because they were focusing primarily on action/horror directors? I don't know. Maybe when there's a documentary about the digital revolution there'll be some talking heads who aren't white dudes.


Pair This Movie With: I felt like digging out some VHS tapes myself! I have a small collection, mostly of films that aren't on dvd, as well as some classics I inherited from my grandmother. So I say get out your old VHS tapes (come on, if you're over 20 you probably have a couple!) and have a nostalgia party!

PS I know it says "John Carpenter" on the posters for this movie but FYI that's not THE John Carpenter, it's a producer who happens to have his name! They totally fooled me, though haha, I thought he'd be one of the interviewees. Panos Cosmatos is really a producer on it, which is neat, but he's not interviewed.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Smithereens (1982)

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

Embarrassingly, I got halfway through this movie several years ago when it was on netflix instant, and just never got around to finishing it. It wasn't because I wasn't enjoying it or anything, I remember I was watching it during a quiet shift at the gallery where I used to work, but I stopped it when visitors came in. Well I've finally righted myself and here we are. Smithereens is the debut feature of Susan Seidelman, who is beloved by me simply because she made Desperately Seeking Susan, a movie I watch really often. Her first film similarly explores a hip New York subculture, but this one focuses more on the fading punk scene of the early 80's and the encroaching commercialism. This is a community that's more style over substance, so self-centered they can't see how lackluster their surrounding culture is. Susan Berman stars as Wren, a wannabe punk rocker who spends most of her time hanging around punk clubs and bars, trying to make connections with musicians. The film follows her over the course of a few days, during which she gets kicked out of her apartment and moves into a van with Paul (Brad Rijn), a naive country boy who digs her cool city style. She also cozies up to Eric (Richard Hell), an assholey singer who's had one record made but isn't going far in his music career otherwise.

I'm always fascinated by the punk/new wave scene of the late 70's and early 80's, it just seems like an interesting time. New York was a complete shithole, everyone had awesome outfits and hairstyles, no one seemed to have a job, and they all just hung around listening to records and getting drunk. Like, what kind of world is this? A GREAT ONE, THAT'S WHAT. Smithereens is equally loving and derisive in its portrait of this lifestyle, placing a self-absorbed jerk at the center but throwing her into so many shitty situations that you can't help but feel sympathy. Wren is an interesting young woman, hiding behind a facade of over-confidence and attitude to protect herself from debilitating loneliness. She's loud and kind of annoying, but she's hard to keep down, and I liked that. Plus she always speaks her mind. She also gains some self-awareness as the film progresses, and by the end I was rooting for her even if I knew I'd probably hate her in real life.

The narrative is sort of choppy, circling around Wren's friends and connections, moving from dirty rock clubs to dirtier apartments. Everyone wants to be part of something, but they're not quite sure how to get there, or what that "something" even is. They all think of leaving, looking to LA as some magical sunny city, but New York's crumbling lure keeps its hold. At first I wasn't sure about the film's tone- it's kind of funny, mostly because the characters are all a little ridiculous. It becomes bleaker and bleaker as it goes on, with Wren losing everything she has bit by bit, often because of her own cold and misguided opportunism. The ending is unexpectedly dark, and while that makes it more realistic, I wasn't really ready for it. It felt out of place, and left me with mixed feelings about the film as a whole.

The soundtrack is excellent, with a rambling guitar score by The Feelies and tunes from various hip punks, and I dug the overall grungy aesthetic. Also this was one of the first independent American films to make it to Cannes, which is pretty cool. Lady filmmaker power!


Pair This Movie With: I immediately watched Desperately Seeking Susan, obviously. Then I just listened to The Feelies and Richard Hell and the Voidoids for a while.