With the Oscar nominations on the verge of being announced, there were a lot of award-centric options available for our first movie night of 2016. But sometimes you’ve got to laugh. Bianca and I chose to put a pin in Spotlight and check in with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.Read More
Starting a blog has given me Brass Ring Disease. I try too hard to make every post super-special, and end up with a piece that's too long and not insightful enough. I prefer the posts I just kind of dash off. So I'm going to try to write more casually, more often.
A great first movie for this effort is Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood. They really dashed off that movie.Read More
"Do you trust me?"
James Bond asks that question during an action scene in *Spectre*. He doesn't wait for an answer; he jumps down an elevator shaft with his lover in his arms. The question was just a way of getting ready to jump.
That was supposed to be a lead-in to a point about trust and self-expression, but I let it sit a few hours and now I don't know what the next part could be. The progression:
1. Jump down elevator shafts.
2. But ask first.
3. But not for permission.
4. To clear your throat.
5. This will also project an air of trustworthiness to the person you want to join you in jumping down the elevator shaft.
6. Lost the thread again. Wait.
7. This isn't a reflection of the movie. The shaft-plummet is relatively incidental, and perfectly fine. It doesn't stand out in *Spectre*, nor would it any action movie. We wish we could jump down elevator shafts with Lea Seydoux.
8. Spoiler alert. Lea Seydoux makes it to the third act of the movie. Did not expect she would be revealed as the rebooted Scaramanga.
9. Just noted my use of the word "lover" above. I'm going to stick with it. It's a sophisticated, cheesy, 80s way of talking, which I appreciate. Talk like that requires comfort with intimacy and oneself. My college girlfriend and I would jokingly call each other "lover" sometimes, in private. It was our secret. We legitimately laughed every time we said it. *"Hey, Luvah." "Come here, Luvah."* We fought a lot. The lover thing some of the best moments we had together. The word lover is fine. If you find someone who'll let you call them that, try to keep it going.
10. James Bond.
11. I liked Spectre a lot. I've found my feelings on the Daniel Craig Bonds shift over time so I won't rank it with the others just this minute. But I do think it's as close to a regular-old 007 movie as we've had with Craig in the role.
12. Craig's Bond run has been characterized by the very throat-clearing he needs to jump down an elevator shaft. Rather than going on a one-off adventure and basically resetting on the next one, each of the Craig Bonds has 007 gaining some experience, iconography, or cleaning up some unfinished business, that is keeping him earning his stripes or fully performing. At the end of Skyfall it seemed like Craig had done the work and going forward could just be Bond. But as the movie opens, Craig has gone rogue on a clean-up mission, checking on a hot tip from the previous M, Judi Dench, in a video sent to him in the event of her death. The modern James is always starting or coming back, never being.
13. This sounds lame. But all over the internet this week there were think pieces: Bond is misogynist. Bond is old-fashioned. Bond is a bad spy. Bond movies have too much product placement. Here’s who should play Bond after Daniel Craig. All these criticisms point to a collective ambivalence about the very existence of this iconic character.
14. So if we don't know how we feel about 007, how are Sam Mendes and Daniel Craig supposed to feel about him?
15. Judi Dench’s appearance isn’t just a callback. Her M is effectively a ghost. This is just one manifestation of the death motif that runs throughout the film.
16. For one, It’s called Spectre. And to my memory, this is the only time the actual meaning of the word has been exploited in the series. Sam Mendes and writers John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth have made Spectre into a funeral.
17. The stunning opening sequence takes place on the Day of the Dead in Mexico City. Skull masks, skeleton parade floats, skeleton suits, the whole deal.
18. There's an actual funeral. And a widow.
19. There's a dreary, clinically menacing, or drab look to much of the film. A clandestine meeting of the Spectre organization takes place at night in Rome, with people standing around silent, obscured in shadow.
20. MI-6 headquarters still stands after its destruction in Skyfall, a bombed-out haunted house.
22. Spoiler alert.
23. Sorry, Blofeld's plan involves finally revealing himself as a) Bond’s long-lost adopted brother and b ) the mastermind of masterminds behind all of Craig-as-007's missions in the previous movies. So he’s like a ghost back from the dead and taunts Bond with photos of his past nemesis and his lost love, Vesper Lind from Casino Royale - taunting him with ghosts.
24. Supervillain plans are notoriously poor - impossible goals are easy to thwart - but on the other hand they're just a slightly more outsized megalomania than that of a hyper-male James Bond, torpedoing around the globe, heedlessly treating women like garbage. So the workability of the plan (honestly, can't even tell you what Blofeld had in mind, and I only saw Spectre yesterday) isn't relevant. Blofeld's plan is performance art, with the final face-to-face explanation as the Prestige.
25. So when, spoiler, Bond refuses to kill Blofeld, he is not (merely) leaving a loophole open, he is refuting his old ways. By voluntarily not using his license to kill, he hopes to move on.
26. Craig and Lea Seydoux fall rather suddenly in love. She helps him out of a jam and he literally tells her, "I love you." It doesn't quite work, nor does the pair have the paint-melting chemistry Craig enjoyed with Casino Royale's Eva Green. But Craig's admission is so sudden, it felt by design. Sometimes we see relationships as an escape hatch. Bond wants out. This is the way. At least that feels like the intention. In execution it's rushed, awkward, and unconvincing, though they do look good together in a silver Aston-Martin.
27. Lea Seydoux isn’t really Scaramanga.
28. Blofeld is played by Christoph Waltz, the creepiest, easiest bad-guy actor on the planet. Most movie villains slather on effort, ticks and postures. Waltz is the rare heavy with a dancer's touch.
29. The Bond series has always been a bit miscast as an action orgy. Bond movie action scenes really just showcase a cool vehicle or location; lifestyle porn for everyone who wants to be James Bond (which is everyone). This bomb-chicka-wow-wow action was impressive in the 60s and 70s, but as time went on and other action films upped the stakes, Bond weezed behind them. In Spectre the action scenes are effective and moderately outrageous. Sam Mendes and his second unit directors have learned to leave the envelope pushing to the Fasts & Furiouses and Missions: Impossibles of the world.
All this listing is making me a ghost. I look forward to more viewings of Spectre. I trust that, for the most part, it knows what it's doing. It just needs a minute.
I'm a soft touch for horror movies. I'll watch anything in the genre if it looks like it has a little style, some cinematography and suspense. I keep checking 'em out even though I'm frequently wrong in my interest.
So of course I watched The Lazarus Effect.
The credit sequence is really cool - close ups of what look like a pig's cells.
The movie is only 83 minutes long. I like the brevity, but it can be a big tell of aggressive fixing. As the film begins it clearly has been edited within an inch of its life. It pops from scene to scene with minimal transition.
However, it features great atmosphere of a sinister science lab. Lots of silence (but for SFX of ventilation) and open space.
Pigs are recurring thing in LE. They're operating on pigs in the beginning. Donald Glover scares Olivia Wilde with a pig mask.
Dreams. We never have dreams like people have dreams in movies.
Olivia Wilde's dream pictures creepy dolls and fire.
Mark Duplass is the head researcher. He's an unusual choice for a movie like Lazarus Effect. Yet he adds an improvisational energy that grounds his character and the entire research effort.
Duplass' presence affects the whole cast. The characters' conversations have a loose, realistic edge. They're talking, not reciting dialogue. That certainly helps.
I shut this off after Olivia Wilde became possessed. It's not her fault, or Duplass', or Donald Glover, or the pigs, which are very smart animals.
This was a movie we saw together, but it did not derail our relationship.Read More
Trainwreck is a movie about two people that is bursting with a lot of other people. Most of those other people and their stories aren't necessary (and a couple are maddening in their randomness). I want to criticize Trainwreck for its lack of focus, but everything is so good. Trainwreck basically succeeds as a portrait of life while failing as a romantic comedy.
Why should it matter where the comedy comes from, as long as it’s funny? Think of the difference between Trainwreck and When Harry Met Sally.
In Trainwreck, Amy Schumer writes for a hip magazine staffed by other colorful characters. She is assigned a story on a famous sports surgeon played by Bill Hader, who has revolutionized knee replacement surgery for pro athletes. To paraphrase Hader’s character, they like each other a lot and start dating.
*In When Harry Met Sally*, Meg Ryan is also a journalist. Billy Crystal's job? "Consultant."
We never see him consulting. Does he freelance? Who does he consult for? With? What is Meg Ryan’s beat? Does she get along with her editor?
And their friends. Schumer works for eccentric editor Tilda Swinton and with Vanessa Bayer, Jon Glaser, and Randall Park. Their office could be a TV show. Bill Hader is friends with LeBron James. I won’t make a big deal of it because the movie barely does. He fits right in there and plays off Hader like a legit improviser.
Schumer has a family too. A dad in a nursing home who hordes his pills, and a devoted sister with a doormat husband and a weird kid.
(This is still a romantic comedy.)
Back to WHMS. Harry has a best pal played by Bruno Kirby. Sally’s friend is played by Carrie Fisher. Kirby and Fisher are sounding boards for Ryan and Crystal, and they eventually hook up and move in together, contrasting against Harry and Sally’s slowly building relationship. That’s it for their personal history. We never meet Harry, Sr. or Great Aunt Sally.
I’ve never missed not knowing more about the world and characters of When Harry Met Sally. I don’t care less about them because I don’t know if they got the Nelson account.
Look, I’m not saying a movie has to be like another movie. But Trainwreck has more stuff than a romantic comedy knows what to do with (and I haven’t even gotten to *The Dog Walker*). The extra detail ultimately softens the story, and keeps it a movie I'll watch 20 minutes of when it's on TV, as opposed to a classic I've revisit again and again.
To look at it from another aspect of When Harry Met Sally, at the end Crystal and Ryan get together on New Year’s Eve to finally tell each other what they mean to one another. The movie has been building carefully to this wonderful catharsis. At the end of Trainwreck, Schumer joins the Knicks cheerleading squad. The scene is hilarious by itself but it doesn’t answer any of the movie’s questions. Can a promiscuous person be monogamous? Should they want to be? Can you work through the pain in your past and be present for the people you love? Will The Dog Walker dominate the Independent Spirit Awards?
I don’t mean to overlook the performances and the comedy. Mike Birbiglia does a great job as a dumb husband. When I heard Brie Larson would be in this, I wondered if there would be enough for her to do; but she’s great as Schumer’s responsible younger sister. Colin Quinn being age-appropriate to play a near-senior citizen in an assisted living facility kind of snuck up on me. Of course’s he’s Amy Schumer’s dad, he’s perfect. Tilda Swinton has made a career of confounding people’s expectations and does it again here. Jon Glaser should be in everything. This cast takes turns stealing the movie from each other.
But why was Amar’e Stoudemire in the movie? It’s weird that a second athlete comes into the movie so late. It should be LeBron getting the knee operation from Bill Hader. Perhaps there’s the rub; LeBron probably couldn’t make the schedule work so they put in Stoudemire. Or maybe it was the other way around? It works okay but would have worked better, and given James a better part – they’re not only friends, James needs Hader to be happy in his personal life so he won’t screw up LeBron’s knee. That I, who have never watched an entire professional basketball game, would need LeBron James to be in this movie more speaks to his talent; he’s one of the best things in the movie. You could almost say he steals the movie, had I not already played my "steals the movie" card a paragraph ago.
Whatever its flaws, Trainwreck does get the nature of relationships right. I have been both of these characters in relationships in my life. I’ve been the calm eye of the storm for someone, and I’ve been a mess someone else had to clean up. That’s life. That’s what’s great about Judd Apatow. He tries to put life up on the screen. Life is problematic. People really make the mistakes that Amy Schumer and Bill Hader make in this movie. People are in fact irresponsible and/or unconsciously controlling. People don’t stop being themselves because they meet someone they love. (Quinn’s character, the film’s embodiment of unapologetic selfdom, dies amidst destructive behaviors he was unable and unwilling to correct.) Trainwreck is trying to say other people change our trajectory but not our personality. It doesn’t actually get there but that was the thesis, I think. Maybe movies don’t have to be a perfect reflection of our values. Movies can be as fucked up as we actually are.
One thing. Right when Amy Schumer and Bill Hader have fallen in love; there is a “in love in New York City” montage pulled right from Manhattan, including a quote of the iconic shot of the couple sitting at a bench looking out at the 59th Street Bridge. Judd Apatow is so great at showcasing the characters, to a fault even, that to suddenly lean on a visual quote from another director was a shame.
See, I can’t stop giving this movie - at which I laughed all the way through - a hard time.
And speaking of The Dog Walker. That’s the fake movie in the world of Trainwreck. Schumer and her date go to see it, there are posters and other clips all throughout. Daniel Radcliffe is the titular dog walker who falls in love with Marisa Tomei in Central Park. It’s shot in black & white and every successive clip has the pair surrounded by more and more tiny dogs. Sure, it’s funny. But it’s only there so people on Twitter will say, “I’d see that movie! #thedogwalker” I wanted to see Trainwreck, not some cameo parody. Amy Schumer and Bill Hader were game with great chemistry. I’m sure they’ll both be back in other romantic comedies. Most of the time, this one has room for everyone but them.
Some years ago Brenna included Simon & Garfunkel's *Bookends* on a data CD for my listening pleasure. I've replied with my thoughts on the album.
As a whole Bookends didn’t sound like what I’d expect a Simon & Garfunkel album to sound like. it was much more fun and experimental.
The electronic opening of “Save the Life of My Child” made me wonder if the tracks were mislabeled until the vocals came in. And then there’s “Voices of Old People” are those his grandparents, are the songs in the first half about them? Whoever they are, that was a really punk rock thing to throw in there, and goes to the themes in the first half.
The second half is the more “fun” side, and it was almost like the dessert Simon allowed himself after the full “Bookends Theme”. “Fakin’ It” and “Punky’s Dilemma” have a rascally energy. It’s amusing that “Mrs. Robinson” and “Hazy Shade of Winter” are next together on an album. (“From the Graduate to Less Than Zero: Optimism and Materialism in American Film”; wish I would have thought of that thesis back in college.)
[College students: I will write this for you. Ask for my PayPal in the comments.]
“At the Zoo” is a hilarious and fun song, perfect for kids; it makes me want to learn guitar so I can make my soon-to-arrive-nephew/niece laugh. It’s also a perfect album-ender and I was bummed at first to hear two bonus tracks after it. But after listening to the album three times today, “You Don’t Know Where Your Interest Lies” is a really good track, and a really great way to say that kind of thing.
So my verdict on Bookends is Guilty, of greatness.
I confess I'm a bit jealous of my earlier thoughts on Pride and Prejudice. I expressed myself fairly succinctly in that case, yet for Sense and Sensibility I run my mouth off (see below).
In some way I am paying off the time spent. I watched Sense and Sensibility four-point-something times. Once regular, then both commentaries, then a final viewing in reverse chapter order. (And some chapters twice again; initially I just wanted to confirm just who got married during the ending, but then I kept hitting the previous chapter until my Sunday was gone and Tom Wilkinson died yet again.)
I mention my numerous viewings not for a gold star but to convey that it was a worthy repetition. Sense and Sensibility lives in the details and creates such full lives for its characters that I had much to savor, and old friends to keep revisiting.
At first sight the characters all fit to type, and go through the motions we would expect. But as the movie progresses, the complexity of the characters, and the impossibility of their social circumstances, become clear. Everyone here is either miserable or naive. They're miserable out of obligation to their circumstances or because they are unable to express their true feelings, or miserable because they don't have money, or try to keep their money. The naive ones just haven't experienced enough to have good sense and be miserable. In the story's vocabulary, Marianne has sensibility but will lose it; its not that Elinor inherently has good sense over emotionality, she has just learned how the world works. Even Willoughby, who a lesser film would portray as a cad awaiting comeuppance, is truly saddened by his need for money which forces him to throw Marianne over. Almost everyone is a commodity to everyone else. Marianne and Elinor ultimately both marry for love, but they had to get married either way.
While I don't want to take focus away from the Dashwood sisters, On the basis of all two of the Austen adaptations I've seen, it's interesting that there is “type” of Austen man. He’s honorable, shy,chivalrous (all to a fault), mostly well spoken with optional wit, boring at times, and a total dork. That the Farrars and Brandons of this world win the heroines’ hearts by sticking in and showing their better sides rather than “coming out of their shell” as they would in, wait for it, a lesser movie, speaks to what is truly valuable in a partner and in oneself. Whatever their challenges, Elinor and Marianne hold themselves in high esteem and seek partners who treat them in kind, and inspire their own best regard.
The DVD commentaries were very entertaining and helpful. It's clear that Ang Lee and Emma Thompson are co-authors of the movie. The structure of the film is all Thompson's, and apparently much of the book was changed. This movie is much visually simpler than Lee's subsequent films. While this may have been an artistic choice to some degree, it's enforced by the historic houses in which the film was shot; Lee explains on his commentary how limited they were in their movements, and were forced to shoot around certain immoveable antiques. Intentional or not, the visual style highlights the actors performance and allows us to see how body language impacts a scene. I'd heard stories before about Lee's taskmaster directing style; He and his producer James Schamus, along with Thompson and the original producer on their commentary, drop a lot of his weirdly specific orders, like, "don't be old", "act only with your finger" and "speak American with Chinese characters" (or something; maybe that's from the making of *Ice Storm*?), his insisted on only seeing the actor's profile in some scenes, and would only cast people of a certain height or body type for some roles.
However weird some of his choices may seem, Lee's directing style, and the excellent casting, pays off. That I recall, Kate Winslet has only been "wild"-ish one other time, in *Eternal Sunshine*, so it was great to see her be the more emotional character. And I feel like Emma Thompson hasn't been a romantic lead in forever (since this movie?). Though a sacrifice it would be, I would have been willing to help her through her brokenheartedness.
Alan Rickman is both unusually effective and a little troubling as Col. Brandon. He brings an air of haunted maturity to the role, and the movie is careful to show him besting Willoughby in many scenes, so the whole "it was you all along" aspect works in the end. I suppose, too, that he does his best with the tan and blond hair the movie grants him. Yet Rickman brings an air of inadvertent menace to the role that almost tips the cart a couple of times; specifically the scene where he appears suddenly behind Marianne and cuts the reed she's working on with his pocket knife, then wordlessly slips away, and when the Colonel is talking with Elinor about Marianne's innocent nature: "I knew a lady very like your sister - the same impulsive sweetness of temper - who was forced into, as you put it, a better acquaintance with the world. The result was only ruination and despair. Do not desire it, Miss Dashwood." (er, McClane.) (While the appropriate contemporary Rickman reference would "Mr. Potter", I must live my truth.) All that makes for a very slightly uneasy sell when Elinor later describes Brandon as "The kindest and best of men."
In my many viewings, I actually came to appreciate the supporting cast much more than the main group:
Mrs. Jennings - she reminds me of five or so of my aunts, and has a lot of great lines (like this throwaway to her butler: "I don't want to hear another word about the ham bone, Pigeon. You and Cartwright must sort that out between you.").
Mrs. Dashwood - you can see the girl she once was and in many ways still is; it's clear why Elinor has had to step in and be the adult of the family.
Mrs. Palmer - Imelda Staunton nails it as one of those people who is Herself All The Time.
Mr. Palmer - Hugh Laurie is great as another prototypical Austen man. He's impeccably dry and hilarious as the long-suffering audience to Mrs. Palmer's Mrs. Palmerness, but when the story needs him to, he effortlessly shifts gears to strong and earnest. It's weird hearing Laurie use his actual accent.
Lucy Steele - Imogen Stubbs brings a kittenishness to this passive-aggressive character; I could see myself falling for her and not realizing what I'd done until it was too late.
Fanny Dashwood - I felt Harriet Walter was deliberately costumed to reflect Maleficent from *Sleeping Beauty*. Regardless she's a great villain. She even does some great finger acting (Lee specifies in the commentary that he wanted her to be stone faced, and act only with her finger, rubbing worriedly on the window frame in the scene where she lays the diss on Mrs. Dashwood.)
John Dashwood - This guy makes zero impression, which is perfect; Fanny needs to completely overshadow him. You have to be good to this invisible.
Robert Dashwood - from the moment he's introduced, he exudes the casually dickish air of a guy who always gets what he wants. Thus, he's perfect for Lucy. An off-screen "transfer of affection" could have been a lame deus ex machina had it not been for perfect casting.
Margaret - This kid is spotless as an exposition machine. As the commentaries point out, the younger sister said relatively little in the novel, and they took advantage of the vacancy to have a character who asked questions re: period customs so as to explain same to the audience.
Pigeon - Mrs. Jenning's butler has only a few moments, but the best is his late-night answering of the bell to receive Willoughby's letter. Pigeon's wig is skewed and his mug is twisted into a resentful raspberry. The actor expresses the frustration of the whole service class essentially without dialogue.
The dialogue that *is* in the film sparkles; per the commentary most of it (like, with the exception of only 5-6 lines!) doesn't come from Jane Austen at all. Again, all Thompson. Not only that, but so the cast wouldn't need to improvise in period dialect, Thompson wrote a bunch of random lines for whoever to use whenever. (One such example from the commentary, "Pray get the stuff," unfortunately did not make the cut.) Such as:
- "Give me an occupation, Miss Dashwood, or I shall run mad."
- "Do not fret, my dear. I have been told that this good weather is keeping many of our sportsmen in the country at present, but the frost will soon drive them to town. Depend on it."
- "Oh, please don't say anything important!"
- "I believe I know what key you will sing in. "F" Major!"
- "Is love a fancy, or a feeling, or a Farrars?"
- "Does she care for olives?"
- "If Colonel Brandon is infirm then I am at death's door."
- "It is a miracle your life as extended this far."
- "It's folly to linger in this manner. I shall not torment myself further!"
- "He's the sort of man that everyone speaks well of, but no one remembers to talk to."
- The whole meet-cute/Atlas/Nile discussion.
- "What care I for colds when there is such a man?"
- You will care very much when your nose swells up."
- "You are right. Help me, Elinor."
- [See post title]
And as Howard Hawks always said, a great movie needs three great scenes and no bad ones. I counted at least five:
- Fanny and John argue over the inheritance to the Dashwoods, in series of quick cut scenes, to the point they're giving them almost nothing.
- Edward's intro/the Atlas.
- The pair of scenes with Willoughby in the Dashwood Cottage (he brings in Marianne, comes back the next day. This is great because the idea of whether he upstages Brandon or vice verse is entirely a matter of personal audience preference; Brandon is more concerned, more gentlemanly, and brings nicer flowers)
- Edward and Elinor's "break up" in which nothing is said, but everything is meant. They don't even touch or move toward one another. I watched this three times during that fourth viewing.
- Edward's surprise return/revelation that Lucy left him for his brother Robert.
Also included on the DVD is Emma Thompson's screenplay acceptance speech from the 1995 Golden Globes. She reads a letter as if it were from Jane Austen herself about the film and the whole award season phenomenon. Thompson perfectly captured an ancient, foreign voice and used to savagely skewer Hollywood and the modern world in general. So clever, it shames almost all other such speeches - Like Sense and Sensibility itself, which shames all other period romances.