Weekly Round-Up: July 10-16, 2016

Last week, I saw:

  • Her (2013) – The instant the film ended, my friend asked, “And why isn’t this Criterion?” Her is nothing short of brilliant, exploring universal themes of relationships and connection set in the not-too-distant future. In a similar level to Inside OutHer is a profound and emotional statement on the human experience. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Le Amiche (1955) – I love movies about rich people, but I’m still brewing about how I feel on Le Amiche (I’m always iffy with Antonioni). Five girlfriends, including one newcomer, in postwar Turin share gossip and boyfriends. Each is well defined, and her intentions made clear to the audience. The story felt a little slow and directionless, but was also true to life…. yeah, still out on this one. TBD.
  • Ghostbusters (2016) – I almost liked this one. I really wanted to like it. Kristen Wiig is the standout comedy actress of our time, and the rest of the gang all has done solid work in the past. As the movie went on, certain elements just started chipping away at my overall enjoyment – lines would misfire, we’d revert back to lazy “jump” scares, and worst of all, cameos/throwback moments thrown in for… what exactly?  To elevate the quality of the film? (This Dorkly post on the continuity of ghosts didn’t help either.) NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Armageddon (1998) – This big-budget disaster movie is a bona fide disaster, with director Michael Bay either unaware or unwilling to bring it down. From the opening titles literally exploding to Liv Tyler & Ben Affleck embracing in a NASA rocketship, everything in Armageddon is laughable. I’m amazed this hasn’t become a camp classic a la Mommie Dearest or Valley of the Dolls, but we need to make that happen. NOT RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week? Am I wrong about the new Ghostbusters?

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Weekly Round-Up: May 29 – June 04, 2016

My Memorial Day weekend was pretty packed, so not as much movie time as usual – managed to squeeze in some good ones though:

  • X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) – This film’s intriguing premise (Oscar Isaac as a millennia-old mega-mutant who’s been awakened and must be stopped!) is slowed down by silly dialogue and the cliche “catching up on where everybody is, before bringing them all together.” We find out how Professor Xavier becomes bald, though! NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Night and Fog (1955) – It’s hard to say you “like” this kind of movie, but this mid-twentieth century nonfiction film (not quite a documentary) is undeniably powerful for its horrifying imagery and introspective narration. RECOMMENDED.
  • The Immortal Story (1966) – Unbearably long (at less than an hour) take of a wealthy older man who becomes obsessed with living out an urban legend, by recruiting a young sailor and providing a woman for him to couple with. Everything about this film felt stagnant, from the lifeless dialogue to Orson Welles, at possibly his biggest, perched within his throne. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Blue Velvet (1986) – Arguably David Lynch’s breakout film, finding his auteur voice as a balance between classic film sensibilities and unsettling surrealism. This loaded crime mystery is hypnotic, dreamy, and sublimely beautiful. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Valley of the Dolls (1967) – Another delightful “so-bad-it’s-good” flick, about three young women in the 1960s who succumb to booze and pills. I got to see this in theaters with an enthusiastic audience, cheering for key moments (wig-pulling) and outrageous dialogue (“You know how bitchy f**s can be”). Not for everyone, but if you love camp this one is REQUIRED.

What did you see last week?

Weekly Round-Up: February 07-13, 2016

Last week was a little slower movies-wise – I was pretty busy for the long weekend and it took me several rounds to get through The Two Towers (not the movie’s fault – I was just tired!).

I saw:

  • The Danish Girl (2015) – Frustrating true story about a transgender painter undergoing through her transition in the early 20th century. Its story is mostly by-the-books but occasionally delves into camp, whether or not the movie knows it. NOT RECOMMENDED. [Though I did get to see this movie as part of a great Q&A event with co-star Alicia Vikander.]
  • Black Orpheus (1959) – Wonderfully vibrant and kinetic adaptation of the Orpheus myth into modern-day Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. The memorable music provides an exciting pulse all throughout this beautiful and romantic tragedy. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. [I also wrote an accompanying piece, Criterion Goes to Carnaval looking at how the holiday functions in the narrative of this film and Gilda.]
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) – Very strong “middle” film of the trilogy, with less concrete action taking place and more character development and laying the groundwork for the final film The Return of the King. This was my first time watching with audio commentary by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015) – Sweet animated film about sheep who travel into the city to bring their farmer home. The visual gags come a mile a minute, and you barely even notice that there’s no dialogue. RECOMMENDED.
  • Lady and the Tramp (1955) – Iconic Disney classic between two dogs from opposite sides of the tracks. The “Siamese Cat Song” and “Bella Notte” sequences are two highlights from this rich, complicated love story. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week?

Weekly Round-Up: January 31 – February 06, 2016

Last week, I saw:

  • Mildred Pierce (1945) – Another essential female-driven film noir, led by a career-driven Joan Crawford determined to win the love of her terrible daughter through financial success. In addition to the sheer quality of this movie, it’s also fun to watch as a time capsule of 1940s Los Angeles. REQUIRED.
  • Marty (1955) – Equal parts charming and frustratingly slow, this 1955 Best Picture winner never seems to reach its full potential. While there’s almost not enough story to fill its lean runtime, at its best, this comedy-drama about two middle-aged adults who struggle to find love is genuinely emotional and authentic. RECOMMENDED.
  • Annie Hall (1977) – I used to love this movie as a kid, but now I find Woody Allen’s angsty frustration less comical and more obnoxious. Diane Keaton is a delight to balance out the Allen side of the spectrum, and I appreciate its all-over-the-place structure, but this film didn’t work for me like it did 15 years ago. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Closely Watched Trains (1966) – A young man is determined to lose his virginity to a pretty colleague, all under the curtain of WWII-era Czechoslovakia. This offbeat film has an interesting feel, but ultimately didn’t click with me. I found the characters pretty distant and didn’t find the story elements particularly compelling. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Hail, Caesar! (2016) – A movie lover’s dream, this comedy-mystery from the Coen Brothers is a dazzling journey into the 1950s studio system with a delightful menagerie of “types.” The best discovery is the unknown (to me) actor Alden Ehrenreich, who seemed to me a mix of brooding James Dean with sympathetic Montgomery Clift, but Wikipedia says is a Kirby Grant type. But whether or not you can pin down specific people and places, Hail, Caesar! will be instantly familiar and more importantly, entertaining. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Easy A (2010) – Clever teen comedy about a virgin who builds herself a fake bad reputation. Emma Stone really holds her own in the film that (I believe) is her first starring role. RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week?

Weekly Round-Up: November 29 – December 05, 2015

This past week took things to a prehistoric level, with no fewer than three viewings of dinosaur movies:

  • The Good Dinosaur (2015) – A gorgeously animated, delicately told prehistoric western about a young dinosaur and his pet human finding their way home. (I liked it so much I watched it twice last week!) HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • All That Heaven Allows (1955) – Strong melodrama about the romance between a widow and a younger man, and their struggle against societal pressures. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • My Own Private Idaho (1991) – A young male prostitute goes on an international search for his mother. I must be missing something, because I don’t understand why people like this movie. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Pather Panchali (1955) – The story of a struggling family living in rural India. Beautifully shot and genuinely moving. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Shame (2011) – A sex addict reaches his breaking point when his sister comes to stay with him. Tremendously directed for how seriously it takes takes its subject matter. Certainly not for everybody, but HIGHLY RECOMMENDED if you’re okay with emotionally draining sex scenes!
  • Jurassic World (2015) – Mindless CGI sequel/remake of Jurassic Park. The scenes of Jurassic World as an operating theme park are the film’s strong suit. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Youth (2015) – Thoughtful, emotional story of a retired composer and the people close to him. RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week? Am I wrong about My Own Private Idaho or Jurassic World? Let me know in the comments!

Pather Panchali (1955)

Going into Pather Panchali (or Song of the Little Road), the first film of Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, I expected more of, well, Apu. As there are two more movies in “his” trilogy, I anticipate more Apu to come, but this first entry struck me by its broader focus on the family.

In fact, probably no one gets more screen time than his mother, Sabarjaya. Actress Karuna Banerjee gives a terrific performance as a strained woman being pulled in every direction – providing food & shelter for the elderly “Auntie” who lives with them; disciplining her daughter Durga, whose “thievery” has ignited disapproval & gossip from their neighbors; struggling their family’s finances, and pushing her husband Harihar to earn more for the family. Sabarjaya is not perfect, but one can easily empathize with everything on her plate and the pressures she undergoes as a woman, mother, caretaker.

Her son Apu, interestingly, is hardly a catalyst in any of the action. He is seen around the house, tagging along & bickering with his big sister, running to his neighbors’. Unlike traditional narratives, however, there is no “hero’s journey” he undergoes (at least within this first film); he barely has a story arc to speak of, as more a witness than a participant to any of the action.

Pather Panchali tells more of the change over time as one family falls deeper and deeper into financial strife. It is a snapshot of life, rather than a story with a beginning, middle, and end. But what a snapshot it is; Satyajit Ray’s debut is rich with memorable vignettes of life in rural India, driven by stunning imagery.

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When tragedy strikes, it is genuinely moving because we have been with this family through so many triumphs & failures, good times & bad. It is not difficult to see how this story of one rural Indian family struck a chord with audiences around the world.

All That Heaven Allows (1955)

From Douglas Sirk, the granddaddy of soaps, comes the triumph All That Heaven Allows, a small-town melodrama of forbidden lovers in a world that will not accept them.

This movie is so impressive largely because it handles such sappy material with genuine dignity and humanity. The basic premise has Jane Wyman as an upper-middle class widow, falling in love with her gardener Rock Hudson. They come from two different worlds – hers of country clubs and garden parties, his of cabins and nature. (His background and interests barely get fleshed out, but who cares?)

The strong performances truly elevate the slim plot, making us believe their romance and desperation to a far greater level than we probably should. With each disapproval from neighbors and family, the impact and toll it takes on their love are truly painful to withstand.

This film resonates so well also because it is still relevant; the strong socioeconomic contrast that nearly keeps them apart is just as real today, arguably even more so given the ever-rising divorce rates.

We also get some classic Sirkian phallic symbols – from Rock Hudson wielding a rifle at waist level to his ascending blanketed knee upon Jane Wyman’s arrival in a pivotal scene, Sirk inserts plenty of sex into an (explicitly) sexless film.

In addition to these tongue-in-cheek visual cues, though, Sirk also creates powerful imagery to convey Wyman’s sense of entrapment. In one memorable scene, her children (who have just expressed their intolerance of her new romance) give her a new TV set, placing it in an open space between a chair and the fireplace. This contraption, referenced earlier to “keep housewives busy” during the day, is spatially trapping her in her home – even further driven as the camera zooms into the TV’s reflection of Jane Wyman staring sadly into the screen.

The strong performances and gorgeous technicolor visuals contribute to a masterwork that far surpasses its predecessor Magnificent Obsession and grazes the brilliance of Written on the Wind.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter is one of the most bizarre movies I’ve seen, operating mostly as a crime thriller but also with elements of religious allegory, horror, and laugh-out-loud camp (an old lady walking down the street wielding an ax?).

In very basic terms, this movie has the always creepy Robert Mitchum as an ex-con who is after two children in possession of a doll stuffed with thousands of dollars. The Night of the Hunter gets its real scares from this narrative element, often suddenly shifting to realism in which Mitchum’s character pulls out a switchblade knife in hot pursuit of these young children. These disturbing images are not accompanied by fast editing or stylized music, making the effect all the more chilling and genuinely scary.

Another interesting aspect for this film is the prevalence of religious motifs. The movie starts out with something out of a Twilight Zone episode, us looking at a night sky with faces floating around recounting a Biblical story, and this theme continues through the film’s climax. In one of The Night of the Hunter’s most powerful moments, the children’s caretaker Mrs. Cooper tells the story of baby Moses in a reed boat floating up the Nile. This parallels beautifully with the two children, particularly the older son John, who themselves escaped their abusive household; this also proposes John as a savior figure, who has some greater destiny to protect others, as Mrs. Cooper does now. These are thought-provoking and engaging scenes that elevate The Night of the Hunter to more than your typical crime thriller.

I am eager to revisit this film so I am hesitant to give it a letter grade review. Much of this movie was all over the place, and I was focusing more on what was going on than evaluating it for sheer quality. I can tell you, however, that it is a very scary and engaging thriller, and is definitely worth watching. Almost 60 years later, there still haven’t been movies that go where The Night of the Hunter has.

Picnic (1955)

The 1950s present a very unique crossroads in the American perception of youth. The whole conception of teen-agers and adolescents as their own distinctive demographic was still fairly fresh (a product of the post-World War II era), a tension highlighted by the shifting culture of film and art during that time. The classical era of Hollywood was starting to fade away and grittier, arguably more realistic film was moving in.

It is hard to imagine films like Picnic and Rebel Without a Cause being about the same species, let alone the same demographic and being released in the very same year. Rebel kicked off the new wave of adolescence in film as a tortured, disturbed perspective on American life, while Picnic was with the older school of thought, of classical beauty and imagery.

While more romantic (and hopelessly idealistic), Picnic is just that: an absolutely beautiful movie. Much like East of Eden (another small-town, youth epic from 1955), Picnic is the story of a young hero trying to win over the girl and the approval of his fellow countrymen. Like most classical teen films, there is plenty of melodrama, but the film is shot in an almost transcendental manner. We are given sweeping shots of the young couple, silhouetted against the Kansas City twilight sky. They could be anybody, anywhere, at any time.

Picnic seems less concerned with the action of its primary characters than it is to raise fundamental questions. (Honestly, not that much happens in this movie.) Instead, it provokes questions of fate, how much control we have in our own lives, and lost opportunities. In one of the more tragic storylines, one couple puts off pursuing marriage for years and years, only to eventually follow through but for the wrong reasons. At what point do our dreams become facades? How much can (or should) we change for the people we love?

For any classical Hollywood film (let alone a youth-oriented one), these are very heavy questions to ask. Particularly in the post-war era, this film reflects the growing cynicism and sense of regret that became later associated with counterculture and other reactive youth culture (like Rebel).

In addition to a solid story, the film also gives us a wonderful ensemble cast, led by the miscast (but still fantastic, as always) William Holden and the stunning Kim Novak in a spellbinding love story. This is a very important, and often forgotten, epic youth film ripe with nostalgia and passion.