Sunday, December 15, 2013

Top Christmas Movies List

Okay, clearly I'm the kind of person who likes a little quirk with her Christmas. There's a few facts about me you should know before you take any of my recommendations:

1) I hate Santa. Seriously. I'm convinced that the tradition, however kindly and warm-hearted it began, has become a tool for undermining the true faith and confidence of child-type persons everywhere. Santa=Satan. Just call me the grinch and get over it. I'm absolutely what the Grinch would be, if he had been raised Calvinist. The Grinch is also not on this list.

2) I have a severe distaste for Frank Capra. It's a Wonderful Life is NOT on this list.

3) I have never seen National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, and I didn't see A Christmas Story until I was well too old to think it was funny, or develop any warm memories.

That's at least five Christmas Classics that aren't making this list. You're bound to think one of them is the shizzle. Are you still with me?

Let's get started. In No Particular Order, the Christmas films I rewatch as often as possible include:

Christmas in Connecticut (1945). I've seen the '92 version with Kris Kristofferson and Dyan Cannon. I only remember hating it. The '45 version, though, is a brilliant combination of sweet Dennis Morgan and wry Barbara Stanwyck. Also, "Cuddles" Sakall really makes it complete. Christmas doesn't exist for me without his practical wit. "Nobody needs a mink coat but the mink!" It's a flight of fancy. A romantic interlude. And the closest I'll ever get to admiring Americana.

A Christmas Carol (1951). Alastair Sim is the other man without whom my Christmas simply doesn't happen. Nobody else in any version of this classic Dickens story, as much as I admire them (Michael Caine especially, because he SINGS! With MUPPETS!) quite captures the giddy glee of real redemption. He's a genius actor, because I watch him, and I don't know if he's ever felt it before, but I know I have. That's what it feels like to get a second chance - to TAKE a second chance. Bless the man.

Mixed Nuts (1994). I discovered this little gem when I was a teenager, and it stuck. It's insane, with a side order of Madeline Kahn. I adore her, but she doesn't make this film. Only the director and a team of highly trained professionals could make this movie. Even Steve Martin doesn't carry the whole film, though he comes off quite deliciously throughout. I grew up in the American Southwest, so I especially liked seeing a Christmas that wasn't compulsorily white, though the cast was.

Snow (2004) Okay, Santa actually shows up in this one. It's actually Santa Fic. but I don't hate it, because although it has that evil "Santa is REAL!" theme, it's so ridiculously fantastic, that I don't care. Besides, although he does wear red (annoyed face), he isn't old, fat, or jolly. He's young, neurotic, and in love. I watch this one for the romance, and for that little fact that must seem like a plot hole just begging for a "HISHE" mock: the magic is there when you need it. If the film were touting a "Santa always wins!" thing, I would reject it entirely. But I identify with Nick. My life works that way. The magic always comes through. Rather than expecting the audience to believe in Santa, he becomes an allegory. I also enjoy Snow 2: Brainfreeze because Family.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994). Just watched it. Again, the redemption/second-chance theme is heavy and real in a film that's pure invention. The lines are thick, and the acting heavy-handed, but the story is, again, a brilliant allegory with symbols wrapped in sight-gags. This might be my new holiday favorite. It's problematic from a feminist perspective, and not very romantic at all, but visually fascinating and thematically poignant.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). I hate that Disney owns this. But between Skeleton Jack and Batman Returns (1992), Tim Burton really knows how to capture the quirky, subculture, hipster side of Christmas. No redemption allegories, but a lot of subtextual kink and black leather, decorated with Christmas lights. Also, he knows who to invite to his party. In Nightmare that's Catherine O'Hara, in Batman it's Michelle Pfeifer and Christopher Walken (I like Danny Devito too, but his character is a bit extreme for my sensibilities), and in both, Danny Elfman accompanies. Brilliant stuff.

While You Were Sleeping (1995). You don't actually have to watch this one, you just have to be able to quote it. At my house, that involves ironic comments that "these mashed potatoes are so creamy!" every time we start an argument at dinner.

MST3K: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1991). While this is technically a television episode revolving around a 1960s film, it's legitimately funny. Though I mention it mostly for my little brother John, who introduced me to it and now lives in the arctic wastes of North Dakota.

 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Last Kind Words (2012)

I'll be honest: I watched this film because I adore Brad Dourif, and I'm happy to say this film shows him doing his best thing - shouting "No!" and curling into an agonized ball. Well done. I am satisfied.

As a horror film, this movie is creepy enough, I suppose. People act violently, unkindly, and unpredictably. Truly, though, Last Kind Words was much more deeply tragic than frightening. The pace was slow, and the scenery artistic. The whole thing just felt so sad. All the misery, the pathetic lives, all the perpetuated violence, made the film feel whistful, and heartwrenching. It was too gentle (in plot progress, if nothing else) and too human to frighten me. It reminded me of lynch photography (for obvious reasons), and struck me not for its supernatural/unnatural danger, but for its entirely understandable, if sometimes overwhelming, pain. As Sam Winchester says once, "they're just people!" And people do horrifying things to other people. And it breaks our hearts, but it doesn't have the same effect as slinging around gallons of fake blood.

I have to give this film extra points for the creation and maintenance of a simple, usable, and believable mythology.

It was surprising, and worth time and attention. It's a little clunky, but probably underrated nonetheless.

A Haunting at Silver Falls

This 2013 (remarkably recent) film possesses a fine example of my favorite pet peeve - the failed beefgeek. Seriously, putting an over-tanned beefcake in pathetically large and decades out-of-date glasses does not make him capable of performing geekery. If you want us to believe your character scored over 2400 on the SATs, hire an actor capable of pronouncing technobabble, and then GIVE HIM TECHNOBABBLE. (I mean, provided you can write it. If you can't write it - just stick to what you know. Write average characters). Really. Technobabble is SEXY. Why do you think we all go nuts for Benedict Cumberbatch? It isn't his cartoony lips, I swear. It's what comes out of them.

Although: points for making your character look incapable of slapping somebody hard enough to make a sound.

Sorry to start a review on a low-note. As a thriller and a mystery, this film passed! It was at least average, if not slightly above on the "smart protagonist" score (that chick was written strong!) especially for her repeatedly and sincerely turning down the drug-dealing, predatory douche-nozzle (although that unfortunately left her in the clutches of the film's mysterious perpetrator). Unfortunately, her preference for a really bad actor didn't win the audience's sympathy, and watching him as a finishing minion, I felt "meh."

Oh - and I think a couple of times the filter was a little too strong. I don't think woods are supposed to be black and white. Although colors are more difficult for the eye to distinguish in the dark, it's not impossible for most people.

They

This 2002 horror story was entirely adequate, although (and this is difficult to say, because I have always hated people who say this) not actually very frightening. The storyteller/director made an interesting decision to keep the nature of "them" and the fate of their victims from the audience until the last few moments of filming. That decision makes sense, because the explanation doesn't allow for the characters to discover it: they're not some legend that can be googled, which is a nicely realistic, if sort of frustrating touch, because it doesn't allow any intellectual movement - which impedes plot movement. 

We WANT to know what things are and what they want. Words like "eat us" are thrown around, but without any kind of substantiation, even at the end. People just disappear, after being very, very frightened. Although understanding the nature of a thing makes it less frightening (which clearly isn't the direction to go, here), even progress towards the main character's final *spoiler* captivity would give the plot some kind of suspense and structure. Instead, Julia (the main character) waffles between belief and disbelief, between stability and insanity, and between strength and fear. This type of film doesn't really use that type of realism very well. They would have been better off offering the audience some kind of cosmic worldview to encorporate Them. Even in the ending, the audience is still largely baffled. Well, I was largely baffled.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Internship

This priceless gem is about two old guys who teach some geeky YAs that the only way to be truly happy and find yourself is to have (at least) one wild night of sex, alcohol, and violence.

I'm interested in the parallel between the BBRCs and the drunk/vulnerable scene, but I'm not a fan of comedies generally. Don't ask me to gush, because you won't like the liquid I choose.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Monkeybone

This review is NOT approved for all audiences.
I'm not sure there's much to be said for a movie about a guy who animates his phallus. I'll keep it short.

Although the physical acting was solid, and Brendan Frasier and Bridget Fonda both offered entertaining performances (if somewhat unexciting), the images were too much Roger Rabbit and not enough Tim Burton, although the sets and effects were often full of potential. I mean it was necessarily juvenile, but that fact itself made the story unemotional. It became impossible to identify with the characters, which is a huge tragedy, because Bridget Fonda. She always oozes sympathy and wit, and in this role, though we clearly took her side, she merely filled a generic "girlfriend" slot.

Let's talk about the gender issues. Clearly, if you're going to turn your penis into a cheeky monkey (so many things wrong with that sentence), you have to be a guy, right? Because Freud was right: women don't have one.

Dude.

This becomes a problem when you are equating your external sex organs with your internal personality struggles. Basically, the movie is claiming that a man has two sides: his traumatized, loving, responsible side that wants to sleep and propose, and the evil, mischievous, fun side that just wants to squeeze or penetrate anything it's attracted to. The film also points out that women might be attracted to both sides of a man.

It doesn't, however, even begin to talk about the complexity of women until the concluding animations, when everybody is basically turned into an animated monkey. Despite the fact that it's not really complexity, it is pretty gender-neutral in those moments. But not until then. Until then, women are left as accessories to a man's internal struggle. They are the object of adoration, and the reason to repress the monkey, and educated spectators of the masculine internal struggle, but they don't have the same struggles themselves. None of the women show the least amount of depth or internality, and in the moment when Fonda does dream, she dreams of her wedding. With the man.

I'm sorry, but despite the imagination, this film gets pissed on by my feminist side.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Ladykillers

It's not quite a heist film. I mean, it very much is. I mean, sort of. There's certainly a heist, and some good planning, but I think the heist film genre requires the thieves to be the protagonists, which they are, I mean the good guys, which they're not. Sort of. I mean. . .

I don't think this film needs a review. It's a dark comedy classic. Sir Alec Guiness spends the entire film doing a brilliant Alastair Sim impression, and Peter Sellers does as little acting as possible, which still leaves him 100% chameleon, though not looking very comfortable as a flashy, gun-toting thug.

The place at which the character of Mrs. Wilberforce is possible fascinates me, though. The setting is contemporaneous with the film's production, so early fifties. The writer was American (Missouri, according to IMDB), though he lived in England to write his screenplays. His admiration of the Victorian woman is incomparable. Was he borrowing a stereotype, or did he personally like to jab affectionate teasing at the elderly women he possibly met? Katie Johnson plays a disturbing combination of unflappable, naive, and belligerent.

Anyway, not much more to say about this, except I suspect it was colorized.

Flypaper

I love heist movies. It's why I've seen Now You See Me at full price twice in the last month, despite my temporary lack of income.

Flypaper had a ridiculous premise, and turned out to be lots of fun, as films go, but there were too many swearwords. It's a stupid reason to dislike a film, and yet, the language was so strong it distracted me from the characters, and from the plot.

But it's realistic!

Yeah, and in real life, swearwords distract me from characters and plot, too. That's what they're for. It's all camouflage. Swearing, verbal obscenity, is designed to bury meaning in adamance. Dialogue, in film and literature, is always stylized. The "um"s are cut out, and so are most of the expletives, because when used too liberally they inhibit storytelling. They dilute the English language. Like that old 90's valley-girl stereotype, who can't finish a clause without adding a "like."

So, while the story was interesting and the movie was full of fun, energetic actors, there's no need to do your brain this kind of violence.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

For clarity: this isn't a movie. It was a mock-vlog reenacting Pride and Prejudice. It was set in California, and brilliantly updated. But I did waste a lot of time on it, and it deserves critical attention. It was an ambitious and well-executed project.

Things it did well: 1) captured the family trauma and separation anxiety that even the novel seems to make light of (I got all misty - several times). 2) made Lizzie a dynamic, maturing character rather than the static wit of Austen's novel (this contrast is clearly arguable). 3) updated the social conditions without sacrificing too many finer plot points (marriage became interchangable with business relationships). 4) brought familial affections to the foreground ahead of romance as part of the "updating." 4) ended drama/trauma with surprise and humor. 5) the female costumes. Brilliant.

Things it did badly: 1) Collins and Darcy were both clearly beefcakes in business suits. That works great for most casual audience members who like a nice beefcake with their Harlequin, and for Collins's already-established dislikability, but it's fatal for a romantic hero like Darcy, who in this portrayal, was clearly struggling to keep his pectorals behind his shirt-buttons. While his uneasy physicality made Lizzie's descriptor "robotic" quite believable, it made his position as CEO of Pemberly Digital totally ridiculous. Real businessmen (especially the obsessive, reclusive types) can be robotic, but they know their business, and they jargon fluidly, and they USE CONTRACTIONS. Anybody who thinks people don't use contractions is working with a stereotype outdated by nearly half a century. And briefly (and oddly successfully) resuscitated by Ryan O'Neal in What's Up Doc?. And sorry, but anybody who spends THAT much time in the gym is going to be more comfortable with himself.

The unfortunately clumsy use of jargon and academese is the fault of the writing, not the acting, but a superlative actor can pull off bad academese. See Samantha Carter or Daniel. . . in Stargate: SG1, or Darth Sidious in the Star Wars prequels (they all got bad writing, but only Ian McDiarmid managed to sound like not an idiot).

Anyway, Darcy is nearly impossible to write or act, after the brilliantly taciturn Colin Firth. Even (don't hate me) Matthew Macfadyen, though very much the Romantic (note the big "R") hero, and a beautiful specimen of the male of the species, ended his version by spouting drivel to satisfy the contemporary craving for verbal orgasm.

I think the key to a successful Darcy is "aloof." Less is more. The more you write, the more you are exposed to criticism, and this reticence is precisely the philosophy by which Austen's hero lives. "We neither of us speak unless we expect to amaze the whole room" - or some such epigram. 

Um, and what was up with his hair?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Holiday

Having seen this film perhaps three or four times, I expected to drift through on my enjoyment of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, but the family dynamic made me slow down and pay attention. The father is a stock character: a stereotyped arbitrary authoritarian-style parent, right down to the now-cliched mispronouncing the potential son-in-law's name when upset. It's the Seton siblings that got my attention.

The three siblings are Linda, Julia, and Ned, in chronological order of ages. Linda is, of course (Hepburn), the heroine. As the actors play it, Julia is the only dynamic character (ostensibly). Although atttiudes shift between the three, Julia rides the waves of audience disapproval toward new heights of aloofness. Linda garners all of the sympathy with her deeply pathetic self-sacrifice and dedication to non-money-based ideals. Ned drinks, which wouldn't have endeared him, but he also supports Linda verbally, and woos the audience with his musical talent and bitter humor. However, he hasn't Linda's (or Julia's) courage to do more than drink, talk, and play. All three siblings developed under the pressures of wealth, and each reacts differently. Linda grows strong in resistance. Julia allows herself to be shaped by it, growing strong in her own way, but clearly deformed. Ned is aware of the pressure and its immorality, but hasn't the strength yet to resist. Because of his awareness and submission, he is likely in the worst pain emotionally because he submits against his own conscience, becoming smaller and visibly self-destructive.

I am a dark-haired, non-conformist oldest sister, and my next youngest sibling is a blonde, hard-working woman. Like Linda and Julia, my sister and I often disagree about politics, personal philosophies, and people. She's the pretty one - the trophy daughter. I'm stubborn, clumsy, and inclined to error. I don't try to "save" my sister from her life choices, but I do care about her happiness very deeply. Katherine Hepburn plays the blindly devoted older sister perfectly, and embraces Linda's propensity to error.

All three siblings are tested by Johnny Case (Cary Grant). He enters the ancient home with great naivete, and each sibling must react to it, and face the audience's judgement thereby. Julia loves the person at first, but reacts to his naivete by trying to eliminate it - to cut off that part of his personality with great prejudice. Linda embraces it - acknowledges it as a probably fault, but still submits to the uncertainty exactly as she could NOT embrace the security of her family's wealth and position. Ned, though positioned differently, as a heterosexual man, accepts Case's quirks only as far as it allows them to be playmates or drinking buddies. Case's naivete becomes the testing apparatus on which audience approval hangs, and so it's clearly essential that a charismatic star like Grant play the role.

Julia wants to change Johnny, which is clearly an attitude against the moral code of the film, although the moral code of the film appears flawed in the depression-era production context. Johnny wants to make a quick million, quit his job, and tool around the world. That kind of flippancy, as delightfully manic-pixie as it is, is bound to frustrate the thousands of unemployed audience members sitting in the dark. And yet the film questions the need for 9-5 work, as if all those unemployed audience members have been given the profound option of a "holiday" (sans million) without the family pressures. Johnny's nativete only functions properly as moral rubric as long as he holds the audience's admiration, which he does only as far as he maintains a sympathetic raport with poverty: enter Edward Everett Horton.

EEH is one of my absolute, all-time favorite voice- and screen-actors. His trademark befuddled wit and general good-humor never fail to cheer me up. In this film, he plays a poor professor, and Johnny Case's dearest friend, and it is that money-free friendship which allows the millionaire Case to keep the moral balance of the story. He's rich, but he's friends with poor people (though people with clear Cultural Capital, as well as a certain amount of charisma). He's the kind of guy who might make friends with me, too. That kind of identification is absolutely essential in these kinds of veiled morality tales, even veiled as they are in brilliant screwball comedy.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Woman Times Seven

After The Bicycle Thief, I was surprised to find another de Sica just sitting on my Netflix queue, and I decided to give Italian neo-realism another shot. Although much more amusing, Woman Times Seven (starring Shirley MacLaine), in a series of humorous vignettes, betrayed a frustrating mysogyny. These women are fickle, and easily flattered. They are willful, but weak.

The film is not neo-realism. The shots were well-scripted, and carefully edited. But the soul of situation still emerged. You might enjoy it. And Peter Sellers, and Michael Caine, and a few others. . .

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Bicycle Thief (1948)

I watched it for class. It's a great example of Italian neo-realism. Unless you're interested in the cinematography, I see no reason to put yourself through this, though the reviewers on Netflix seemed to like it a lot. I don't know why. It's realism, so the artifice of American melodramatic tensions, and emotional payoff don't appear at all, though it's ideologically stable, if somewhat momentarily inconsistent.

Friday, January 25, 2013

L'illusionniste

Sad. Sad, sad, sad. This animated feature, about an unsuccessful magician and the girl who believes he's truly magical, ends on an abruptly "coming of age" moment for what seemed to be static characters, rather than working towards a long, dynamic shift. I found the animation entertaining, and at moments beautiful, and comical, and for those who think "sad" is "happy for deep people," this should be your nirvana. I think happy is happy for anyone who can reject postmodern angst.

The story, really, is about the magician, not the little girl. He craves adoration, but can only get it by fooling a child. His rejection of such trickery at the end seems to indicate his freedom from some kind of addiction. It's meant to be hopeful, but it means that the storytellers portray the child, as she grows into a woman, as frustratingly naive, and ultimately hopeless. She simply passes from one kind of belief in magic into another, while the magician moves from a potentially enriching association to lonely oblivion.

But this film has value, and provokes thought. I would recommend it for a quiet, rainy afternoon. With lots of chocolate.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Battleship Potemkin

I made a serious emotional mistake. This silent film from Sergei Eisenstein (1925) was assigned by my professor for a discussion of montage in film, and Eisenstein's abrasive montage style. Watching the film was not any kind of mistake; it's an intelligent film, if you overlook the broad propaganda. Eisenstein uses several different cutting techniques to create different kinds of montage, all for the purpose of Attractions; of shocking the audience with defamiliarization, and a quick sequence of synnergistic images (images which seem unrelated, extra-narrative, but combine inside the viewer's experience to indicate a third, further idea). Eisenstein wrote about his theories, and of course I got to read it.

Battleship Potemkin was often difficult. Images of raw meat, violence, and long, geometric cuts all make the experience somewhat less than full of wonder. Also, the montages often felt like a mental assault. But it was clever, and artistic.

Totally coincidentally, a film I'd been putting off for months arrived via Netflix. Josef Sternberg's The Last Command (1928) sat on the nightstand for a week. But last night I decided I should watch it and get it into the mail right after the holiday. So I stuck it in, and started watching. It took ten minutes for the American melodrama to reach my tear-ducts. I cried like a baby for an hour and fifteen minutes (I fast-forwarded, for the sake of sleep). It's a silent film, also about the Russian Revolution (the 1917 one this time, instead of the 1905 Odessa incident). The lead actors gave brilliant performances, and the editing was smooth, and narrativistic. I'm afraid the sight of a sad, old man being victimized just breaks my heart.

These two films contrast each-other brilliantly. You get a strong sense of the differences between these early editing theories. But they're both a bit much. Maybe watch with a half-gallon of ice cream?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Jane Eyre (1973)

This is the worst version of Jane Eyre I've ever run across. Though the novel was, in several moments, melodramatic, nowhere does the script necessitate chewing the scenery. And yet, I could see teethmarks.

PASS. 1 out of 10 for picking a good book, and an eternity of hell for what they did to it.

Broken Blossoms

Now begins a new and exciting era of film viewing; a graduate-level film theory course, and the films it necessitates. I shall become insufferable on the subject of film.

This abnormally depressing specimen by D. W. Griffith fascinates me for a few reasons. The colors shift from blue at night, sepia indoors, and red in China. They're nonspecific (the whole screen changes color), but fascinating shifts with interesting meanings. Dark blues (violet) in the street. . . What Does It Mean!?

The scenes in China are strongly anglicized, I'm sure. The scene of the chinese family, the father giving children coins, feels English. The leading man's mission to convert the Anglo-Saxon is just European orientalism with the roles reversed (in London, he has a conversation with an English missionary, to emphasize the irony). Did the Chinese bother to convert the English to Buddhism? It doesn't seem an evangelical religion in the slightest - very welcoming, but not proselytized.

The lead male, as Chinese, is portrayed as kindly and well-meaning, but weak and dissolute. His love for an abused girl is a cultural transgression (in the eyes of English patriarchal society) that the film cannot allow to be successful, though the audience sympathizes with the pair.

It seems, on this note, significant that Cheng Huan doesn't try to sleep with Lucy. "His love remains pure and holy." In pre-code Hollywood, the significance is not lost.

The femal lead (Lillian Gish), acts very well. The way she forces a smile with her fingers, curls up on the rope at the dock, flinches back from her abusive father, they all catch the character forcefully.

Broken Blossoms

Now begins a new and exciting era of film viewing; a graduate-level film theory course, and the films it necessitates. I shall become insufferable on the subject of film.

This abnormally depressing specimen by D. W. Griffith fascinates me for a few reasons. The colors shift from blue at night, sepia indoors, and red in China. They're nonspecific (the whole screen changes color), but fascinating shifts with interesting meanings. Dark blues (violet) in the street. . . What Does It Mean!?

The scenes in China are strongly anglicized, I'm sure. The scene of the chinese family, the father giving children coins, feels English. The leading man's mission to convert the Anglo-Saxon is just European orientalism with the roles reversed (in London, he has a conversation with an English missionary, to emphasize the irony). Did the Chinese bother to convert the English to Buddhism? It doesn't seem an evangelical religion in the slightest - very welcoming, but not proselytized.

The lead male, as Chinese, is portrayed as kindly and well-meaning, but weak and dissolute. His love for an abused girl is a cultural transgression (in the eyes of English patriarchal society) that the film cannot allow to be successful, though the audience sympathizes with the pair.

The femal lead (Lillian Gish), acts very well. The way she forces a smile with her fingers, curls up on the rope at the dock, flinches back from her abusive father, they all catch the character forcefully.