December 24, 2009

Best forgotten and overlooked performances of 2009



There's a certain blank-slate magic in the air before movie awards season, when everything is fair game. Praises are sung in the moment. But then it gets to the end of the year, and for starters, the first three-quarters of the year in film are almost completely forgotten. Then, one critics' group will come forward with their picks. And another. Momentum builds for certain films and performances. And then it gets to a point where it becomes hard to deviate from the status quo. Thankfully, I feel that 2009 has been a pretty rich year for film, which has led to less of a consensus (I mean, obviously films and people emerge as frontrunners, but opinions are more divided this year). In the course of this snowballing, performances get lost. Maybe they were earlier in the year, they weren't seen by enough people, or they were just somehow overlooked, but for some reason they're not cropping up with distinctions and awards even though they completely deserve it. I've compiled a list of what I feel are the overlooked/forgotten performances of the year. Now, I want to be completely clear: I'm not saying that these are necessarily better than the performances getting all the recognition. In most cases, I don't think they should yank the rug out from under the Clooneys and the Streeps (in other cases, definitely!).


Best Actress

Rachel Weisz as Penelope Stamp in The Brothers Bloom
Cinema has its share of man-children, but women-children are a lot harder to come by (specifically, ones that are just naive but without a mental illness). Enter Penelope: she's brilliant and cultured, but has never left the house. Once two charming con men take her into their world, she opens up and takes the audience on her crazy ride. Weisz throws herself into the role with wild abandon - she actually learned a staggering array of instruments, sports, and talents for the part, and has great all-the-way moments like frantically humping the floor with a childlike declaration of "I'm horny!" (The fact that I found that scene funny and endearing instead of disturbing should make my point.)


Melanie Laurent as Shoshanna Dreyfus in Inglourious Basterds
Virtually absent from the film's trailer but really its driving force, Laurent's breakthrough performance is a knockout. Maybe audiences didn't see the true genius because she spends so much of the film speaking through gritted teeth and guarding her secrets for dear life, which isn't as immediately impressive as hardcore scenery chewing. But it snakes into your brain and stays there, right down to the iconic image of her maniacally laughing black and white face on a movie screen consumed with flames. I'd say the performance echoes Al Pacino in The Godfather.


Maya Rudolph as Verona in Away We Go
We all know the familiar story of a woman trying to free an emotionally stunted man from his shell. But what happens when the gender roles are reversed, and a happy-go-lucky man tries to do that for his girlfriend? Rudolph shows us beautifully, starting with an indignant smack to her boyfriend's head when he suggests she might be pregnant to some candid and completely unforced personal moments. She goes beyond being a funny lady from SNL, and then some.


Amy Adams as Rose Lorkowski in Sunshine Cleaning
Adams has virtually conquered the market on adorable - from perky pregnant southerners to princesses (she's even kind of a cute nun). Her persona is put to perfect use in this bittersweet comedy, where she applies a touching sincerity to what would be unbearably hokey in the hands of a less capable actress (she talks to her dead mother on a CB radio, for god's sake!).



Best Supporting Actress

Samantha Morton as Olivia Pitterson in The Messenger
Morton may be kind of nuts in real life (there are strong indications that she lied about having a stroke), but on screen, she aways delivers. As a newly widowed army wife, she's not glamorous, but she's real. In a series of hypnotic long takes, she lays her heart bare in a much more candid and real way than, say, Halle Berry's hysteric thrashing and screaming in Monster's Ball. I found myself hanging on her every word, literally entranced.


Olivia Williams as Miss Stubs in An Education
I wanted to like this movie, but I just didn't get what the fuss was about. Sure, it was solid, but I didn't feel it was anything special. All the attention has been lavished on star Carey Mulligan, but Williams, in a great supporting performance, has been ignored. I lamented not seeing Williams more after her amazing work as another teacher, Miss Cross, in Rushmore, and here she brings a quiet intensity to her interplay with Mulligan's Jenny that plays like a dramatic version of Cady's relationship to Miss Norbury in Mean Girls. (I know it's not a very highbrow example, but they are completely identical.)


Marcia Gay Harden as Mrs. Cavendar in Whip It
For as formulaic as this film got, one sharp and welcome deviation from formula was the main character's mother. So often in these teen sports movies, the mother is a shrieking caricature whose sole purpose on earth is to prevent their teenage daughter from participating in her sport of choice for completely arbitrary reasons. But Marcia Gay Harden is better than that. She's excelled in supporting roles in films like Pollock and Mystic River, and she brings the same elegant and multidimensional approach to this role. She's a real person, a real mother, and you find yourself agreeing with her a lot of the time. I also want to give a shoutout to Kristen Wiig and her role as Maggie Mayhem in the same film; much of my praise is the same. In a beautifully understated scene, Wiig tells our spunky protagonist that her mom might be right, but in a way that never feels preachy.


Best Actor

Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell in Moon
I'm not alone in gunning for Sam as Sam - there's a lot of support, including an online petition, to get him an Oscar nomination. After all, how often do you see a film featuring one actor playing multiple versions of a slightly different character...who interact with each other...successfully? I can't think of another. Moon is a great film all around, but without the anchoring performance it would fall apart. Rockwell is compulsively watchable in everything, and this introspective sci-fi odyssey is no exception.


Nicolas Cage as Terry McDonagh in Bad Lieutenant
Werner Herzog understands the truth about Nicolas Cage: if you want to get anything out of him as an actor, you have to let him run around and be crazy. He doesn't do subtle, he does crazy. Frankly, from early reviews I was expecting a lot more crazy, but there are still plenty of deliriously pleasurable moments to be had. From Cage's inexplicably Jimmy Stewart-sounding voice when he's high to random and over-the-top sex acts. It's funny, weird, disturbing, and sad.


Tom Hardy as the title character in Bronson
Quick, name a performance from this year that featured extremely large amounts of body painting, bizarre makeup, yelling, fighting, and full-frontal male nudity. There is only one answer - and that alone should give you a hint as to how bold this performance as Britain's most violent prisoner is. Plenty of actors can do psychopath, but rarely in such an extravagant, immersive, comical, and brave way. To further prove his chops, Hardy is just as good in psychotic prison scenes as he is when demonstrating his profound discomfort at normal social interaction in the "real" world. This is usually the gonzo stuff that award-givers love, but maybe it was underseen or just too out there, which is really a shame. If nothing else, they love the award physical transformation for a role, and this one rivals any I've ever seen.


Michael Sheen as Brian Clough in The Damned United
I could always tell that Michael Sheen was a talented actor, but in the first few roles I saw him in I felt like he wasn't being given enough to work with. He was pretty good in The Queen, but it was Helen Mirren's show. He was pretty good in Frost/Nixon, though the character wasn't very fleshed out and Frank Langella had the flashier part. In TDU, he finally got his chance to shine. At first nothing seems extraordinary, and then you realize a) that Sheen has become the character so fully that nothing even seems like acting, and b) that a man that just seemed cocky actually created a fierce sports empire driven by nothing other than his own selfish ambition. Combine those two factors and you get a compulsively watchable, egotistical asshole. That you root for.


Adam Sandler as George Simmons in Funny People
I am not one of the many who threw popcorn at the screen during Funny People because there was not a suitable sex-joke-per-minute ratio. It's a drama, people. And while I definitely thought it was uneven, it had great elements like Adam Sandler's performance as George. Wistful, sad, and autobiographical, Apatow managed to tap the same depths in Sandler that Paul Thomas Anderson did in Punch-Drunk Love.


Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre in The Informant!
Okay yes, technically this performance is getting buzz, but I don't understand why it's not a "given" like Clooney or Bridges on the lists. Maybe because it's funnier and more bizarre, and hardly the archetype of awards bait. But god dang it, that's what makes it great! Damon's Whitacre has such a fractured mind (from bipolar disorder) that he can compartmentalize everything in his life to the point where there is no overlap. When he lies (as he does often), it's unclear whether he believes it or not. Often, in movies featuring a constantly lying character, the audience knows the truth. Not here. Damon strings us along, pulling us into Whitacre's mind with hilarious interior monologues on subjects ranging from word pronunciations to polar bears that occur when he zones out. Damon has the advantage of being an actor with no defined persona, so he can seamlessly slip into roles like this one.


Best Supporting Actor



Christian McKay as Orson Welles in Me and Orson Welles
McKay had plenty of practice playing the larger-than-life Welles - he did so in a fruitful run of a one-man show. The tricky part of playing a real person, especially one as dynamic as Welles, is elevating the performance above mere impersonation. McKay achieves this by toying with the characters and the audience just like the real Welles did - like Welles' out-there documentary F for Fake, you never know when he's telling the truth or being genuine. Similarly, McKay's Welles is just as slippery with sincerity, which makes him a treat to watch.

Fred Melamed as Sy Ableman in A Serious Man
The Coen universe is dotted with wonderfully absurd characters, and Sy Ableman marks another one of their great creations. Condescending and slimy but with a strangely soothing presence, his contribution to this deadpan experience is capped by his brilliantly serious delivery of the line, "I think, really, the Jolly Roger is the appropriate course of action." Ableman is a serious man, all right - a seriousness that leads to absurdity that brings the funny.


Billy Crudup as Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen
Brad Pitt was nominated for a Golden Globe and Oscar for creating a character with insane technology in
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - and yes, the finished result was visually impressive, but I found the character and performance to be pretty bland. Why not reward a successful fusion of the two? Dr. Manhattan is great to look at, of course, but Crudup pulls off the incredible feat of conveying a superhuman being that knows and can do absolutely everything, but has no attachments to this world and exists beyond emotion. Just as Dr. Manhattan exists on infinite planes of being, so does Crudup's performance.


Jackie Earle Haley as Walter Kovacs/Rorschach in Watchmen
On the other side of the Watchmen spectrum is someone too emotional. Haley - after a buzzed-about comeback in Little Children and with his upcoming role as Freddy Krueger - might become permanently typecast as a psychopath/creeper, but I'd probaby pay to watch it every time. He is unrelenting, merciless, and sometimes even right. There's a reason that Rorschach is, as my boyfriend claims, a fan favorite, and Haley brought all those conflicting reasons to life.



Special Mention: The cast of Humpday - Mark Duplass, Joshua Leonard, Alycia Delmore
I'm singling this film out because it's awesome, and there's no reason that it couldn't have been a totally accessible hit like I Love You, Man except for lack of a huge marketing budget and a fear of indies. I had heard of the mumblecore movement before but never really explored it, and hell, if it just means talky scenes that are hilarious, improvised and unbelievably realistic, consider me a fan. Delmore, as the wife of a completely straight man (Leonard) who is considering having onscreen sex with his best male friend (Duplass), has a series of amazingly profound scenes where she and her husband grapple with what love means in the 21st century. That sounds like a drag, but it's fresh, honest, and often funny. Duplass and Leonard have great bro-chemistry in their escalating dare. The three of them work together for a sense of realism that's never dull (i.e. if the word realism scares you because it makes you think of Italian Neorealism with really long shots of "the common man" shining his shoes). SEE IT!


Special thanks to my boyfriend and his blog, The Rail of Tomorrow, for helping me remember why I liked things.

The Oscar nominations will be announced February 2nd. Maybe they'll wise up and nominate some of the above.

Do you agree? Then what are your favorite forgotten/overlooked performances of the year?

December 1, 2009

What's the point of the "awareness" documentary?

Yesterday, my boyfriend asked me if I was interested in seeing the documentary Collapse with him, which according to IMDb is "a portrait of radical thinker Michael Ruppert [who] explores his apocalyptic vision of the future, spanning the crises in economics, energy, environment and more." I declined, because, well, what's the point?

I have always had a vague problem with "crisis" documentaries that I have never really been able to put into words. I could finally crystallize my feelings after seeing the excellent The Yes Men Fix the World. The film follows the Yes Men, two men who expose hypocrisy and stupidity in corporations and the government through elaborate pranks. Think Michael Moore meets Borat. In addition to causing a stir, though, the pranks have a purpose - for instance, one of them poses as a representative of the New Orleans government and promises to reopen a public housing area, thinking the real government will be too embarassed not to follow up on it. It doesn't actually work, but they get a lot further than you'd think. Most amazingly, though, it had a hopeful ending. They pass out a fake issue of the New York Times that has optimistic headlines like "College is made free for everyone" and "war in Iraq ends" and show people reacting positively to it, and end on the basic message that if two guys can get as far as they did, anyone is truly capable of making a change.

That was it. That was why Michael Moore's films had always left a sour taste in my mouth. It wasn't because of the subject matter - the Yes Men tackled subjects like a city in India left ravaged by the effects of a chemical disaster - but that the message seemed to be "this sucks and there is nothing anyone can do to fix it." Particularly in Roger and Me, which ends on an almost snarkily ironic credits sequence that features the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice," Moore doesn't seem concerned with making things better, only informing people that things are terrible. And this begs the question: what's the value of just plain awareness?

I'm going to put out the bold idea that it's not worth very much. The idea is that from awareness will come action, but at least from personal experience I never find that it works that way. Moore's films (I'm just using him as an example, there are obviously others) are so depressing that they become paralyzing. You walk out of the theater feeling too bad to do anything. Usually the only thing borne from that kind of "awareness" is cocktail-party banter. "Say, did you know that the town of Flint, Michigan is falling apart at the seams? Simply dreadful! Would you like another martini?" I experienced a fundamentally different phenomenon with The Yes Men, however. By staying positive and particularly ending a positive note, the film galvanized and energized me instead of draining me. I wanted to do something. (I didn't, because I suck, but this was closer than I had gotten before.)

The other problem is that is often's unclear what viewers CAN do to make a difference. I learned in a psychology class that contrary to popular belief, human beings often don't engage in helping behavior not because they don't want to or they're heartless, but because they simply don't know how. They see a situation and keep walking because they genuinely don't know what to do and how to contribute. Thus, I think these kinds of documentaries could benefit substantially from a screen at the end that says something like "We have started a fund for the people you see in this film, go to blablabla.com to learn more and donate" or maybe have people with collection jars outside the theater. There's nothing wrong with guiding people and giving them a little push. It can be hard to come away from a film of that sort and immediately formulate a way to connect yourself to the cause.

Finally, an inherent problem with the "just awareness" movie is that it costs money to make. Maybe a lot of money - obviously, not an Avatar-type budget but still thousands of dollars. If this movie is not going to motivate people to help, wouldn't the money be better spent helping the cause yourself? Returning to Roger and Me, the budget on that film was an estimated $160,000. Michael Moore himself said the film was a failure because it didn't cause anyone to jump to the aid of Flint. Well, Michael, maybe that money would have been better spent on the citizens of Flint - saving families from eviction, opening a public help center, something. It could have done a lot of good. Did he think a bunch of eccentric billionaires would see it and spill open their wallets? Furthermore, Moore's stunts - asking senators if they'd send their children to Iraq, trying to track down the CEO of General Motors - don't really accomplish anything. He could have led by example, perhaps - use half the money to help the town and the other half to document it.

I want to be wrong about this. If you have stories of yourself or people you know seeing depressing crisis documentaries that motivated them to open hospitals in Africa or even shell out some cash, please tell me. But as far as I can tell, the "awareness" model should be reevaluted and those filmmakers should take a cue from the Yes Men.

What do you think?

November 23, 2009

Eight movies all high school girls should see



The current wave of Twilight-mania has got me thinking. I didn't read the books or see the films, but I've read a great deal about them and what I know has me worried. Arguably, Twilight is the number one voice getting through to teenage girls these days (and their mothers, apparently). Whereas past teen girl obsessions such as boy bands were relatively harmless and neutral (their message? love is fun and everybody dance!), Twilight gives us a "heroine" whose sole interest in life is a guy. She allegedly says she would die without him and has no other interests, hobbies, or aspirations.

Now, this is hardly unprecedented in art or culture. Shakespeare was cooking up the same stuff with Romeo and Juliet, which needless to say is considered a classic of literature. But there's three key differences here. The first is that, in my opinion, the ol Bard doesn't exactly condone the young lovers' behavior and attitudes, whereas in Twilight it kinds of seems like the reader is the idiot if she, too, wouldn't give her life for Edward. The second is that there was no mass media in Shakespeare's time, and at no point were posters of Romeo plastered across teenage walls and girls would come out in droves to see the play. The third is that at the time the play was written, women's role in society was just to be mothers and wives. They actually did not have interests, hobbies, or aspirations. It's a little hypocritical, then, to still be pushing that type of character in a day and age where the media is at least attempting (not always successfully, of course) to push the opposite.

So what's the antidote? Well, I hardly have the persuasive powers of the Twilight franchise, but I've comprised a list of movies that I think have good messages for the teen girls of today. Now, before you think these are hokey picks, I fully understand that today's teens are savvy and cynical (except perhaps when it comes to sparkly vampires). When I was younger (and I'm talking single-digits age here), my mom would always rent me this VHS from the library called "Free To Be You And Me!" It was basically Sesame Street with a lot more moralizing and a lot less puppets - a deliberately multicultural group of kids spouting life lessons about how you should be yourself. While I understand that that video was aimed at a much younger age group, that type of film doesn't speak to teens. It just sounds like health class bullshit. In a similar vein, I also excluded films like Thirteen, which go to such lengths to discourage every dangerous youth behavior imaginable that it just gets ridiculous and you end up tuning it out.

The films on this list are good films in their own right and can be enjoyed by both genders. Similarly, there are great films that spread gender-neutral messages, so I didn't feel the need to include them. And in terms of artistic merit, every person alive should see Citizen Kane, The Godfather, etc. etc. In summary, this a list of really good and solid movies that send good and solid messages specific to today's female youth.


Mean Girls (2004)
A high school flick starring Lindsay Lohan? The uninformed may roll their eyes, but those in the know are aware that this packs the one-two punch of being based on a nonfiction book and being written by Tina Fey. It manages to warn girls of the dangers of being seduced by the in-crowd and why you shouldn't be a bitch while maintaining a killer sense of humor and never being preachy. Ironically, I first saw this in high school and thought to myself, "Gee, I'm really grateful that my female friends aren't mean like that." In college, I realized that I actually had had mean friends who were systematically destroying my self-esteem without me even realizing it. If you take nothing else from this film, consider these wise lines: "Calling somebody else fat won't make you any skinnier. Calling someone stupid doesn't make you any smarter."


Superbad (2007)
This film, in addition to being hilarious, is like a field guide to the adolescent male. They're horny and stupid, but they're also loyal and have ultimately good intentions. And yes, I have actual men who completely agree with me on this.


Jezebel (1938)
At first glance, this movie is just about Bette Davis acting her heart out in an antebellum period piece. If that's all it is for you, that's fine, and it's a solid drama. But upon closer inspection, I actually find the film to have a rather complex message. Southern belle Julie keeps men hooked by being high-maintenance and difficult, which young girls even today often feel they must do to keep men interested. BUT - then her fiancee gets fed up with it and leaves, and since that doesn't cause her to change her ways her behavior goes on to more disastrous consequences. By the end, it's when she is humble and selfless - even though her prized looks are marred by a dangerous journey - that she becomes a true woman. In short: ladies, cut the drama. It piques men's attention but doesn't make them stay, and you're not doing yourself any favors.


An Education (2009)
The main moral of this film applies to both genders: education is good for you. While that may seem obvious and preachy, it comes via the tale of a girl who took the long way around to find out. Education is more than books and rote memorization; it's learning about things beyond yourself and your world. Calculus, while not applicable to anything outside of a few select careers, teaches you to stretch your brain and think logically. Ancient history, which you may never think about again, opens your eyes to the origin of your civilization. My point is that education can teach you who you are, what you want and what you can do. The film's protagonist, Jenny, laments that her schooling is interfering with what she wants to do, like explore French culture. But the desire to do that would never have existed if it wasn't for her education. The gender-specific part is that she almost throws everything away for a man, which is never, ever, worth it. On the TV show "Boy Meets World" (big fan, won't lie), the super-smart Topanga turns down a chance to go to Yale so she can accompany her fiancee Cory to a community college. I never forgave her. It may be less romantic to audiences, but if Cory truly loves her then he can understand and be waiting for her when she graduates. Maybe you sacrifice a career or a lifestyle choice for a guy, but an education is a groundwork that you often can't make up later. (You can go back to school, of course, but it's different outside of your formative years.)


Whip It (2009)
Usually, a young girl's only hope for seeing a girl-power sports movie is some formulaic family-friendly junk on ABC Family. I can't say in good faith that Whip It isn't formulaic, but it provides some welcome deviations from the formula, such as the cute guy not being the main goal and solving everything, the best friend having her own life, the sport in question being pretty brutal and kickass and most importantly, the parents not being fundamentally incorrect fascists because they disagree with their daughter's choices. There are plenty of movies out there reinforcing the idea that parents just don't understand, but this is the only one I can think of (where the daughter is the protagonist) and the parents are said to have a good point.


Splendor in the Grass (1961)
Sex is healthy, and a desire to have sex is healthy - even for women! This may seem really obvious to some people, but depending on where you grew up and how you were raised, it may come as a shock. Elia Kazan's heartbreaking film communicates this by showing how horrible things can become when young lovers are not allowed to express this natural impulse, but mostly from the female perspective. The film was made in 1961 and takes place in 1929, but the same battle rages on today. I'm not saying that young girls should just give it up for anyone, but this was a committed and truly loving couple who were still kept apart due to arbitrary moral rules. The film also underscores a point I read in an article once: that while many parents and authorities automatically discredit young love because they don't want their children getting hurt, they may actually cause more harm by doing so because it creates a cycle of teens being told that their feelings aren't valid until a certain age. And then how could you explain all the high school sweethearts that stay married for years?


Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1981)
Okay, so now that we've established that sex is normal, Fast Times reminds us that sex isn't everything. It has the unique distinction of being a high school sex romp directed by a woman, and while it offers plenty of goofy delights not the least of which is a future two-time Oscar winner starring as a stoner named Spicoli, it never completely loses sight of reality. Most impressive is that a first sexual encounter is depicted as both unimpressive and rather physically uncomfortable for the woman (it came as harsh news to me that all intercourse did not result in screaming orgasms for the woman regardless of her level of experience, arousal, etc.) and that later that same woman gets pregnant and gets an abortion. Basically, the main character goes through a lot of really mature and serious stuff before realizing that she just wants to be a teen. It shows consequences without being condescending and after school special-y, and yet is still somehow a lot of fun and sorta deep.


Not Another Teen Movie (2001)
Lest you think this has any ties to later imitators such as Date Movie and Epic Movie, well, it doesn't. It came first and is actually a really funny parody of teen movie cliches that effectively exposes how absurd they are. It bears perhaps the most important message of all: movies are not real life.


For a similar list for the lads, check out my boyfriend's corresponding post here.

What movies would you add? Or, if you were a teen girl at one point yourself, what movies did you see in your formative years that effectively schooled you on life lessons?

October 31, 2009

When do you turn off / walk out of a movie?

I have only walked out of a movie once in my entire life that I can remember. My dad, distraught that he had two daughters and no sons after growing up with three sisters, tried to interest my sister and I in all things manly - particularly sports and violent movies. This didn't quite take. Somehow, though, he convinced me to see Blade II with him in theaters, and at the time of its release I was 14. I didn't really like scary or bloody movies, but for some unknown reason I got really excited and spent the whole day bragging about it at school. Pumped up like some badass I wasn't, we strode into the theater.

Within the first ten minutes, some vampire got his brains splattered on a wall and I screamed and demanded that we leave. We did.

I'm not really sure what the problem was exactly. I'm not averse to violence, so I guess the supernatural/scary elements were too much for me. And yes, it's probably not even that bad, but I'm a wimp.

Nowadays it's different, because I pay for my own entertainment. If I paid to see a movie that actually turned out to be just a filmed blank wall for two hours, I would stay because I paid for it, god dammit, and I am very poor.

But on DVD, it's a different story. I used to be a lot more trigger-happy with the stop button, but I've developed more patience. There are three main reasons I will stop a movie:

1. Averse physical reaction
I had to stop Waking Life because the squiggly animation was actually making me nauseous. Then again, so was the pretentious dialogue.
2. It does not seem like at any point it will get better
The most recent movie I stopped was Happy-Go-Lucky. I had really wanted to see it for a while, and I got about an hour in, and realized two things: 1) This movie has absolutely no plot, and one's enjoyment of it is completely contingent on how much you like the main character 2) I did not like the character. I couldn't tell if you were supposed to like her or not. Maybe in the second half she gets kidnapped by a gang of pessimists who convert her or something, I don't know, but from the way the wheels had been set in motion there were only so many places the train could go.
3. I get interrupted, by a lengthy phone call for example, and then...well...don't quite get back around to the rest...
Pretty straightforward. If I like where a movie's heading, I'll return to it after the interruption. If I don't, well, I guess I was just looking for a way out.

The exception, what makes a movie basically unstoppable, is importance. If I'm watching Welles or Fellini, I'm gonna stick with it, because there's something in these films that makes people promote them to the pillars on which they reside. I haven't seen Seven Samurai yet, but when I do, I'm going to hang in there even if I hate every single minute out of the 200-plus because it's just too important. But, ya know, I'm really not gonna be a bad person if I can't finish Happy-Go-Lucky.

The one exception is that several years ago, I stopped M about 30-45 minutes in. I knew that made me a bad person, and when I watched the whole thing recently it was of course great. I guess I've just gotten more patient in my old age.

What does it take for you to stop / walk out of a movie?

October 25, 2009

Is this actually a movie? #7

Here we have Valentine's Day, a romcom from Garry Marshall (director of Pretty Woman) that's sort of an L.A.-based Love Actually. There's really nothing inherently ridiculous about that. But here's what's ridiculous: this looks to be a movie where a selection of Hollywood's most attractive people complain about how they can't get a date. There's suspension of disbelief, and then there's this. I can much sooner buy an invasion of Earth by alien versions of the reincarnated Abraham Lincoln than the fact that Jessica Biel cannot find someone to have sex with on Valentine's Day. It's one thing to have a movie where one attractive star complains about being lonely, but a dozen? Unbearable. This is when, in my opinion, a movie crosses over from "glamour and fantasy to aspire to and/or escapism" to "alienating to everyone who doesn't look like Jessica Alba." Also, there's a rumor floating around in the YouTube comments that someone is the "voice of the dog." Those four words have never bode well for a non-animated movie.

And yet, this movie will still make a bajillion dollars. Check out the trailer and its many cringeworthy moments below.

October 22, 2009

Fun and sweet married couples on film

The release of Couples Retreat got me thinking about married couples in movies (or Antichrist, for that matter...a very different kind of couples retreat). Somehow the world of cinema, especially in more recent years (let's say post-studio era), hasn't really done a great job of making marriage seem fun or appealing. If a couple is already married at the beginning of a movie, they're probably either going to a) break up b) have horrible fights and almost break up c) one of them will die d) one of them will only have a little bit of screen time. Why is this? It seems in older movies, there would be less reasons for couples to be happy...rigid gender roles, inability to divorce, sexual taboos, etc. And yet the studio era, despite the predominance of romances that resulted in marriage only at the end of the film, produced many silver screen couples that stayed together from beginning to end credits and loved (almost) every minute of it. Here's some of my picks for couples that prove that the flirtatious fun and happiness can continue even after swapping vows.


The Thin Man series (1934-1947) - Nick and Nora Charles
This is the original fun couple, the one that all others would be indebted to. Playful, flirtatious, witty beyond normal human capacity and a little wicked, these two love martinis, mysteries, and of course, each other. I say "wicked" due to classic moments such as Nick throwing Nora into a taxi and telling the driver "Grant's Tomb!" to get her out of the way.


Holiday (1938) - Nick and Susan Potter
The Potters have supporting roles, but are no less memorable. Edward Everett Horton plays Nick in both this version and the one from 1931, so naturally he's a much older friend of the main character in the second outing but he still gets a sassy wife. He and the missus have the kind of raised-eyebrow rapport that can only lead me to one logical conclusion: THEY HAVE A TON OF SEX. I doubt anyone else reached this verdict, but I really felt like they were doing it whenever they were offscreen. And that's awesome.

Heaven Can Wait (1943) - Martha and Henry Van Cleve
This movie is rather unusual in that there isn't really a conflict or villain, it's more just the story of a man's life, the good and the bad. In not trying to force a plot, the audience gets the treat of seeing a marital relationship unfold very naturally over the course of 40-odd years, from lusty youth when Henry steals Martha away from his loser cousin to sweet and gentle old age. And to the afterlife and beyond...(no spoilers here - come on, look at the title).

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) - Milly and Al Stephenson
This postwar readjustment drama still holds up today, largely due to the genuine performances of Myrna Loy, Harold Russell and Fredric March (the latter two snagged Oscars). Loy and March play a couple readjusting to married life in one of the more refreshingly realistic depictions of a long-term relationship from this era or any other. When their teenage daughter accuses them of never having relationship problems, Milly sighs and says there were countless times when they hated each other. "How many times have we had to fall in love all over again?"


Adam's Rib (1949) - Adam and Amanda Bonner
Two married laywers on opposite sides of a criminal case - conflict of interest much? Many agree that this is the best of the Hepburn and Tracy collaborations, and while I haven't seen them all, I'm not sure what else you could ask for. It's a battle of the sexes through and through, but by an unforgettable ending involving licorice you'll know that these two really love each other. (I didn't mean for the licorice thing to sound dirty - I promise it's really not).


Father of the Bride (1950) - Stanley and Ellie Banks
Spencer Tracy puts his grump persona to great use in this film as the frazzled title character, and Joan Bennett as his wife knows just how to handle him. For all their ribbing, though, the moment when Stanley sees his wife in her mother of the bride gown is really sweet and touching. And they share a slow dance after the sanity-sucking craziness of the wedding is over. It just shows that you can still be husband and wife even after you're mother and father (you know, sometimes).


Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) - Norma and Rocky Graziano
Okay, I'm slightly cheating, because they're not married for the WHOLE movie (their courtship and marriage comes in the first third or so) but it's still not a final-reunion-in-the-rain-at-the-end-of-the-movie situation. At first you kind of wonder what the shy Norma sees in the belligerent, awkward, and inarticulate Rocky, but as their marriage progresses you figure it out (and so does she). She's the only one who can talk sense into him (he beats guys up for saying much less), and when Rocky comes home in a fit of rage after losing a fight, she puts a lamp right of front of him when he starts to swing and we realize they're a match made in heaven.

These are the only more modern examples I could think of:

Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) - Larry and Carol Lipton
Not that much of a stretch, since Woody Allen was directly and visibly inspired by the Thin Man films - it's Nick and Nora, but 20 years later, neurotic and Jewish. Allen and Diane Keaton are reunited after his Mia Farrow period, and despite the Thin Man influence there's the classic Allen touch, with lines like "Save a little craziness for menopause!"



The Simpsons Movie (2007) and a TV series you might have heard of - Marge and Homer Simpson
While most of their time is spent having Homer drive Marge crazy, there's a love there unlike most other relationships in pop culture - and in being so, is actually quite like most relationships in real life. Maybe it's partially because it's had 20 years to develop, but the writers have really nailed the decidedly unglamorous but still sweet dynamic between average American spouses. Homer always manages to prove his devotion in the nick of time, and Marge remembers why she keeps him around. (On a somewhat related note, a Google image search for "Marge Homer" reveals SO MUCH DISTURBING SIMPSONS PORN THAT WILL HAUNT MY DREAMS.)



Fargo (1996) - Marge and Norm Gunderson
They don't share much screen time, and they're a far cry from the Park Avenue glamour of Nick and Nora, but the Gundersons are so cute you could puke. After a movie of abrasive characters and twisted violence, the final image of an expectant Marge snuggling into bed with her hubby is all the more tender.


And a controversial bonus pick:


Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) - George and Martha
I first read this play and saw the film in an American lit class, where the professor introduced it as a love story. The first time you see it, all you can do is be shocked at how these people treat each other. That's fine. Get that out of your system. But I saw it a second time and realized that my professor was right. There is no one who could possibly be with George or Martha but the other. The games they play with each other, although seemingly unhealthy, are what sustain them. It's like how sadism looks painful and weird to most people but is a source of fun and intimacy for some. If you can get past the fact that it's two people screaming at each other and you were taught that two people screaming at each other typically indicates serious problems, then perhaps you'll see the romance.


This list is by no means exhaustive...who did I miss?

October 16, 2009

Great movies I discovered by virtue of their Criterion logo


There are a lot of movies out there and never enough time in the day. So, aside from classics, recommendations and films with directors/actors you like, how does one choose? Well, here's a personal shortcut: when I see a Criterion Collection cover, I know there's something worthwhile in there. Maybe it won't become a new favorite, but it's definitely worthwhile. The good folks at Criterion comb through a century-plus of cinema to find the good stuff for you, and there have been several instances where I discovered great movies simply because they bore the Criterion logo. Here are 7 movies that I plucked off the shelf due to their Criterion status, having never heard of them before, and loved. (And no, they're not paying me!)

1. Blast of Silence (1961)
A recent addition to Criterion library, I only really knew that this involved a hitman, a cool cover and a mere 77 minutes of my time. The film is not really groundbreaking in any respect, but it's taut and compelling nonetheless. It fits into a great genre that I call "post-noir" for lack of a better term - films of the late 1950s and early 1960s that incorporate noir elements but have a grittier, more realistic atmosphere (i.e. Sweet Smell of Success, The Man With the Golden Arm, The Hustler). The film has heavy narration written by the blacklisted writer Waldo Salt, which helps you get very close to the main character. A terrific and bitter little flick.

2. Mona Lisa (1986)
Neil Jordan's primary claim to fame is making that movie where the chick turns out to be a dude, but I had always heard that there was much more to him. The cover of this DVD, with a pretty woman yelling at Bob Hoskins in a car, had always intrigued me when I used to work at a video store, and last week I finally watched it. I'll admit that due to my rather pathetic inability to properly comprehend English accents, I probably missed a lot of the movie, but I was loving what I saw. I almost wanted to watch it again after I had finished - it's such a rich and dense film that I think it takes multiple viewings to fully appreciate. It's kind of a weird noir love story mystery, and Bob Hoskins is incredible. Michael Caine also has a small role playing a type you never get him to see him play. There's a planned Larry Clark remake that may or may not involve Mickey Rourke, so make sure to catch the original first.

3. Brute Force (1947)
Jules Dassin is most well known for his street-based crime films, from Night and the City to Rififi, but this one is set inside a prison. My interest was piqued because I'm a Burt Lancaster fan, and he's allegedly the star here, but it's really more of an ensemble piece with a scene-stealing performance by Hume Cronyn as the sadistic prison guard. A brilliant example of against-type casting, a role that would have typically gone to a macho, foaming-at-the-mouth type is pulled off by the mild-mannered Cronyn in what might be called a cross between Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter. It also tackles social issues of prisons in a way that's never preachy, and delivers a grittiness that is not often seen in overwrought prison pictures.

4. Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958)
Lured in by the bright yellow cover, I read on the back that this was a parody of caper films like the aforementioned Rififi. I couldn't say I had seen an Italian comedy before, much less a classic one - the closest thing was probably the highbrow satire of 8 1/2. It turns out this film is an absolute hoot despite its simple setup - a bunch of inept criminals planning a heist where everything goes wrong. All the characters have the lower-class European mannerisms that you see in films like Moonstruck or My Big Fat Greek Wedding (i.e. waving your hands and yelling "Mama mia!"), but here instead of groan-inducing stereotypes, they are accurate (and very funny) portrayals created by a true Italian director and based in truth upon the criminal classes of the day. It's not so much laugh-out-loud funny as it is clever, with a solid script and great performances from stars like Claudia Cardinale and Marcello Mastroianni (hysterical). If you thought Italian cinema was very formal and produced only things like neorealism, you're in for a real treat (with a great jazz score to boot!).

5. F for Fake (1973)
Every good little cinephile knows that Orson Welles made Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil, and the second tier of Welles enthusiasts will know about The Trial and his Shakespeare work. But very few are aware of this bizarre and fascinating documentary he made about deception and fakers, from art forgers to Welles himself. I'm glad Criterion rescued this little nugget from obscurity, to strengthen the argument that there's a lot more great stuff to Welles than just Kane. Welles is a great actor, but he's equally compelling (and vaguely creepy) when he's just being himself.

6. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
I found this gem by browsing the shelves of the video store I used to work at. Drawn in by the interesting cover (sensing a theme here? Just goes to show that a well-executed design grabs attention much better than the generic plastering of celebrity faces on covers) and the premise, but having never heard of most of the people involved with it, I gave it a shot. It's British black comedy through and through, featuring a wonderfully deadpan performance by Dennis Price and Alec Guinness in eight (!) roles. This film may not be for everyone - some may find it too dark, some not dark enough, but for the right crowd it's a wicked pleasure.

7. Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
At the time I first became aware of this film, I only knew Louis Malle from Au revoir les enfants, which I saw in ninth grade English class and was to my cinematically uneducated self "That French Holocaust movie with the masturbating." But what's this? The noirish debut of an audacious young director featuring a Miles Davis score? You can't get much further from a French Holocaust movie with masturbating. So I popped it in one day and while my boyfriend and I agreed that the ending was a little sudden and that the whole movie would have never happened if cell phones had existed, it was still a captivating melancholic thriller that featured ample footage of a miserable Jeanne Moreau wandering the rainy streets of Paris in that "post-noir" (see above) style I love so much.


What about you? Do you have the same faith in the Criterion collection? Do you have any similar success stories of impulse movie viewings from their library?

September 27, 2009

Positive byproducts of the Production Code

As evidenced by my frequent ramblings about it and the fact that it was my chosen topic for a 17-page research paper, I am obsessed with the Production Code. (If you don't know what that is, it was a doctrine that governed what could and couldn't be shown on screen in the Golden Age of Hollywood - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Production_code.) Like Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions, it was a 30ish-year experiment in how art conforms to, works around, or readjusts to restrictions. Seeing its heavy imprint on everything from gangster movies to romantic comedies is always fascinating and sometimes even consuming – at the end of Code-era crime movies, I always find myself wondering in the last ten minutes if the criminal will meet his or her mandatory fate by imprisonment, murder, execution or suicide. Sometimes the Code influence is so obvious and awkward that it becomes laughable. I recently saw Kubrick’s Lolita for the first time, which was made in the waning days of the Code but nonetheless features a clumsily-added one-sentence epilogue declaring, as if at gunpoint, that the immoral protagonist died while in prison. But lately a thought has started to tickle my brain…did the Code produce any positive byproducts or outcomes? I think it did.

First off, let me say where the Code absolutely did not work. Its most glaring intrusion was the aforementioned wrist-slapping of any character who had breached its moral standard. History indicates that this did not even produce the desired effect – audiences wound up cheering for Scarface or Little Caesar anyway. The limitations on violence were less problematic – however, if crime movies were allowed to be more grisly instead of the strangely bloodless affairs that they were, perhaps then the harsh dissuasion against this lifestyle wouldn’t be necessary. There are a handful of other silly quirks, like the obligation to fast forward nine months after a woman announces she’s pregnant to avoid having to show the ghastly horror of an expecting woman. This left filmmakers with two options – twist the restrictions to the film’s advantage, or make them stick out like a sore thumb to express that you’re not happy about it and that it’s not really a part of your film. Basically, in these arenas, I can think of very few examples where the film was benefitted (except in some cases where the writer/director incorporated the rules creatively).

So on what did the Code have positive effects?

Sex.

The most obvious positive byproduct of the Code was the invention of the beloved cinematic treasure that is screwball comedy. It’s 1934, and although a Barbara Stanwyck film called Baby Face came out a year earlier and features a woman literally and unabashedly sleeping her way to the top, suddenly men and woman can barely touch each other. What to do? Make a romantic comedy where the characters despise each other until the very end, or, as the psychologist in Bringing Up Baby put it, “The love impulses in men…reveals itself as conflict.” Frank Capra did this in 1934 with It Happened One Night, and after the film won five Oscars the screwball style reigned the comedy scene for almost a decade. There’s really no reason that this style would have developed had it not been for the Code. It was a creative response to limitations that benefitted audiences and film history.

Now let’s move into the 40s and 50s. Suddenly there are some really sexy movies on the scene, like The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not, Gone With the Wind, To Catch a Thief, and North by Northwest. Again, in these films, the characters cannot touch each other outside of a single kiss, so where is this heat coming from? Dialogue.

In all of these films, it’s nothing but words that create chemistry that sizzles off the screen. Their discourse serves as intercourse. Would Bogie and Bacall have been any hotter if they flat-out banged? I don’t think so. In comedies like The Seven Year Itch or The Girl Can’t Help It, the Code is made fun of in a way that juxtaposes sexuality and comedy. In the latter, for instance, there’s a scene where Jayne Mansfield is talking about how she wants to be a perfect housewife someday, while her enormous breasts fill the screen.

Nowadays you can show virtually anything sex-related onscreen. Well, almost – the current line actually exists in a rather unfortunate place where you can have oral sex but you can’t show a woman’s face in the throes of pleasure for too long (true story – that was a censorship battle in Boys Don’t Cry). That’s intrinsically good – artists should be allowed to express themselves however they please. But is this good for cinematic stories? If people can show anything, they will – few see the point of exercising restraint. Personally, I find myself reacting rather indifferently to steamy sex scenes, but getting chills from the sexiness of the studio-era films I listed above. Why? Think of it this way. Which is sexier: a woman doing a striptease in which she ultimately doesn’t remove much clothing, or a naked woman just sitting there? I think we can all agree it’s the former. That’s the difference between sex and violence in film: with violence, I believe, there’s no real benefit to holding back. Someone getting shot offscreen is not going to have more impact than someone getting shot in frame; in fact, it might have less. On the other hand, I find sex to be more effective when it’s about the tease. Hell, in Gilda, Rita Hayworth does a “striptease” in which she only removes one glove, but it’s still extremely hot and memorable. It’s all about leaving things to the imagination.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t endorse censorship. If it was 1934 and Will Hays himself asked me if I supported the Production Code, he’d get a hearty “hell, no!” But I’m not talking about belief systems here, I’m talking about history. It’s like how WWII was not an awesome fun bonanza, but somewhat accidentally lifted the United States out of the Depression. Side effects. And while it’s easily to vilify the Code, I’d argue that it had some pretty great side effects.

What do you think? Am I a censorship-loving Nazi, or am I on to something here?

September 13, 2009

Why I don't get James Cameron


Recently, my boyfriend took it upon himself to give me an early blockbuster education of sorts, exposing me to all the big and beloved 70s, 80s and 90s movies that were integral parts of everyone's childhood except, for some reason, mine. The primary figure of study has been James Cameron. In a short period I've seen Aliens, The Abyss, The Terminator and T2 all for the first time. And what I'm about to say might prove very controversial.
I just don't get James Cameron.

I don't get why his movies are so loved - and note my word choice here - loved as opposed to just admired or widely enjoyed. I don't know why he's acclaimed so much as a director. I don't know why his films crack lists of bests along with undisputed classics. I will attempt to explain why.

First of all, while sci-fi and action are not the primary genres I'm drawn to, I have favorites in each - from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to the Bourne movies - and I'm always open to seeing these films when they're allegedly good. So this isn't a genre bias thing.

His primary motive seems to be not "I have this great story to tell," or "I have a creative vision to share with the world," but "fuck you, yes I can make this movie." I imagine that the reason he made The Abyss was that he was in a bar one day and someone mumbled something incomprehensible, at which point Cameron jumped up and yelled "Fuck you, I can too make a whole movie underwater!" and then stormed out and spent eight kerwillion dollars. This attitude seems better suited to a scientist or inventor - when I watch Cameron's films I always kind of feel like he's trying to prove things instead of entertain or inspire.

But my main problem is the technology issue. Cameron's films often seem like character and plot are secondary annoyances that are begrudgingly included. My thoughts on the frontiers of technology and cinema - and ergo, my beef with Cameron - were beautifully summed up by Andrew Tracy at Reverse Shot in his review of Public Enemies:

"As with directors of such disparate inclinations and scale as Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, James Cameron, and Robert Zemeckis, [Michael] Mann’s films increasingly feel like vehicles for technological test-running and problem-solving—a preoccupation which is at least partially understandable, as filmmaking is a more or less ceaseless confrontation with technical decisions and challenges. However, the corresponding critical efforts to enshrine these endeavors as the most important content of the films that surround them—to pass over Benjamin Button’s inherent Gump-ishness or Che’s dramatic lifelessness or Miami Vice’s silly solemnity— willfully ignore the fundamentally mainstream (and often hopelessly vapid) tropes on which they are built. To claim that these technological adventures are broaching bold new cinematic frontiers is to pretend that these films aren’t the hobbled, intrinsically unbalanced works that they are." (You can read the whole thing
here.)

Yes. This is it exactly. I was never in the habit of "excusing" or "overlooking" elements of films, particularly the story/script. After I saw The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I noted how the dialogue (and the over-abundance of it) made me throw up in my mouth. This seemed to be the elephant in the room that critics didn't seem to mind because the effects were amazing, the cinematography beautiful, etc. I have two problems with this. Number one is that I always hold every element accountable, unless it was a decision that the filmmaker had no control of and even objected to (i.e. Production Code censorship and story mutilation). Number two is that if an element is so bad that it is taking me out of the movie, the movie as a whole is failing. If the dialogue is distractingly bad, I cannot just "forgive" that. The same would be true if I could see the zipper on the monster costume, or there are a glut of glaring historical inaccuracies, etc.

But this trend that Tracy is observing as a result of effects advancement and the digital revolution has, in my opinion, been the mindset that gave Cameron a career. No one talks about the ludicrous storylines, the storytelling cliches, the oft-flat characters (not all of them, don't kill me), the unironic saturation of 80s and 90s-ness that makes the movies age badly. They take the technological advancements in his films as evidence that the movie as a whole is great. That's like saying that fruit tastes good just because it was grown in space without soil or water. It's impressive, sure, but the evaluation of how it tastes is (and should be) completely separate. When I saw the making-of documentary for the The Abyss, it knocked my socks off. They had done things that seemed impossible, had worked around challenges I hadn't even considered when watching it. It made me appreciate it, but just because something is technically impressive does not make it enjoyable.

I can also appreciate that he goes all the way with his ideas, but there are plenty of other examples of filmmakers who do that to a better effect. That's because their visions are more cohesive, and I'm more willing to take a wild ride on something that's not just a self-indulgent display of technology. Additionally, sometimes directors with their wings clipped produce better results, so the "go all the way" approach shouldn't necessarily be praised as the purest form of filmmaking.

Furthermore, Cameron doesn't understand that if you don't have all the resources to do something, DON'T. For me, Aliens suffered from a visible effort to conceal that they didn't have the money to do everything they wanted to do. In many shots, there's supposed to be a lot of aliens, but they shoot it tight and shaky to hide the fact that there's not. It showed. If you don't have the money or resources to show a lot of aliens, don't create several situations where there's supposed to be. I understand that you need to up the ante from the first film, but maybe focus on one big alien that would be in your budget to construct and show, or several alien babies, or a meaner alien, or hell, wait several years until you can get more money. Similarly, in The Terminator, a lot of the effects are really good, but some, like the stripped-to-metal Terminator walking through the warehouse at the end look bad. With a mix of bad and good effects, you can't write off the bad ones as "well, they didn't have the technology then." They obviously had the technology to make some things look good, but they didn't know when to stop and overstepped their bounds. I'm not arguing for Cameron to become a minimalist - he directs action blockbusters, which are over the top in their nature. I get that. But if he learned to scale back in the right places, he could offer a tighter product that doesn't have spots which scream AND THIS IS WHERE WE RAN OUT OF MONEY AND/OR STAN WINSTON COULDN'T FIGURE IT OUT.

I think Cameron's bombastic audaciousness might have overtaken him to a point where it could be damaging. His new film, Avatar, comes out this December, and his method of creating hype is one of the most phenomenally stupid and self-defeating campaigns I've ever seen. He's spreading the word that the effects are so incredible and revolutionary that they can cure cancer and AIDS while raping your mind and changing your life. Usually, the biggest claim a blockbuster will make is "the best thrill ride of the summer" or something. That's very reasonable. It's not too outrageous to award that title to a movie. But what Cameron has created here is a situation where the movie cannot actually exceed expectations. It will either meet them, or, more likely, be lower. This very well could be a mind-blowing film, but the way Cameron has set it up will probably make it a disappointment. Already many critics and audience members at preview screenings are saying that the footage doesn't live up to this insane hype. Furthermore, it seems Cameron is under the impression that the entire world is waiting for this movie with bated breath - whereas in reality, no one outside of the film geek world knows about it. The trailer has only just debuted, and while "Avatar Day" - a worldwide screening of a 16-minute trailer - played to packed audiences, the verdict was very mixed. So to recap, virtually no one knows, and those that do know have expectations that are almost impossible to meet. What hath Cameron wrought? Is he actively trying to lose a lot of money?

If Avatar fails, that might dismantle the mighty Cameron, or at least put his ego in check and cause him to reevaluate his strategy. (Already he's dialing back the hype a bit - maybe he's catching on.) He's allegedly said before that he'd like to try his hand at an intimate drama - and I'd be interested to see what a James Cameron movie looks like without all the special effects and flash. Would there be anything left?

Beyond the essentials: Hitchcock

This is my new feature Beyond the Essentials, where I use my vast and utterly impressive film knowledge to help you figure out which lesser-known movies by your favorite actors and directors are worth your time. Or maybe I'll never write another one again. We'll see.



So I assume you've all dutifully seen the mandatory Hitchcock viewing like good little film lovers - which, for the sake of argument, consists of Psycho, Vertigo, and Rear Window, possibly North by Northwest. The way I arrived at this conclusion was by completing the following sentence: "You call yourself a film buff and you HAVEN'T SEEN ________ ?!?" I don't think any of his other works would induce that same level of hysteria if you hadn't gotten around to them yet. If you had any kind of formal film education, you undoubtedly saw Rope, at least in part, because GET THIS, GUYS, I DON'T KNOW IF YOU KNEW THIS, BUT THE MOVIE HAS A LOT OF REALLY LONG TAKES. Then there are the second-tier essentials, like Strangers on a Train and The Birds, which are logical next steps in your Hitchcock exploration.

But then you see that his IMDB page is a big muck of stuff you've never heard of, or maybe you've heard of it but not about it. Where to begin? While I'm hardly a scholar on the subject, I think I've delved a bit deeper into his filmography than the average bear, so allow me to share my findings. This is by no means a complete report, of course, but just a selection of highlights (and lowlights).

THE MUST-SEES

1. The 39 Steps (1935)
A kindred spirit to North by Northwest, this is a similar tale of a rogueish lad getting wrapped up in a big mess and going on an adventure to deal with it. It has some great twists as well as some genuinely shocking moments, and great screwball chemistry (attraction masked by antagonism) between the two leads. It's kind of a leaner, scrappier version of NbNW, and a lot of fun.

2. Lifeboat (1944)
This movie hardly reads like a Hitchcock at all. And that's not a bad thing. I think we can all agree that Hitch was more concerned with plot than with characters (and there's nothing wrong with that), so it was a neat surprise to see this character-driven piece from him. It's a handful of strangers stuck in a lifeboat, trying to survive and figuring out who they can trust. The performances are incredible, and while it's not exactly suspenseful per se, it's definitely gripping. This movie needs to be discovered. Also: look for the clever way Hitch manages his cameo.

3. I Confess (1953)
This film is called one of the more “noir-ish” in Hitchcock’s filmography, and I’m inclined to agree. Very dark and shadowy. Montgomery Clift is a perfect lead for this film, adding a lot of pathos and gravitas as a conflicted priest. Shot on location (which Hitchcock absolutely hated to do), this is a tight little piece of everything that’s good about Hitch.


MAYBE ON A RAINY AFTERNOON

1. Stage Fright (1950)
Amicable enough, it's a standard whodunit. I happen to be quite fond of films set in the backstage world. But two things make it stand out: the scenery-chewing of Marlene Dietrich, and the mind-blowing twist that, at the risk of being hyperbolic, challenges one of the conventions we take for granted in cinema (particularly in films of that time).

2. Marnie (1964)
One of the interesting things about following Hitchcock's career into his later years is seeing what he did with the increasing on-screen permissiveness in movies. Well, in 1964, he made a movie about sexual psychosis. Really. With the added subtext of Hitchcock's real-life obsession with star Tippi Hedren, there's a lot going on here. It's not perfect, and some parts are a bit silly, but it's an interesting and gutsy move from a director who was always pushing the envelope. And Sean Connery is at the height of his dashing-ness here.

3. Suspicion (1941)
Joan Fontaine stars in the only Hitch-directed role ever to win an Oscar, which baffles me. Maybe I was missing some hidden depths or something, but her performance was pretty bland. It's like a diluted version of her role in the vastly superior Rebecca a year earlier. The real draw here is for Cary Grant fans, who want to see him do something different. And by different, I mean sinister. He doesn't play a Joker type or anything, but rather subverts his classic charm into that kind of charm that a lot of murderers seem to have. If you do see this movie, though, go in knowing that the ending is very much not what Hitchcock wanted, and read what the original ending was and why it didn't make the cut.


DON'T BOTHER

1. Torn Curtain (1966)
This was the only Hitchcock movie I really never got much out of. Very meh, and it randomly stars Paul Newman and Julie Andrews. Unfortunately, watching Cassidy and Mary Poppins outwit Soviet spies is not nearly as fun as it sounds.


In conclusion, though, every film by a great director has at least something to offer. Whether that potentially brief something is worth two hours of your time, however, is another matter.

What other obscure Hitchcock films can you recommend / advise against?

September 1, 2009

Soundtrack September

I was invited to participate in "Soundtrack September" over at Film Babble, and it got my wheels a-turning. The task was just to discuss some favorite soundtracks - easy enough. But I didn't want my choices to be too obvious. Like, of course I could mention The Graduate or Singin' in the Rain, but that's not really breaking any new ground, now is it? So I thought I'd use this space to highlight some of my more obscure or unappreciated faves. What was supposed to be a couple of blurbs spiraled quickly out of control! I have broken my picks into three categories, with three selections each: preexisting songs, scores, and musicals.

PREEXISTING MUSIC

I started to see a theme emerging in the picks for this category - all of them were preexisting songs that had new versions recorded for a film. It's not that I don't love mix-tape soundtracks (looking at you, Garden State), but it's always interesting to see beloved songs re-appropriated for a new context.

1. De-Lovely
The move itself is kind of lame. Skip it. You're allowed to. But the soundtrack is, in a word, ravishing. The film is a biopic of Cole Porter, which attempts to right the wrongs of earlier biopics such as Night and Day by painting a more thorough portrait of Porter that includes his homosexuality. Along the way, his famous songs get new life breathed into them by artists such as Sheryl Crow, Elvis Costello, Robbie Williams, and Alanis Morrissette. Now, I know this seems odd. Like isn't Morrissette really angsty and a peculiar choice to be singing such happy songs? Not so. Her version of "Let's Do It" is super perky and I actually choreographed a super perky dance to it in high school. They also don't try to modernize the songs at all - they record them in a way that's true to the originals, but with a fresh feel. It's the ultimate primer on 30s/40s music. Download. Now.

2. Good Night and Good Luck
For this film, director George Clooney opted for short interludes of jazz singer Dianne Reeves singing 50s classics. Brilliant. Much more effective than a swelling score, this classy approach really roots you in the era. She covers artists like Nat King Cole and Dinah Washington, but having one singer do all of the songs provides a nice sense of cohesion. This soundtrack makes a great gift - I gave it to my ex-boyfriend's parents for Christmas and it was a huge hit. Very warm and sophisticated.


3. Across the Universe
I love the Beatles, I really do, and in loving them I don't feel it's blasphemous to cover them. I have a CD of soul covers of the Beatles, by artists like Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. It's totally sweet, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I prefer some of those versions to the originals. Similarly, for this soundtrack, a smattering of young stars and some special guests breathe a new vivaciousness into the hits we all know and love. It really energizes the songs to have them in the context of a narrative - such as "I Want to Hold Your Hand" being used to express a forbidden lesbian desire or "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" being about the military draft. The vocal talent is great - even Bono is tolerable with his rendition of "I Am the Walrus."

SCORES

To be honest, movie soundtracks/scores don't often jump out at me. In fact, in the world of symphonic scores, I find 95% of them to be interchangeable in any given decade. So when a film score actually rises above the droning buzz and catches my attention, it's definitely something special

1. Atonement
The Academy handed over the Oscar for this one. They were right. Like in Peter and the Wolf, where each character is represented by a different instrument, Composer Dario Marianelli expresses the ferocious and cold determination of Briony through the clacking of a typewriter. It's genius. It's organic to the story and conveys its intensity.

2. Broken Flowers
Technically, there are some preexisting songs on this album, but what I'm really focusing on here is the three-song contribution of Mulatu Astatke. I had the pleasure of seeing Astatke live in concert and his music is like nothing you've ever heard. He calls it "Ethio-jazz," and it's kind of - well, it's Ethiopian jazz. Kind of an indigenous jazz/trance thing? I really can't describe it. Weaving into the film in the form of a CD that the protagonist's friend gives him, it's the perfect embodiment of Bill Murray's Don - cool and relaxed without trying, but on a mission.

3. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Just like the film itself is a re-imagining of the Western, the soundtrack is a re-imagining of what music is like for Westerns. "Haunting" would be an understatement - Nick Cave's music helps to build tension and unease for a movie where you already know the ending. An unexpected array of instruments also elevates this above the typical Oscar-bait soundtrack.


MUSICALS

Self-explanatory.

1. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg / The Young Girls of Rochefort
Yes, I can count - I know that's two. But they're both directed by Jacques Demy, they both star Catherine Deneuve, and both have music by Michel Legrand. So they're kindred spirits. Legrand's jazz scores are phenomenal, enhanced only by the light and sweet voices of talented casts (although most of them are dubbed). In the latter, you even get to hear Gene Kelly singing in French!

2. Sweet Charity
For some reason, Sweet Charity doesn't get its due when discussing classic movie musicals. I don't know why - it has sleek direction by Bob Fosse, one of Shirley MacLaine's best roles and some fantastic songs. There's the dryly sardonic "Hey Big Spender" and the jubilant "If My Friends Could See Me Now," but my personal favorite is Sammy Davis Jr's unexpected contribution "The Rhythm of Life" where he preaches a wild hippie religion.

3. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007 version)
I really really liked this movie, and I think it was seriously underrated. Sure, it got some polite award season nods, but I felt like people didn't really warm up to it like they should have. Maybe in time it will get the respect it deserves. I loved Johnny Depp's growly Bowie-esque singing, goddammit, especially on "My Friends" (friends=blades). It's not what you're used to hearing in a musical, and that's what makes it unique and captivating. Helena Bonham Carter came off a bit shrill, but mix it in with the lush gothic orchestrations and overall you have something pretty awesome.

BONUS TRACK

-Any of the scores Alberto Iglesias did for Pedro Almodovar's films
I realize this could be a whole list in and of itself, so I'm keeping it simple by saying "all." This has been one of the more fruitful director/composer collaborations that I can think of. Iglesias produces sensuous and innovative Spanish music that defies the cartoon cliche. Choice track: "Dedicatoria" from All About My Mother.

At the risk of unleashing a torrent in the comments section - what are your faves (beyond the obvious)?

August 13, 2009

District 9 and the future of cinema


In the wake of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the internets has been buzzing about the decline of intelligence in the moviegoing public. Everyone from the Times' A.O. Scott to my own darling boyfriend are noting this trend. Basically, Americans are dumb and want their movies to be dumb too. Nothing but loud, clanging franchise movies are being greenlit. But tonight at a packed preview screening for the movie District 9, I saw a glimpse of the future. A way to have people rush out to see a movie that's actually thought-provoking.

Lie.

Okay, not really. But kind of. What I really mean is:

Metaphors.

When The Dark Knight came out, critics and audiences were trying to decipher what appeared to be a Big Message lurking under all that action. It was definitely political, but people weren't sure whether it was liberal or conservative. At any rate, I think Christopher Nolan's primary intention was just to make a really good Batman movie, and he threw this in to add some weight. And everyone and their mother saw this movie. Twice.

But with District 9, director Neil Blomkamp is taking that idea one step further. This movie is unquestionably and blatantly about the evils of racial intolerance. In the opening shots when a segregated alien slum of South Africa is presented, the educated folk in the audience go, "Oh, like apartheid. I see," and follow the metaphor through to the end. The less educated see the part where a mean military man is pointing a gun at an alien and saying something like (I'm paraphrasing) "I can't believe I get paid to kill you, you alien scum" and realize that hatred is bad, because they've kind of come to sympathize with the aliens by now. It reveals its message across the board, to any level of intelligence. It's almost impossible to miss.

Having said that, it still delivers plentiful action, horror and sci-fi. Neither element is at the expense of the other. They coexist. Was District 9 advertised as a movie with a message? Hell no. But by luring people in with they elements they like, you can sneak in the heavier stuff that makes it more than mindless entertainment. Like slipping medication into dog treats.

In fact, I've always thought metaphor movies were an underrated tool and mode of filmmaking. It shows that an idea or social phenomenon transcends a specific situation and can be applied to anything. If you showed a bigoted person a movie about the evils of apartheid, they wouldn't care. Even if you showed the cruelty and injustice that black people suffered, their minds are made up about black people and won't change. But if you show them District 9, these aliens are a blank slate to them. They don't have preexisting feelings towards this group, so the filmmaker can orchestrate sympathy or hostility to serve the film's purpose. I'm not saying this movie is going to change the world, or any movie like it. But it's a way to present ideas to people while keeping them open-minded. It also negates the "that could never happen here / now" mentality that people sometimes use to write off the atrocities of history.

The audience applauded riotously at the end of the screening. I don't know if they just liked things blowing up, or if maybe, just maybe, this movie appealed to them all the more because it had more to offer. Maybe I'm being overly optimistic here, but it gave me hope.

>****UPDATE***** I just saw Inglourious Basterds and it would appear that a similar strategy has been employed - the advertising promises 150 minutes of Brad Pitt scalping Nazis, whereas the actual film is a downright meditative period piece with mostly European actors speaking other languages (with a little bit of Brad Pitt scalping Nazis). Check out a good analysis here.