Weekly Round-Up: July 03-09, 2016

I can’t believe I went an entire week (June 26 – July 02) without any movies. And this week was a slow one too! I saw:

  • The Notorious Bettie Page (2005) – Very thoughtful and respectful biopic of the pin-up queen of the 1950s. The film’s greatest strength, and bravery, lies in its blending of Miss Page’s career choices and spirituality not as contradictory, but complementary in forming a complex, confident woman of the 20th century. Gretchen Mol shines in the title role. RECOMMENDED.
  • Ghostbusters (1984) – Rewatching the original to prep for the remake’s launch the following week. It’s been years since I’d seen it, so I was a little surprised by the slower-than-expected pacing as well as the dirty jokes (PG was a different time back then!), but the moments of sheer insanity are still thrilling. RECOMMENDED.
  • Ghostbusters II (1989) – First time with this one – not quite as good as the original, but there were some great laugh-out-loud gags and character interactions. RECOMMENDED.

What did you see two weeks ago?

Weekly Round-Up: May 15-21, 2016

Last week, I saw:

  • Woman in the Dunes (1964) – At its best, this demented love story is an absolute thriller, chronicling the kidnapping and imprisonment of one man by a rural Japanese village. Unfortunately, this intriguing premise loses momentum and is all but buried by its 2 1/2 hour running time. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Descendants (2015) – I adore this movie, to the point where my friend Albert and I recorded an audio commentary this week (to be released soon) analyzing the film even further. The Disney villains’ kids go to high school together – what more could you want? RECOMMENDED.
  • The Witch (2016) – Even better on home video than in theaters, thanks to subtitles! I even watched it with audio commentary which provided additional insights. Nearly six months in, this might be my pick of top movie of 2016. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Blue Hawaii (1961) – Silly but enjoyable Elvis musical about a young man torn between his destiny as a pineapple heir and staying a beach bum with his friends. Great songs and Angela Lansbury are icing on the cake. RECOMMENDED.
  • The New World (2005) – Spectacular historical drama exploring the intertwining lives of John Smith, Pocahontas, and John Rolfe. From what I’ve seen, this is by far my favorite Malick film. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Black Moon (1975) – Surrealist trashfest that is equal parts Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and Godard’s Weekend, but with none of the wit or purpose. I get that there was something about a battle of the sexes, but couldn’t grasp how hordes of naked kids running about or old ladies talking to pet rats contributed to this idea. NOT RECOMMENDED.

The New World (2005)

A creative executive once told me that the key to storytelling success is a balance of condensation and distillation: condensation to contextualize and broaden the scope beyond your immediate story, and distillation to dive in deep and explore your characters inside and out.

Terrence Malick’s The New World is a triumphant balance of the two, by telling a story of epic proportions (the first Europeans to land on American shores), and as intimate a love story (between Pocahontas and John Smith) as has ever been filmed. The story glides seamlessly from key historic events, such as the English sailors’ arrival in Virginia or Pocahontas saving John Smith’s life, to the internal monologues and captivating montages Malick is best known for. Narrative story elements are interspersed with introspective aggregate thoughts, drawing us into a foreign time and place through first-person contact.

When John Smith returns to the British fort after living temporarily with a Native tribe, there is bickering among the men on who should lead them next. As they go on, we pivot into Smith’s interior thoughts, as he adjusts from a joyful life with Pocahontas and the Natives back to his reality:

It was a dream. Now I am awake.

We know of course, that the Americas was not truly a “New World,” but the film’s title applies less to the place and more to the characters’ state of being. John Smith a prisoner, freed upon landing in the Americas. Pocahontas fascinated by a totally new way of life, captivated by her first love. John Rolfe, starting anew after losing his wife and child. They all experience new worlds of their own, and follow a similar journey of dreamlike bliss before settling into a less satisfying reality.

It is at times heartbreaking, and very often moving, and the sheer love of everyone involved shines through each frame of The New World. There are no real villains; the interactions between English and Native American are not trivialized or simplified. The plight each character faces is that struggle of condensation and distillation: balancing what is good for the community and collective whole, while satisfying one’s own interests and desires. It is the classic American story, set at the birth of America.

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The New World Criterion Collection edition is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Weekly Round-Up: April 03-09, 2016

  • Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (2005) – Certainly the strongest of the prequel trilogy, this chapter follows the young Anakin Skywalker on his path to becoming Darth Vader. Ian McDiarmid steals the show as Senator/Emperor Palpatine in all his cackling glory. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) – Spectacular sequel, with a terrific cast of new characters and respectful restraint for bringing back familiar faces. One of the finest films of 2015, and maybe just maybe my favorite Star Wars film. REQUIRED.
  • Beauty and the Beast (1991) – My favorite movie. Got to see this as a Throwback Thursday screening at El Capitan Theatre, with producer Don Hahn and directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise speaking about the film’s production. REQUIRED.
  • The Jungle Book (1967) – Bizarro yet truly inspired Disney film bringing together the dark romance of the jungle with swingin’ jazz music. Like Pinocchio, this features a cast of memorable villains, notably the dry wit of Shere Khan and the subtle predator King Louie. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

What did you see two weeks ago?

More Thoughts on the “Six Feet Under” Finale

The entire episode is amazing, and it could have ended with Claire leaving her home, having taken the last “present-day” portrait of the Fischer family, to pursue her new life as an artist in New York.

But, for those of you who have seen the series, you know it doesn’t end there. We are given what is (for me at least) the most heart-wrenching 10 minutes of television, as one by one all the major characters of the show die. Not in one big, terrible swoop, but across the years, dropping in on them in their final moments.

For starters, this inclusion is obviously supposed to make us sad. We’ve spent five seasons with these characters. We love them. And we love seeing their respective deaths as means of finding peace. Ruth, who spend much of the series feeling lonely and isolated, dies among loved ones. Michael, having lost Keith years earlier, sees a vision of his late husband moments before dying himself. Claire dies surrounded by pictures of her loved ones, wrapped up in her own memories. For something as sad as the deaths of these characters, they all move on in pretty satisfying ways.

But writer/director Alan Ball is smarter than that. These emotionally devastating scenes aren’t included just to make us sad, or even to make us happy or to wrap things up. I think his main goal is to remind us that everything, in fact, does end. As viewers we take it for granted that the characters we grow so attached to will live on forever and ever, in our dreams and our hearts beyond the series finale. No matter how happy their lives go past the present-day of 2005 (where the series ends, for the most part), they all will die. We need to remember that. They are not eternal.

Sure, that’s tough love and it’s a very challenging and trying experience to sit through. But it’s a necessary one, and it really hits the point of Six Feet Under home. As borderline-traumatic as that finale is, I can’t imagine what is undoubtedly one of the finest TV series ending any other way.

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.