Thursday, August 29, 2013

She's Gotta Have It (1986)

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

I have been lax in my Spike Lee viewing for some time now, and I've been meaning to check out some of his earlier stuff especially. One of his first features, She's Gotta Have It sounded up my alley due to its female protagonist and sex-positive outlook. Tracy Camilla Johns stars as Nola Darling, an independent young woman who openly dates multiple men at the same time, feeling more comfortable if she isn't tethered to one man. The film documents her relationships with three disparate beaus: Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks) is an attentive but possessive regular guy, Mars (Spike Lee) is an immature goof, and Greer (John Canada Terrell) is an intelligent but narcissistic model. Through interviews and anecdotes their concurrent romances with Nola unfold, but eventually they pressure her into choosing just one partner.

Part love letter to Brooklyn subculture, part womanist sexploits, She's Gotta Have It is an endearing glimpse into the romantic adventures of a decidedly cool woman. Nola is gorgeous, smart, and totally open about her sex life, setting her own terms for her relationships and then hoping the men she's interested in can accept them. If they don't, that's too bad for them, because she is not about to change herself to satisfy the ego of a man who wants to control her. Her suitors are interesting characters, with Jamie's "nice guy" act almost fooling the audience into thinking he might be right for Nola until one shocking moment towards the end. Greer is such a self-absorbed asshole it's kind of hilarious, he's the kind of macho guy who would want to watch himself having sex, American Psycho-style. Mars is the most entertaining character, spouting weird stories and rockin' awesome outfits but also generally coming off like a teenager. All of their episodic interactions with Nola are funny and sexy, boiled down to small intimate moments that signal the strengths and weaknesses of each individual relationship. The men of the story all confess their discomfort with Nola's sexual appetite, but that is revealed to be their weakness, certainly not hers. The one person who seems ok with is it her lesbian friend Opal (Raye Dowell), but that's mainly because she's wants to get in bed with Nola herself (and the predatory lesbian thing was a bit stereotypical).

I really liked Lee's small-scale storytelling style, which glides across artful sex scenes, silly conversations, dramatic confrontations, and blunt talking to the camera, documentary-style. It's not a straightforward narrative but it's not meant to be, gradually revealing aspects of these characters and their relationships, until it becomes clear that in the long term Nola might not be happy with any of them. The scattered episodes make the film drag some as a whole, and I'm not sure there's quite enough meat here for a feature-length film. Also: Can we talk about the completely out of nowhere sexual assault at the end? Like, what the fuck? It was SO uncomfortable and just seemed out of place, and I have no idea why Lee would find it necessary to the plot. Jamie's character had already been shown as possessive and jealous, his sudden rage-fueled molestation didn't do anything for the story except give me anxiety. If Nola had stayed with him I would have hated the film for its hypocrisy, but thankfully in the epilogue she makes clear that even after she tried to change she realized for now her independent, multi-boyfriend lifestyle is what suits her, and all that matters is what she feels is right for herself. It's a positive resolution and one I really appreciated coming from a male filmmaker- since much of the movie was sort of like a romantic comedy from the male point of view, I was glad that Nola's strong voice is the final word.

There's also an unexpected technicolor musical sequence, and I'm just pleased as punch about that.


Pair This Movie With: I was definitely reminded of early Jim Jarmusch, I think it's the black and white, slice of life, hanging in the city vibes. Maybe Stranger Than Paradise or Down by Law.


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Muriel's Wedding (1994)

Seen: On my laptop, streamed from netflix instant.

Even though I personally don't want to get married and think the institution itself is kind of fucked up, for some reason I have always enjoyed movies about weddings. There's always room for melodrama and family jokes and pretty dresses and sexy happenings, it seems. Despite its title, Muriel's Wedding is not actually all about a wedding. Rather, it follows the adventures of Muriel (Toni Collette), a desperately romantic twentysomething who believes that getting married is the only way she can prove she has value. After stealing money from her asshole politician father (Bill Hunter), Muriel escapes to Sydney with her one friend Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths). Putting her compulsive lying skills to good use, she starts a new life and tries to become a new person. She hopes to eventually find love- or at the very least someone willing to marry her-, but her family eventually catches up to her.

With a self-deprecating wit and surprisingly touching relationships, Muriel's Wedding wasn't quite what I expected. It's funny and a little offbeat, but also really dark. I loved Toni Collette's performance, watching her transform from this dead-eyed oddball to a confident, mature young woman who doesn't need to lie in bed listening to Abba songs all day if she doesn't want to. At first I was bummed that the protagonist was so wedding-crazed, but it becomes clear that this really speaks to her cripplingly low self-esteem that blossomed under her tyrannical father. Rachel Griffiths is a great counterpoint as Rhonda, an energetic, outgoing gal pal who doesn't take shit from anyone but finds her world shattered due to medical problems.

The narrative is somewhat uneven, but it definitely kept me on my toes as I could not predict how the story would progress. It fuses small-town humor and family dysfunction with coming-of-age (sort of) and unexpected romance. And best of all, the ultimate theme is the power of friendship! Yay! Before that there's a lot of depression, though. Like, I was getting teary. I think ultimately what appeals to me about Muriel's Wedding is that it felt very realistic- of course there are some over the top moments and unlikely scenarios, but the characters, the interactions, and plot developments all felt true. It's not trying to be a laugh-out-loud comedy or a tearjerker drama, it's just trying to tell a story, and so the emotional impact is heightened by how real these characters seem.


Pair This Movie With: I think this needs another story of a lady trying to escape her overbearing family to find out what kind of life she wants to lead for herself. Desperately Seeking Susan, Penelope, and New Waterford Girl all came to mind.


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

In a World... (2013)

Seen: At the Kendall Square Landmark Cinema in Cambridge.

A comedy that combines an exploration of an entertainment niche, multiple Childrens' Hospital castmembers, a Geena Davis cameo, and a female writer/director is just sitting there, waiting for me to love it. And I will tell you right now that I really loved In a World...! Lake Bell's tale focuses on a struggling voice-over actress, Carol (Bell), who fights to overturn the industry's male-dominated conventions. She must compete against her father (Fred Melamed), a voice-over legend, and rising star Gustav (Ken Marino), both of whom believe there is no room for women in the very serious business of narrating epic movie trailers. While she's combating patriarchal standards in her career, her sister and brother-in-law contend with shaky marital morals and general family dysfunction.

I love stories about under-sung and under-promoted jobs or hobbies, because it's always interesting to me to get a glimpse at the passions intrinsic to them, as well as the weirdness that tends to arise within groups of people involved in one specific thing. I've never seen a film about voice-over acting, and I love that Lake Bell chose to make one. She fuses romantic comedy, career exposé, family drama, and feminist commentary into an extremely enjoyable story that I latched onto instantly. The script is riddled with hilarious dialogue aptly handled by seasoned comedians like Ken Marino, Rob Corddry, Tig Notaro, and Bell herself. I loved the industry jokes, which were revealing without being too esoteric. I also, of course, loved the flipping adorable romance between Lake Bell and Demetri Martin. These guys are just cute cute cute and I liked to watch them hang out and try to figure out how dating works. And since this isn't primarily a romantic comedy, they skipped a lot of the annoying tropes of that genre and just sort of fit in all the good parts around the main narrative.

In a World... excels at uncovering deep-seated prejudices and personal problems without seeming preachy or melodramatic. Bell explores the discomfort of a family strained by a father's ego and a mother's overdose, along with the ridiculous but completely realistic sexism run rampant in the entertainment industry. She takes a seemingly frivolous pursuit- three actors competing to narrate a new epic movie trailer- and gives it weight by reminding the audience how important representation is, how even just hearing the same deep male voice over and over in commercials and film trailers can affect how gender is perceived. This is done primarily through a fantastic appearance by Geena Davis, whose Institute on Gender in Media works to encourage equal representation and reduce stereotyping in films and tv. She essentially plays a version of herself, here a producer who wants to hear a female voice in movie trailers because it could have a ripple effect on women's roles in the future. It's a small moment but an important one, as it brings up issues that aren't always apparent to the casual viewer.

While generally I found this film to be pretty great, it is of course not perfect. Lake Bell wore overalls way too often, for one. I kind of wanted more of the actual voice-over stuff, since there was a little more focus on personal drama than I expected. Also it's too bad that this is set in a world with only white people? Pretty weird, but mostly just sad that a movie about fighting for equal representation in media only features white people in any given scene except that one with Eva Longoria. I'm sure they could have made room for one or two hip indie comic actors of color, it's not that difficult.

But ok I really loved this movie, it's the kind I wanted to watch again the minute it ended. It just gave me the warm fuzzies.


Pair This Movie With: The messy, unfocused character of Carol and her gathering of self-determination reminded me of another 2013 favorite, Frances Ha. Alternatively, I think another movie about a lady working her way into a male-dominated thing would be a good pairing, maybe something like Girlfight. For more about women's role in the media (and Geena Davis), check out Miss Representation.


Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Seen: At the Harvard Film Archive on 35mm, part of their Complete Alfred Hitchcock retrospective.

Ok, here's the final in my little Hitchcock trifecta, though I might catch one or two more in September. The Lady Vanishes has been on my to-see list for a while, as I've always heard it's one of his best. The film begins in a small, fictional European country where visitors are currently stranded at a mountain inn during a snowstorm. When the weather clears, American socialite Iris (Margaret Henderson) hits her head on the way to the train, but a cheerful British nanny named Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) takes care of her as their journey begins. After taking a nap, Iris wakes up to find Miss Froy gone, and none of the other passengers seem to have any memory of her existence- some assume the young woman is hallucinating due to her bump on the head. Convinced Miss Froy is both real and in trouble, Iris enlists the aid of raffish British musician Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) to get to the bottom of things. Just what's going on here on this MYSTERY TRAIN?!

Hitchcock again delights with a thriller primarily relegated to one location, here a passenger train moving fast through unfamiliar (and totally made-up) territory. Admittedly the actual plot is kind of ridiculous, with all this macguffin spy stuff that is barely explained, and while I recognized that fact immediately I was still sort of frustrated by that element of the film- like why work in this secret political relations stuff if you're not even going to elaborate on it, at all? But really it's just an excuse to throw these delightful characters together and see what they do in a strange and dangerous situation. The core team of Redgrave and Henderson is great, doing that sexy love-hate thing until they finally admit that they want to make out. Redgrave is eerily reminiscent of Aiden Gillen aka Littlefinger on Game of Thrones, and it kind of freaked me out how much they are the same person. Time travel? Perhaps. The real stars are gay couple Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), who are TOO ADORABLE. They just sit around talking about crickett and loving each other, and generally being too droll to handle. They, like half the cast, are so British as to be a bit of a parody.

The Lady Vanishes has a little bit of everything: excitement, romance, jokes, shootouts, mistaken identities, gaslighting, fictional foreign policies, magic, and a train! It's fun and a little silly, but also genuinely thrilling. I loved the characters and the dialogue, though the overarching mystery is too under-developed.


Pair This Movie With: Hmm another movie with a train perhaps? Ones that come to mind include but are not limited to: The General, Transsiberian, Source Code, and Silver Streak.


Saturday, August 24, 2013

Rear Window (1954)

Seen: At the Harvard Film Archive on 35mm, part of their Complete Alfred Hitchcock retrospective.

This one I'd already seen a few times, but it's not like I'm going to pass up an opportunity to see Rear Window in a theater. I'm not that stupid. Hitchcock's classic tale of voyeurism and friendly neighborhood murder stars Jimmy Stewart as LB Jeffries, a successful magazine photographer who's gone stir crazy in his apartment laid up with a broken leg. He spends his days obsessively observing others in his apartment complex, all throwing their windows open in the summer heat. He begins to suspect the salesman across the courtyard (Raymond Burr) may have murdered his invalid wife, but needs to track down evidence to get the police to take action. With the help of his fashionista girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and wisecracking nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), Jeff tries to conclusively prove a murder took place in his very backyard.

Seeming to lovingly caress every frame, Hitchcock uses Rear Window as a means to explore his love of film as a visual medium. He zooms in and out, pans around slowly, moves within and beyond an extremely detailed set, and expertly plays with focus. His protagonist is a photographer, a man who makes his living viewing life through a lens, and that fact is exploited to full effect as the story progresses. Every shot is so thoughtfully composed, you could easily watch this movie on silent and still appreciate it fully. Hitchcock is careful to keep his point of view (mostly) at the same window, either originating with Jeff looking out or an anonymous observer looking into his apartment. I love the use of a single location, with enough interesting characters and settings to easily compensate for Jeff's stationary lifestyle. There's the ballet dancer "Miss Torso", the melancholy Miss Lonelyhearts, the talented Songwriter, and a newlywed couple who cannot stop banging. These characters create equal parts comedy and drama as Jeff becomes more familiar with their personal lives, catching glimpses of their romantic trysts and arguments, their failures and triumphs, and their general day-to-day operations. I've always loved watching people out my window, and I think this movie would have been interesting to me even without the whole murder mystery thing.

But of course Rear Window is primarily a thriller, a gradually escalating nail-biter that casts doubt over who is the villain and who is the victim for a lot of its runtime. The story unfolds slowly, allowing time for Jeff, Lisa, and Stella to become fleshed out characters. They engage in witty banter, investigate their pasts, question their futures, and bond together over their deepening suspicions of the salesman across the way. Of course, Grace Kelly's outfits are the real star here, with costume designer Edith Head having a field day. The character of Lisa works in fashion and makes herself a living model, and makes sure she appears in a stunning, impeccable outfit every time she steps into Jeff's apartment. Hitchcock gives Kelly a soft glow in many of his shots of her, relishing the visage of yet another beautiful blonde, but luckily her character is well-written enough to break out of her Barbie doll mold. She's intelligent and outspoken, and truly courageous and quick-thinking in dangerous situations. Jeff sits around the whole movie while she gets all the work done, a real hero!

With wit and impressive attention to detail, Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes delve into the darker sides of human nature, the quiet things that happen when the blinds are closed. Even Jeff, supposedly the good guy, is no moral standard, as he easily gives into his voyeuristic urges and obsesses over something he can't prove, slowly cutting himself off from the "sane" people around him. It's a complex, completely rewarding film. There are a few little things that don't really work (the flashbulb bit at the end stands out as a misfire), but overall Rear Window is a near-perfect thriller.


Pair This Movie: I think another Stewart/Hitchcock pairing would be good, and Vertigo is the one I know best. Haven't seen Rope in a long time but I remember liking that one, plus it's another one-location film.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Rebecca (1940)

Seen: At the Harvard Film Archive on 35mm, part of their Complete Alfred Hitchcock retrospective.

The HFA has devoted a series to Alfred Hitchcock from July through September, showing almost everything in his rather large ouevre, and I finally got myself down there to catch some screenings. So expect a few more Hitchcocks in the future. Rebecca was a priority, mainly because I knew it was the only one of his films to win best picture, and I'd heard it was really good. I kind of hated the book, but whatever, I read it in high school so I was willing to assume my teenaged reading of it was misjudged. The story follows a young woman (Joan Fontaine) who meets and quickly marries a wealthy, middle-aged aristocrat (Laurence Olivier) while on holiday in the south of France. When the couple returns to his British estate, the shy and nervous new bride finds herself constantly met with derision from the head housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson), as well as unwanted reminders of her husband's elegant first wife, Rebecca, who drowned a year prior.

Moody and slow-paced, Hitchcock's Rebecca is Daphne Du Maurier's gothic novel fully realized through majestic visuals, melodramatic interactions, and sweeping musical cues. I loved the optical tricks that create a ghostly atmosphere, including Mrs Danvers' seemingly floating figure and the foggy landscape. A few details are changed- notably the age and background of Mrs Danvers, which allows for a definite homoerotic undertone that read as more motherly in the book. Joan Fontaine is solid casting in the lead (unnamed) role, aptly playing meek and unassuming and slowly morphing into someone more self-assured. Olivier is cold and intimidating, playing well off Fontaine's naivete and uncertainty. George Sanders is the stand-out performance, in a small but extremely memorable role as Rebecca's rakish cousin. He is forthright and charismatic, with a subtle hint of malice that underscores his every word. I kind of wish the movie was just about him, to be honest.

So here's the thing: This is an impeccably crafted, thoughtfully scripted, very well-acted film, and generally very true to the source material. HOWEVER. I never actually liked this story. I don't know, it's been several years since I've read it, but Rebecca has always stuck with me. I remember predicting the big reveal pretty early on, so the mystery was boring to me. I remember disliking the lead character, who never gets a name (and thus is only identified by her marriage to Mr De Winter), who starts off as a child but in very little time is married and mistress of a major estate, and who is generally timid, useless, and whiny. I remember her relationship with Mr De Winter made me uncomfortable, since I could never get a handle on her age and was led to believe he was much older than her, and he treats her like a child most of the time. All of these things remain in the film, rightly so from an adaptational point of view, so I couldn't really love it. Olivier being pervy around his young wife would have been enough to turn me off, honestly, I mean he literally calls her "child" and bemoans her loss of innocence when she finds out the truth about Rebecca's death, since he loved her for her childlike wonder or something. It's creepy.

There are so many good things about Rebecca that I must recognize Hitchcock's mastery and the exquisite detail put into every frame. I loved the gliding camerawork and dramatic score, and the cast is superb. Seeing the unforgettable Mrs Danvers fleshed out onscreen by the eerie and intense Judith Anderson was wonderful, and her scenes with Fontaine lent the greatest tension to the whole film. But I find the protagonist and core story a bit bland, and there's not much to be done about that.


Pair This Movie With: The moody atmosphere, pseudo-haunted British mansion, marriage mysteries, and tragic romance all put me in mind of Jane Eyre when I first read the book, and the film version retains those comparable elements. I loved the 2011 adaptation of the Brontë classic, and would pair that with Rebecca.


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Alex Makes Art #112

I'm plugging along over here with another art commission! This one is from my friend Ben, to whom I am eternally grateful for introducing me to the ridiculous rock and roll zombie comedy Wild Zero. He wanted a gig poster for Guitar Wolf, the real-life Japanese punk band who play super-powered versions of themselves in the film. I decided to focus on the guitar that spews electricity and is also a katana BECAUSE THAT'S A THING HERE. The band is at the bottom being cool, slicking their hair back as they do. I think it came out awesomely and if you like it too, it's for sale at my etsy! Use the coupon code "WALLSPACE13" for 15% off!

Oh also! I curated an exhibit dedicated to sci-fi art at UFORGE Gallery in Jamaica Plain, so if you're in the Boston you should check it out! It ends September 15. And, it features one of my movie gig posters, for Diva Plavalaguna in The Fifth Element!


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Min and Bill (1930)

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

A few months ago I read the memoir of early Hollywood screenwriter Frances Marion, and became a little obsessed with her and her various juicy and enlightening anecdotes about the industry. Of the many films she worked on, Min and Bill stuck out in my mind for her loving stories about Marie Dressler, a successful stage performer who fell on hard times as she aged but was pulled back into stardom with roles in 1930s comedies thanks to Marion's help. Min and Bill represents Dressler's Hollywood peak, garnering her an Oscar for Best Actress, and I was happy to find a copy of it at my local video store. The story focuses on Min (Dressler), the foulmouthed proprietor of a dockside inn, whose teenage charge Nancy (Dorothy Jordan) was left on her doorstep as a baby and now works for her. Min is clearly fond of the girl but when truancy officers come to investigate their situation, she accedes to Nancy's eventual placement in an all-girls boarding school, pretending she cares nothing about her. In reality she is trying to keep the girl away from her drunken, greedy mother (Marjorie Rambeau), whom Nancy believes is dead.

Blending clever dialogue, raunchy characters, and an undercurrent of melodrama, Min and Bill presents an interesting moment in early sound and pre-Code Hollywood. In terms of direction, camerawork, and pacing, the pieces don't quite fit together, and I felt like the filmmakers had a clear story and presentation in mind that just wasn't fully realized on screen. Luckily, the performances and gritty locations more than make up for any minor technical floundering, and I immediately latched on to Dressler's simultaneously boisterous and cantankerous Min, whose yelly, cussy facade hides a sentimental old softie with an iron will. Her interactions with the drunk and well-meaning sailor Bill (Wallace Beery) are hilarious and really fun to watch, as they trade equal amounts of insulting barbs and affectionate glances. The sequence where Min tries to beat the SHIT out of Bill is remarkable, I mean she just destroys a whole fucking room, and it is actually kind of terrifying, and mostly just awesome, and ultimately speaks to the motherly love Min has for Nancy just manifesting itself in a physical way.

It's a little too melodramatic for its own good, with a dark ending I did not see coming, but overall I really enjoyed Min and Bill. It's witty and entertaining, while also genuinely heart-wrenching. Dressler carries the film through in a spectacular performance completely worthy of her Oscar, and I did develop a little crush on Wallace Beary. He's adorable!


Pair This Movie With: For more Marie Dressler and salty sailors, there's Anna Christie, another Marion-penned drama and notable for being Garbo's first talkie.


Monday, August 19, 2013

Big Business (1988)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, originally rented from Scarecrow Video in Seattle.

When I found out that there was an 80's comedy starring Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin as two sets of twins separated at birth, YOU BET YOUR ASS I made it my mission to see it. Weirdly, it took me a little while to actually get a copy but now here we are, and I have fully taken in the strange, silly thing that is Big Business. Born in the same small, rural hospital on the same day, two sets of identical twins are accidentally separated into two sets of supposedly fraternal twins, and raised in two very different environments. Sadie (Bette Midler) and Rose (Lily Tomlin) Shelton are brought up in a very wealthy family living in New York City, and eventually the ruthless Sadie becomes head of her parents' company with the flighty, nervous Rose quietly sitting in the background. Meanwhile, Sadie (Midler again) and Rose (Tomlin again) Ratliff grow up in Jupiter Hollow, a poor rural community with an economy reliant on a local factory. When she hears that the factory is going to be shut down, Rose Ratliff heads to New York with hedonistic sister Sadie in tow, aiming to take her arguments straight to the head of the company that owns the factory- none other than Sadie Shelton! After various miscommunications and cases of mistaken identity, the twins are all holed up in the same fancy hotel, barely missing each other and confusing the hell out of everyone around them before they finally figure out they each have doubles.

It should probably be immediately clear to you that this movie is RIDICULOUS. Like, probably one of the silliest movies I've ever seen. Which is something I liked about it, though I'll admit it didn't quite live up to my expectations. It has many awesome elements- rad costumes, funny dialogue, a few interesting subplots, and of course absolutely fantastic lead actresses. It's also always exciting to have a female-dominated comedy that isn't overly focused on romance (though that's an element, too). I'm pretty much equally enamored of Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler, and having two each just made me grin a lot. They both seem to be having fun in their dual roles, with Tomlin alternating between brazen activist and anxious sweetheart, and Midler switching between wide-eyed, wannabe debutante and cold-hearted businesswoman.

There's a bit of satire thrown in there, aimed at their varied regional and class backgrounds, but the script is more intent on creating these ludicrous farcical scenarios that result in so many mixed messages and confused identities. I mean, you know me, I love a good mistaken identities comedy, and I do enjoy shenanigans in general. I'm not panning the premise at all, but I did feel like the execution wasn't the best. On paper this movie sounded amazing, while in practice it was cute but nothing spectacular. I'm not even sure why I didn't love it, maybe the script could have been punchier, the pace could have been more frantic, the jokes more clever, or a combination. I'm definitely glad I finally got to see Big Business, and I appreciate it for so many reasons, just didn't live up to what I envisioned in my head!

One final thought: I was pretty impressed with the gay side characters, because their sexuality was just a facet of their personalities and not a major plot point, and not played for jokes. They're bumbling business associates living in fear of Bette Midler, who happen to be a romantic couple! I know it doesn't sound like a big deal, but to me it's always worth noting when an 80's comedy doesn't resort to stereotyping! (Or really, any movie, from any time.)


Pair This Movie With: Of course my first thought was a Mary-Kate and Ashley movie for more twin mix-ups, probably It Takes Two which has some similar class themes. Or, perhaps another silly romp with mistaken identities like The Impostors, which I'm pretty much always in the mood to watch. Lindsay suggested Ruthless People, which I haven't seen but it's another Bette Midler comedy and I trust Lindsay so I bet that'd be a great double feature.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

Poltergeist (1982)

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

Nothing seems amiss in the Freeling family. Dad Steve (Craig T Nelson) is a successful real estate salesperson for the housing development where his family resides, while mother Diane (JoBeth Williams) is a busy and contented housewife. They're cool, they smoke pot after their kids have gone to bed. Oldest daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne) is a hip teen, son Robbie (Oliver Robins) is an average troublemaker, and Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) is the angelic baby of the family. But Carol Anne seems especially attuned to the "tv people" who talk to her through the snowy television screen, in reality a vicious otherworldly presence who means to take her hostage and feed off her life force. When she goes missing, her mother is convinced she is still alive and refuses to leave the house, despite ever-increasing violent supernatural occurrences. The family calls in a group of paranormal psychologists, hoping to rid their house of the ghost and get Carol Anne back alive.

Poltergeist continues my quest to watch all the good horror movies after years of being too wimpy to dig too deep into the genre. It also coincidentally continues a little Spielberg stint I've been on after Jaws and Duel. Directed by Tobe Hooper, but produced, co-written, and reportedly nearly co-directed by Spielberg, the film is a simple but utterly effective horror tale, replete with fantastic special effects and chilling possibilities. It builds slowly, gradually, allowing its characters to become fully fleshed out and the strain that is weighing on this family to become extremely apparent. I love the attention to detail when it came to characterization, with various little elements thrown in that didn't necessarily advance the story, but served to create multi-layered, and ultimately sympathetic personalities. Sure, it was stupid of the whole family to stay in this house for so long, but they were so convinced their daughter was alive somewhere hidden within it that I guess it made sense for the parents, just not the son. The teenage daughter had the right idea staying away most of the time, but then I wondered why here character was even in the film.

Minor quibbles aside, I really, really loved this movie. It's spooky without resorting to cheap scares, compelling without relying on an overly-complex narrative, and fascinating in its displays of spectacle. The visuals are spectacularly memorable, from the demonic tree that nearly swallows Robbie to the glowing closet portal that sucks in anything that gets too close. And while I know the most recognizable scenes are Carol Anne zombieing over the snowy tv and Zelda Rubinstein being a BADASS, the segment that I absolutely can't get out of my head for its awesomeness is the beautiful, beautiful door monster that appears before Diane at the end. Like, I kind of want one. So gorgeous.

Anyway I'm becoming obsessed with 70s/80s horror movies, this is grrrrreat! So many more to see!


Pair This Movie With: My first thought was The Exorcist, for its similar themes of a mother desperately fighting off supernatural forces to save her daughter. Alternatively, if you want a 1982 Spielberg double feature, go with ET since that's what he was concurrently working on down the street.


Friday, August 16, 2013

The To Do List (2013)

Seen: At the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square.

Well you know me and lady-centric comedies, I just gotta have 'em! The To Do List caught my fancy not only for its excellent cast, but for its status as a teen sex comedy written and directed by a female filmmaker, Maggie Carey. I'm very pro this trend of films that take well-worn genres like buddy cop movies and teen sex comedies and inject them with women in place of familiar male leads. I'm also very pro supporting women-made films in theaters, if I can! SO that takes us to The To Do List, which stars Aubrey Plaza as Brandy, a no-nonsense valedictorian who decides to spend the summer before college learning about sex so she'll be prepared for the supposed bone-fest that is university living. In her quest for sexual sophistication, she manages to piss off most of the people in her life, but she learns some lessons along the way. And embarrasses herself a lot.

With a fantastic cast, a truly smutty script, and some generous helpings of nostalgia, The To Do List is an enjoyable entry to the genre, and wonderfully forthright about the female sexual experience. Brandy is hilariously and adorably analytical in her approach to everything, engaging in numerous straightforward and open conversations about sex with her sister (Rachel Bilson), mother (Connie Britton), friends (Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele), and potential lovers (among them Johnny Simmons, Donald Glover, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse). I know it's just a lighthearted comedy, but honestly I was impressed with her bravery! And I learned a few things! The early-90s setting is fitting, as Carey explores shifting gender norms and the flow of sexual information in the pre-digital age. Also: skorts. I loved Brandy's totally open-minded mom, who was utterly realistic about and encouraging of her daughters' sexual curiosity, as long as they were safe about it.

Some of the jokes fall flat, and some of the gross-out humor is just... too gross. And the narrative doesn't flow too well, mostly because of the episodic nature of Brandy's journey and the fact that there isn't quite enough meat here for a full movie. But I was laughing most of the time, so I'm not going to be too picky here. I loved Plaza as the sullen, meticulous protagonist, combining the awkwardness of teenagehood with the can-do attitude of a future senator (who idolizes Hillary Clinton). Her supporting players are all excellent, with the too-cute Johnny Simmons, prudish Clark Gregg, drunken Bill Hader, and always-welcome Alia Shawkat standing out in their roles. It's silly, it's sassy, and it's refreshingly, bawdily, open about female sexuality, and all in all a fun time.


Pair This Movie With: There's a few ways to go with this one. The nostalgic vibe and female-led teen comedy premise reminded me of the very charming Easy A. Or if you want a male version there are shades of Superbad. If you want another lady-centric sex comedy I heartily recommend For a Good Time, Call... ORRR I might pair it with Mallrats mainly because Brandy's sexual studies reminded me of Tricia researching sex for her book, Boregasm.


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The General (1926)

Seen: On 35mm at the Somerville Theatre, with live musical accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis.

The Somerville Theatre (one of my absolute favorite local theaters) has been doing a series of silent films on the big screen with original musical accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, and I think that is just a super swell idea. I'd heard Jeff's fantastic keyboarding at the Sci-Fi Marathon a few years ago, and have since wanted to see more silents with live music. When The General popped up on their schedule, I knew that was my priority. Set in the early days of the Civil War, the film stars Buster Keaton as Southern train engineer Johnnie Gray. Though he is literally the first to enlist at his local recruitment center, the Confederate Army believes his skills are too valuable to make him a soldier, and he is summarily rejected. Disheartened and embarrassed, he returns to his love Annabelle (Marion Mack), who believes him a coward for not even trying to enlist, and he is left with nothing but his beloved train, the General. When his train is stolen as part of a Union plot to disrupt Confederate supply lines, Johnnie takes it upon himself to save the day.

Fusing the adventure, action, war, and comedy genres into one singular film, Keaton dared to present a brave Confederate fighter in a humorous (but never mocking) context. It's a strange combination, and a controversial one at the time, but miraculously it really, really works. Keaton's earnest charm, the exciting storyline, and the spectacular stunt work all come together for a thrilling and laugh-out-loud funny film. I realized something that I love about watching a silent film in a theater is the shared experience, the sense of communal response. I felt very aware of my own laughter and gasps of surprise, as well as those of everyone around me in the theater, and it was just a nice feeling. And while some people might be encouraged to talk more because of the lack of dialogue, I found myself more intent on the screen, not wanting to miss a visual cue or sight gag. Of course, this is not just an effect of silent film, but in large part due to the brilliance of Buster Keaton. His deft mingling of breathtaking action sequences and adorably ridiculous comedic exercises is always a pleasure, and I loved the death-defying high-speed (sort of) train action just as much as the humorous mix-ups and self-deprecating jokes.

One of the speakers before the film (I believe it was David, all-star projectionist) mentioned that something that made this movie special within Keaton's body of work was the character's competence. He isn't a clumsy, useless oaf who eventually manages to be the hero through trial and error, he's a mostly capable dude who just gets more capable as the situation becomes more dire. Which is why this is not a mockery of the Civil War South, and in face I found myself weirdly rooting for their side. Which has its own problems, OF COURSE, but I told myself since Keaton's character isn't actually a soldier for most of the movie it's not like I was rooting for the Confederate Army to win the war, I was just hoping this one Southern train engineer would get his train back. Because he loves his train.

The General is overall a satisfying movie. When Keaton isn't chasing down Northern spies and performing impressive feats of train action, he's hanging out with his lady Annabelle, who turns out to be pretty cool. She learns how to drive a train within a span of a few minutes, and totally helps Johnnie fuck things up for the enemy. Their love grows out of a mutual wish for destruction of assholes, which I respected, and together they blow up a bridge! Awesome! And, as I had anticipated, the music was fantastic. Rapsis is an expert silent film composer, and his improvised score was performed on a synthesizer set to imitate a traditional movie orchestra sound, complete with musical sound effects. Rapsis added an exciting, personalized layer to the screening and I hope I can catch more of his performances for the Somerville's series.


Pair This Movie With: Oh no, I don't know! What do you think? Another train adventure? More silent comedy? Or some wartime shenanigans?


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Ghost Dad (1990)

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

Well, I have this weird thing where I've never watched a full episode of The Cosby Show, and I just haven't seen Bill Cosby in much in general. No reason for it, just something I was never exposed to as a kid and never sought out as an adult. Sorry. So it was with little expectation that I sat down with some friends to watch Ghost Dad, mostly on a whim. Cosby stars as Elliot Hopper, a hardworking single father struggling to support his family while making a name for himself in his unspecified business. A few days before a big deal that would basically solve his money problems, Hopper is killed in a car accident, but returns almost immediately as a ghost. He discovers he is only visible in the dark, and fights to fulfill his duties at work without anyone realizing he's dead, while finding new ways to help out his kids with his ghostly powers (they are aware of his condition). But in a few days he'll be forced to move on to the afterlife, a reality he's trying to ignore.

With a tone that's all over the place, a script laden with holes and inconsistencies, and buckets of cheese, Ghost Dad seems to be aiming for "so bad it's good" family fare. Mostly, it's just WEIRD. This movie cannot figure itself out, and in turn I could not figure out this movie. It's kinda silly, kinda morbid, kinda dramatic, kinda fantastical, but then kinda none of those things. I legitimately enjoyed the opening segments when Hopper is still alive- he goes about his daily routine narrowly avoiding various deadly situations, and it's a bit Final Destination-y. Once he actually becomes Ghost Dad everything is just so stupid, it's barely entertaining. There are business meetings and boring subplots and not very much logic. I liked some things- mainly the film's clear stance against rich white businessmen, who are all assholes, and the inclusion of subtle black pride elements into a mainstream family comedy. The early 90's fashion sported by the gorgeous Kimberly Russell is great, and the appearance of Dana Ashbrook (Bobby on Twin Peaks!) as a lusty teen jerk was pretty silly, because Bill Cosby HATED him so much!

Not the worst movie ever made, but weirder than I expected, and still not very good. But at least now I've seen something with Bill Cosby? Eh?


Pair This Movie With: The cheesy humor and ghostly narrative reminded me of Heart and Souls, one of my favorite RDJ movies.


Sunday, August 11, 2013

Alex Makes Art #111

Oh my gosh you guys, my commissions/requests list is growing by the minute it seems and yet I have not been able to dedicate myself to art-making because of other commitments. I'm chipping away at it slowly, though, so here's another poster commission, this one for a cousin who wanted a wedding gift for a friend who loves Nic Cage. So I delivered! I didn't remember The Wicker Man too well but after some youtube videos and a quick wikipedia session I was ready to make something bee-tastic. It is for sale too.


Friday, August 9, 2013

The Wolverine (2013)

Seen: At the Capitol Theatre in Arlington.

So I find myself constantly waffling in my resolve to stop caring about X-Men movies. It. Is So. Hard. So here I am, reeled back in by the promise of badass Japanese ladies and a script that won't make me want to bash someone's head in, watching the sequel to the horrific X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Which turns out to be a sequel to the also horrific X-Men 3: The Last Stand. Yet somehow, even with all the bad taste left in my mouth from its predecessors, I found myself basically enjoying The Wolverine. Set some time after the events of X3, with Logan (Hugh Jackman) wandering around the Canadian wilderness, clearly super depressed because he has a beard. He is found by a badass fighter in stripes called Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who whisks him away to Japan so he can meet with a dying comrade from his warring days. But then everything goes to shit and he's got to beat up a lot of people while also falling in love with his dead friend's granddaughter (Tao Okamoto).

Ok. So Wolverine has never been my favorite X-Man but I do enjoy the character's mixture of wise-cracks and berserker rages, as well as Hugh Jackman's constant shirtlessness. This movie adapts the well-known Japan arc to fit the films' timeline, and a lot of it works well. It's got a more serious, dramatic tone, with Logan having guilty visions of Jean Grey all the time and just generally brooding. I loved the Japanese setting, mostly because it makes this the only mainstream comic book I can think of that has more people of color than white people, so great job, movie. The action is exciting and a little ludicrous (that battle on top of the train? Whaaaat?), but weirdly kinda takes a backseat for a time so that the story and relationships can develop more. I could see what they were going for, and it's kind of successful, but it also struggles between being a silly action movie and being a more introspective superhero drama.

One of the main cool things about this movie is that there are several awesome ladies who play major parts in the story. Viper is a sultry mutant scientist who's pretty on top of things and I dug her as the villain because she seemed pretty misandrist and reminded me of Poison Ivy, but then of course at the end it turns out the real villain is a dude (in a totally foreseeable twist). Mariko is a little damsel in distressy at first, but she's also an individual with her own life and her own problems, and she propels a lot of the plot forward. The best, THE BEST is obviously Yukio, who is very different from the comic version but still super rad. She's adorable and deadly and I was in love with her hair style. I liked how they fit her into Wolverine's lady-sidekick thing, and never made it romantic. But because she was so awesome, I wanted her onscreen all the time, and kind of wish this movie was "The Yukio". That's the problem with introducing awesome lady characters that I fall in love with, they're always doing rad things on the sidelines and I want them to be front and center. Wolverine's a cool hero and everything but I was just reminded of how starved I am for a great female-driven superhero movie.


Pair This Movie With: I have a hankering to revisit the first two X-films, which I haven't seen in years despite being a little obsessed with them in middle school and high school.

PS And no I DON'T want to talk about the after-credits sting, my GOD how can they fit all this into the same universe when nothing made any sense in First Class and also shouldn't Xavier be in a new body or whatever and ugh I HATE THAT I CARE SO MUCH ABOUT X-MEN.


Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Duel (1971)

Seen: On dvd on our project set-up, rented from the Tufts Library.

A condescending businessman named David Mann (Dennis Weaver) sets off on the road for a very important meeting with a client, hoping to close a big deal or something I don't know. On the lonely desert highway he finds himself running up against a dirty, obstinate trucker, who seems hellbent on making him late. As their drive progresses it becomes clear that the trucker wants to kill David, and their inconvenient cat-and-mouse game becomes a fight for survival. They match wits and horsepower in a one-on-one struggle as David finds his seemingly firm grip on reality completely upended by one enigmatic driver. It is a... DUEL.

With a simple but terrifying premise and expertly expanding tension, the Spielberg/Matheson team has crafted a tight and gripping thriller that is refreshingly no-fuss. Most of the story takes place on deserted desert roads, stretched thin between scattered gas stations and divey diners. As it becomes clearer that this truck really has it in for David, and as his disbelief and fear grow in proportion, the apprehension spills over onto the viewer and it's hard to pull away. The script has minimal dialogue, which apart from some off-putting voiceover works really well. Spielberg is deliberate in his framing and shot construction, though there are unwanted details made apparent on a big screen (this was made for tv). I especially loved how the truck was presented, always looming at the edge of the frame, and never ever revealing the driver inside. The truck itself is the villain, sporting mashed license plates from previous kills and silently, unwaveringly pushing his prey to the edge.

Our protagonist, David, is mostly just a self-absorbed asshole, and to be honest I was on the side of the unseen trucker most of the time. He was just such a dick, and he talked too much, and he was a shitty husband, and probably a Republican. So even though I think this movie is really cool, the fact that the lead character is so annoying but somehow triumphant kind of lessened its impact as a whole. Also I kind of wanted more focus on David being driven insane by these weird mind games the trucker was playing, where no one else saw or believed him. Still so good though.


Pair This Movie With: Well I still haven't seen it but I'm guessing scary truck movie Maximum Overdrive fits the bill.


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Wild Zero (1999)

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

I know a movie is cool when the dudes at my local rental place Hollywood Express aren't familiar with it, I felt pretty cool myself for stumping them. I know they must have been really impressed and will probably want to be my best friend now. Yup. Commissioned by my friend Ben to make a gig poster for Guitar Wolf, the band starring in Wild Zero, I was keen to see this film as soon as possible both for inspiration and because it sounded fucking RAD. Basically invading aliens are causing the human dead to rise (Plan 9-style) and it's up to punk band Guitar Wolf, their biggest fan Ace (Masashi Endô), and badass arms dealer Yamazaki (Haruka Nakajo) to take down this unexpected zombie army. It's all in the name of love, as Ace meets sweet and shy Tobio (Kwancharu Shitichai) right before the attack, and fights to save her if he can. Meanwhile Guitar Wolf's vengeful ex-manager the Captain (Makoto Inamiya) is tracking the group down with a buttload of weapons, totally unaware of the whole zombie thing.

Between the zombies, the rock and roll, the aliens, the frenetic storytelling, the hyper-stylization, the impressive attention to hair care, and the high body count, Wild Zero definitely excels in the "ridiculous" category. It's a loopy, loopy movie and you know that's just the kind of thing I like. The story itself is all over the place, with characters running back and forth between various locations and half-forgotten subplots, and audiences are likely to forget there's even an alien invasion forthcoming until UFO's are hovering directly above our heroes' heads. The script is hilarious, juggling over the top dialogue with earnest characters and a bit of a heartfelt message thrown in there. I loved the low budget effects, totally unexpected weaponization of musical instruments, and frequent outbursts of ROCK N ROLLLLLLL. I also appreciated the overall weirdness, because honestly what even is happening here? I have no idea. And that's great.

With Guitar Wolf's members oozing cool, Ace making goofy faces all the time, Captain sporting a range of hot pants, I found most of the characters extremely entertaining. To no one's surprise, Yamazaki was my favorite, because she was a take-no-shit lady who happened to hold a huge cache of weapons AND ALSO wore a super ludicrous outfit the whole time. So she was badass while making me laugh, what a neat lady. I also have to say (and spoiler alert here, I guess, if you care about the film's plot?), I thought it was cool that a trans* character became a central romantic plot point. At first when Ace learns that his new love Tobio has a penis, he freaks out and I was like "Aw man, can we not have this turn into a transphobic joke?" but then Guitar Wolf pops up to act as Ace's spiritual guide, and yells at him because love knows no borders, nationalities, or genders! Ace realizes he loves Tobio no matter what, and spends the rest of the movie trying to save her from zombies, and they end up happily ever after! It's like, the trans* thing becomes a non-issue once Ace just accepts it. A totally unexpected but definitely welcome part of this movie, I'd say.

Anyway, great job, Wild Zero. You've got rock and roll and zombies and magic and once in a while aliens, plus lots of jokes. And a guitar that's secretly a katana. There is that too.


Pair This Movie With: More weird movies! At various points I thought of Repo Man, Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare, and Gregg Araki films. I also think a fun pairing would be Rock n' Roll High School, since Guitar Wolf is definitely channeling The Ramones a bit here.

PS It must be said, FUCK all of the transphobic, misogynist, sexist assholes who have written about this movie online. I was trying to find Yamazaki's character name because I couldn't remember it but I wanted to talk about her, and I found myself wading through a shit ton of awful reviews of this movie (none of which named her, by the way) that were laden with so much prejudiced and offensive commentary, it made me want to cry. Everyone is awful.


Sunday, August 4, 2013

Jukkalan (This Girl is Bad-Ass!!) (2011)

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

A teen bike messenger named Jukkalan (JeeJa Yanin) and her well-meaning uncle (Petchtai Wongkamlao) find themselves in a heap of trouble when Jukkalan is hired to transport goods and money for warring gangster factions. She steals their money but keeps working for them (or something?) and soon tons of grunts are attacking her every second. Meanwhile a nerdy neighbor is trying to date her, but she has her eyes set on a different, hunkier neighbor. Hormones and high kicks fly around everywhere in This Girl is Bad-Ass!!.

So. Bike messengers. Martial arts. JeeJa Yanin. A title about a girl being a badass. THIS MOVIE SHOULD HAVE BEEN EXCELLENT. But mostly it was just totally stupid, nonsensical, and boring. The script has no direction, I had no idea what was happening half the time, and when I did it was probably because some dumb, juvenile subplot was happening that I definitely didn't care about. The comedy is extremely broad and hokey, and every scene seems to extend a minute longer than it needs to so the jokes are beaten into the ground. Speaking of beating, even the action sequences aren't satisfying! They try to do this martial-arts-with-a-bike fight style and it definitely sounds better in theory than in practice. A few of the later fight scenes are pretty cool, with JeeJa Yanin using various found objects to beat the shit out of some gangster henchmen, and I do just really like watching her work. She's not a very good actress here, though, and her character is vapid and annoying. Most of the characters are cartoon caricatures, which makes sense since this is supposed to be a comedy, but maybe I just don't quite follow a Thai sense of humor. The only person who actually made me laugh was the bike messenger boss, who dressed in ridiculous outfits, had foot-long eyebrows, and rode around on a bumpy horse toy.

It's not like it's worst movie in the world or anything, it just doesn't live up to its premise's potential. And there's a bit of homophobia towards the end. I did dig several action scenes, and was pleased to see a badass lady fighter at the center of a story that didn't sexualize or victimize her at all. But you could just watch the scattered battle scenes and you'd probably be ok, it's not like the context made much sense to me while I was actually watching the movie anyway. Here's one on youtube.


Pair This Movie With: I don't know. More like a "Watch Instead" I think. I would revisit Chocolate, which also stars JeeJa Yanin and has some excellent fight sequences but the subject matter is kind of off. Or Premium Rush for more bike messengers?


Thursday, August 1, 2013

Red 2 (2013)

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

Following the previous investigation of old-guy former CIA operatives, Red 2 sees the adventures continuing for Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), his girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), and his best friend Marvin (John Malkovich). The three find themselves at the center of a conspiracy involving a decades-old nuclear device hidden somewhere in Moscow. Multiple agencies want Frank and Marvin dead because of their connection to the device from a failed mission during the Cold War, and they must forge a few unlikely partnerships with allies [like MI6 assassin Victoria (Helen Mirren)] and enemies [like Russian secret agent Katya (Catherine Zeta-Jones)] alike to track down the bomb so it won't fall into the wrong hands.

I was a big fan of Red, and was surprised but pleased it even got a sequel, but the addition of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Lee Byung-hun is what got me excited for Red 2. Lucky for me, the film as a whole is pretty good, too. It's got some great action sequences- from Bruce Willis beating the shit out of armed CIA grunts using only what he finds in an office file archive, to Lee Byung-hun beating the shit out of Russian cops while chained to a soda machine. The story is cookie-cutter stuff, to be sure, relying on easy-to-spot twists and a fascination with 80's action movie tropes. But, the script is clever enough and doesn't take itself too seriously, while the characters all get their moments to shine. I wasn't really here for a good story, I was here to see famous people over 40 kick some ass.

Admittedly the first half of the movie was sort of uninteresting to me, since I felt the subplots about Bruce Willis fretting over Mary-Louise Parker every second and also her intense jealousy over Catherine Zeta-Jones were BORING and lazy. And can Bruce not be so controlling? Super annoying. But the second half picks up, and both the action and the story become more compelling, and I found myself enjoying myself immensely by the time the credits rolled. Too bad it took a while to get there, though.


Pair This Movie With: Well, of course the first Red comes to mind and it would be fun to double feature that. But there were also some parallels to Fast Five, for a nice action pairing. Personally when I came out all I wanted to do was see more Lee Byung-hun, especially The Good, The Bad, The Weird where he's also a super-hot villain.

PS Soooo I need a Lee Byung-hun/Helen Mirren buddy action comedy STAT.