Weekly Round-Up: March 27 – April 02, 2016

  • The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – Fiercely brilliant political puzzle, following a troubled Korean War vet piece together what happened overseas as a senator’s sensational Communist accusations sweep the presses. Slightly slow at times but an overall masterwork, driven by sophisticated dialogue and genuine suspense. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002) – Another one that’s easy to make fun of, but this chapter in the saga provides a nice glimpse into everyday life of the Republic and passionate music by John Williams (to accompany romantic dialogue of varying quality). RECOMMENDED.
  • Brooklyn (2015) – Steadily soaring in my favorite films of the past decade, this love story continues to wow me with its intelligent dialogue and nostalgic setting. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

What did you see three weeks ago?

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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?

Six Feet Under (2001-2005)

I have never seen a TV series as emotionally devastating, and perhaps as satisfying, as HBO’s Six Feet Under.

Over the past year or so, I have worked my way through five seasons with the Fischer family, who run a funeral home in Los Angeles. As can be expected with a series with such content, it is often very grim and filled with heavy thematic material. In addition to death, we are often confronted with issues of intrafamily conflict, drug abuse and addiction, terminating pregnancies, infidelity, incest, and everything in between. For a show this serious in tone, it certainly earns its chops.

While it does balance these themes with glimpses of humor and fantasy, the show is mostly a realistic but wholly human drama. Six Feet Underdoes not try to take the easy way out of any storyline or reduce its wonderfully developed characters to caricature. The artistic, liberal daughter surprises herself by falling in love with a conservative lawyer. The uptight mother occasionally literally lets her hair down and barrels through bottles of wine and drug experimentation. The list goes on and on.

This show is so special and so extraordinary because it fosters these characters who are consistent yet surprising; this is a difficult balance that most shows do not achieve, and do it convincingly. Over a mere sixtysomething episodes, this family does become alive to us, and makes the finale that much more heartbreaking.

The series finale is easily the most emotionally traumatic episode of television I’ve ever seen. Hands down. The loss of the “main” character Nate (even though all the Fischers, and then some, are essential to the show) was devastating enough, but watching the deaths of all of the family and those we the audience have come to love has upset me in a way no other television, or maybe artistic work period, has. THAT, however, is the hallmark of great television. It transcended the line between what is fiction and made it real to the viewer, overcoming the nearly impossible challenge all art faces.

I initially became interested in Six Feet Under because creator Alan Ball also made the excellent HBO series True Blood, and I am so happy I put in the effort. He has given us a wonderfully ambitious series, that meets and surpasses any expectations of a show that tackles death on a weekly basis.This is a series that often challenges and provokes the meaning of life and what we can do to make our short time on Earth worthwhile. It does not try to offer any easy answers and it does not condescend its audience to teach us any lessons. What it does do, very effectively, is present us a five-year window into the lives of a family that we can’t help but see ourselves in, and forces us to re-examine our own lives and how to make the most of what we have. This is one of the few TV series I can call important and even essential viewing.

Chicago (2002)

My relationship with Chicago can best be described as dysfunctional. When it was released I was in the 6th grade, and I was absolutely obsessed with it. Part of the appeal was certainly the raunchiness, as it was possibly the dirtiest movie I had seen at that time (sex scenes! garters! loose morals!) but as I get older the shock wears off. (Duh.)

With age and repeat viewings, I also find myself more critical of it. The film’s “protagonist” Roxie Hart becomes less and less likeable and the sound editing rather gimmicky. The choices in directing mesmerized me in my youth, but now I find them rather obvious and dull.

However, while the content is less impressive to me, its style and what the movie represents bring the movie significant more weight and, in my opinion, make it more and more essential. The musical numbers are all very well staged, particularly the unforgettable “Cell Block Tango.” Furthermore, Chicago has the honor of being possibly the only noir movie musical.

Yes, it’s a musical (black) comedy, but there’s no one to root for here; everybody’s got loose morals, and in the end, two murderesses beat the system and become celebrities. What?

Movies like this would never have flown in classical Hollywood, so Chicago is a jewel in the noir crown. The take-home message, essentially, is that we can get away with terrible crimes and that we should stop at nothing to get what we want. It’s the standard Hero’s Journey, but with murder and dishonesty as tools to use to achieve our ends.

While I do think the film runs a bit long, for the most part it is a supremely entertaining movie harkening back to a time when the movies were meant to be fun; the characters are cynical and conniving, but doggone it they’re gonna sing and dance and we’ll all have a good time.

This is a movie where the sum of its parts is greater than the whole, with fantastic musical numbers but a few lagging dialogue scenes in the second hour, but the film has such an important role both in modern noir and in the modern musical where it is undoubtedly an essential viewing for contemporary cinema. “Isn’t it swell?”